Back at the beginning of the semester I warned readers of this blog that I was teaching a course called Lying About the Past in which the students would — after studying historical hoaxes for half a semester — create a historical hoax and turn it loose on the Internet.
They did just that and the results of their work can be found at the website they created.
The hoax launched during the first week of December and between then and now more than 1,200 unique visitors came to the hoax website. Almost 200 visited Jane Browning’s YouTube channel. A few bloggers — most notably one at USAToday — picked up the story. The Wikipedia entry on our pirate was edited by several people not in the class — mostly to fix issues with the Wikipedia syntax.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on the class in its Friday, December 19, 2008 edition [premium access only, alas].
I know the creating and launching of an online historical hoax by my students will offend some people and I understand all of the possible objections that might be raised. Before you start flaming me in the comments field, however, I’d ask that you download and read a copy of the class syllabus and read Jennifer Howard’s piece in the Chronicle. Then you can decide if you are still mad.
When I designed the course, my hope was that my students would learn that something fun and funny — hoaxes and hoaxing — have a real history that can be researched and written about in the same ways that historians write about the First World War or the Scientific Revolution. I also hoped that they would become much more skeptical consumers of online information and that they would learn both some additional research skills and some digital skills along the way. Finally, I hoped that they would have some fun in a history class (what a concept).
I will admit to being very gratified at how well the class went. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never had a group of history students who worked so hard and so long on a group project. Once we decided on “the last American pirate” as our hoax, they dove into the work with a zest and level of commitment I’ve not seen before at any of the four colleges or universities where I’ve taught.
The challenge for me coming out of this course is how to capture that same level of enthusiasm in the other courses I teach. I think I’m going to have a difficult time doing it, but the trying will certainly be fun.
If you are one of the victims of our hoax, I apologize in advance if you are offended. We spent a lot of time in class discussing the ethical issues surrounding our project, which is why we created a hoax on something so innocuous as a small time pirate who never amounted to much. I hope you’ll be able to see the humor in what we did.