Constructing Hoaxes in the Classroom

The syllabus of T. Mills Kelly’s History 389 course tells his students that he hopes “this course will be unlike any history class that you’ve ever taken.” The class, called “Lying About the Past,” endeavors to show “that by learning about historical fakery, lying, and hoaxes, we’ll all become much better consumers of historical information. In short, we’ll be much less likely to be tricked by what we find in our own personal research about the past.” This project represents an intriguing and collaborative model for engaging students in historical research and digital media production.

First taught in 2008, Kelly’s course exposed students to the contingencies of knowledge production, the politics of historical memory, and the dynamics of digital media ecologies. Kelly’s students learned about historical hoaxes, and wrote about the differences between plagiarism, hoaxing, myths, and conspiracies. But the course culminated in an 8-week collaborative project in which students worked together to perpetrate their own online hoax. The hoax was designed to evoke public reaction, and would be deemed successful if it resulted in “a daily newspaper reporting our hoax as fact.” (The second time the course was taught, the class divided in half to produce two hoaxes, which you can see here and here.)

During the first iteration of the course, students worked collaboratively to create an elaborate hoax about “the last American pirate,” a man named Edward Owens who really lived in late 19th century Virginia, but who was never really a pirate. The students created a blog detailing the research process of Jane Browning, a fictional college student working on her senior thesis about the pirate. The hoax combined real historical research with falsified documents, a fake Wikipedia page (which made it through Wikipedia’s vetting process, but has since been removed), and a hilarious YouTube interview with Jane Browning’s fictional thesis advisor (played by one of the students in the class in costume).

In the end, the story was reported as true by a USA Today blogger and was written about in glowing terms by an academic. A success, according to the standards in Kelly’s syllabus.

The project was not only aimed at the students in the course (whose collaborative labor produced the many textual, visual, and video artifacts that made up the hoax), but also generated a public conversation about the intersections of pedagogy and digital knowledge production. As Jennifer Howard wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Is is [sic] unethical to ask students in a history class to fabricate?”

The class demonstrated something about the politics of (mis)information on the internet, and the ways in which online communities can work to debunk stories, challenging students to be more critical when assessing knowledge and information in online and offline contexts. A similar course could easily be taught in my discipline to teach these kinds of literacies.

-Paul McKean