History class “Lying About the Past” fools Wikipedia and the Internet…for a short time

Here is a fascinating story of a history class at George Mason University that asked students to fabricate information on Wikipedia and it worked…for a short time.

Each tale was carefully fabricated by undergraduates at George Mason University who were enrolled in T. Mills Kelly’s course, Lying About the Past. Their escapades not only went unpunished, they were actually encouraged by their professor. Four years ago, students created a Wikipedia page detailing the exploits of Edward Owens, successfully fooling Wikipedia’s community of editors. This year, though, one group of students made the mistake of launching their hoax on Reddit. What they learned in the process provides a valuable lesson for anyone who turns to the Internet for information.

The first time Kelly taught the course, in 2008, his students confected the life of Edward Owens, mixing together actual lives and events with brazen fabrications. They created YouTube videos, interviewed experts, scanned and transcribed primary documents, and built a Wikipedia page to honor Owens’ memory. The romantic tale of a pirate plying his trade in the Chesapeake struck a chord, and quickly landed on USA Today’s pop culture blog. When Kelly announced the hoax at the end of the semester, some were amused, applauding his pedagogical innovations. Many others were livid.

Critics decried the creation of a fake Wikipedia page as digital vandalism. “Things like that really, really, really annoy me,” fumed founder Jimmy Wales, comparing it to dumping trash in the streets to test the willingness of a community to keep it clean. But the indignation may, in part, have been compounded by the weaknesses the project exposed. Wikipedia operates on a presumption of good will. Determined contributors, from public relations firms to activists to pranksters, often exploit that, inserting information they would like displayed. The sprawling scale of Wikipedia, with nearly four million English-language entries, ensures that even if overall quality remains high, many such efforts will prove successful…

Sometimes even an apparent failure can mask an underlying success. The students may have failed to pull off a spectacular hoax, but they surely learned a tremendous amount in the process. “Why would I design a course,” Kelly asks on his syllabus, “that is both a study of historical hoaxes and then has the specific aim of promoting a lie (or two) about the past?” Kelly explains that he hopes to mold his students into “much better consumers of historical information,” and at the same time, “to lighten up a little” in contrast to “overly stuffy” approaches to the subject. He defends his creative approach to teaching the mechanics of the historian’s craft, and plans to convert the class from an experimental course into a regular offering.

Should this professor be applauded for his innovative use of technology or questioned about the possible unethical nature of asking students to create stories online?

I’d love to see the student evaluations for this course. This course could be practical on a variety of levels: it reveals some insights into how history is “made” (it requires a certain number of sources, credible sources, and a narrator or place where the facts can be put together), it involves current technology (a plus for today’s college student who spend a lot of time online and rely on Wikipedia a lot), and it shows students how to evaluate information (whether online or otherwise). These sound like laudable goals. Here is the syllabus for the second iteration of the course (Spring 2012) and some of the material from the first page:

Why would I design a course that is both a study of historical hoaxes and then has the specific aim of promoting a lie (or two) about the past? I have two answers to this question, both of which I hope will convince you that I’m onto something. The first answer is that by learning about historical fakery, lying, and hoaxes, we all become much better consumers of historical information. In short, we are much less likely to be tricked by what we find in our own personal research about the past. That alone ought to be enough of a reason to teach this course. But my second reason is that I believe that the study of history ought to be fun and that too often historians (I include myself in this category) take an overly stuffy approach to the past. Maybe it’s our conditioning in graduate school, or maybe we’re afraid that if we get too playful with our
field we won’t be taken seriously as scholars. Whatever the reason, I think history has just gotten a bit too boring for its own good. This course is my attempt to lighten up a little and see where it gets us.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have only taught this class once before and to my knowledge,
no other history professor in the world is willing to teach something similar (or works in a
department where they could get away with it). Various courses taught around the world spend
some time on hoaxes and hoaxing, but I haven’t found one that is all about the hoax. So the only
model to work from is the one I used last time (Fall 2008). The last time around, the final class
project generated a great deal of discussion (much, but not all of it negative) in the academic
blogosphere. As you’ll see when we discuss the previous iteration of this course, I’m not
particularly sympathetic to those who took a dim view of what my students did.

Learning Goals

I do have some specific learning goals for this course. I hope that you’ll improve your research
and analytical skills and that you’ll become a much better consumer of historical information. I
hope you’ll become more skeptical without becoming too skeptical for your own good. I hope
you’ll learn some new skills in the digital realm that can translate to other courses you take or to
your eventual career. And, I hope you’ll be at least a little sneakier than you were before you
started the course.


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