millskellyGeorge Mason University have decided to discontinue an atypical media literacy course whereby students examined issues surrounding historical accuracy by creating their own historical hoaxes and releasing them on the web. Professor Mills Kelly defends his course here and questions whether disagreement over teaching methodology is appropriate grounds for the course’s rejection. 

In 2008 I created a course called “Lying About the Past” in which my students studied how, over the past several centuries, a variety of people have created false versions of the past, for fun or profit. The goal of the course was to teach my students much greater skepticism about historical sources, especially online historical sources, and I feel very confident in saying that the course, which I taught a second time in 2012, achieved that goal with flying colors.

What made this course controversial, to a small degree in 2008 and to a much wider degree in 2012, was that in each iteration of the course the students created a historical hoax and turned it loose online for ten days to see if they could fool anyone. Because we were not in the business of creating what a colleague calls “zombie facts,” the students exposed their hoaxes after the allotted ten days and then assessed what had and hadn’t worked in their project and why.

Those who disagreed with the notion that my students should turn their (very innocuous) hoaxes loose for a few days felt that I was teaching my students to behave in very unethical ways, that we were somehow polluting the web, or that we had violated something one critic called the implied “academic trust network” that exists online. Of course, my students and I completely understood these criticisms–they were all issues we discussed in great detail in the course. You had to be there each semester to see the care my students took thinking through these and other ethical issues to understand just how central ethical discussions were to the entire course. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that my students spent more time discussing the ethics of the historical profession in this course than in any other history course they have taken or will take.

In 2012 I proposed to my department that Lying About the Past be made a part of the regular curriculum of the department, by which I mean the course would receive its own number and be added to the university catalog as one optional course among dozens that we offer. The undergraduate committee in my department decided that the proposal could go forward only if I agreed to change the central component of the course–make the hoaxes purely classroom presentations rather than turning them loose online. Because the fact that the hoaxes would be placed in front of an unknown audience is the thing that gave the course its energy, its excitement, and made it fun, changing the format in this way would have turned the class project into yet another abstract classroom only exercise and would have sucked the life out of the course. I therefore declined to make the change and the undergraduate committee subsequently rejected my proposal.

What this means is that I won’t be teaching Lying About the Past any longer at George Mason, which I’m sure will make my critics happy, especially Jimmy Wales (co-founder of Wikipedia), who pronounced himself “annoyed” about the whole thing.

But I also think it’s worth considering what the decision of the undergraduate committee means in terms of how we regulate teaching as opposed to research. In essence, my colleagues (who, by the way, I respect very much) decided that it was acceptable to tell a faculty member that he could not teach a course because they disagreed with the teaching methodology. Can you imagine the furor that would ensue if the word “research” were substituted for “teaching” in the previous sentence?

I asked several of my colleagues who had been at Mason for more than 20 years if they could remember a time when a professor had been denied the right to teach a course as he/she saw fit and none could. It’s an interesting and potentially disturbing precedent my colleagues have set, because it says that teaching methods can be regulated in ways we would never allow when it comes to our research.

I have another course up my sleeve that will be almost, but not quite as disruptive to our notions of how history can be taught as Lying About the Past was, and my department chair has signed off on it. As soon as it is in the schedule of classes, I’ll be sure to post an advance notice here.

[NB: I posted this on March 31, not April 1 so that it’s clear the entire above message is not a hoax. Trust me, it’s not.]

[NB #2: For a recent interview with me about the course, see Aleks Krotoski’s piece on DML Central. For how the work of this class fits into a wider framework of mischief making, listen to Aleks’s “Digital Human” show on BBC 4 radio from April 1, 2013.]

This was originally published on the blog Edwired and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author

Mills Kelly is a specialist in the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. His most recent book, Teaching History in the Digital Age was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2013. He is also the author of more than a dozen articles on the intersection of historical pedagogy and digital humanities.

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