The first post of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) new series “featuring articles by skeptical teachers exploring critical thinking in the classroom, using the investigation of the paranormal, fringe science, and pseudoscience to teach methods of science and reason” is about hoaxes in the classroom. Bob Blaskiewicz teaches writing skills by having students analyze conspiracy theories.
I’ve been teaching conspiracy theories for several years, and my final project usually has students create a new conspiracy theory that somehow draws on existing ones. By the time my students have finished the class, they have encountered a conspiracy theory, broken it down into its component parts, researched/fact-checked each element, analyzed the conspiracy, and written an argumentative paper about the rhetorical and narrative elements of the conspiracy theory that make it memorable and “culturally transmissible,” as it were. They then create their own conspiracy theory and write a paper illustrating how what they have learned in the class has influenced their own conspiracy theory.
This is an awesome example of student engagement that incorporates active learning and motivational strategies. The only thing more fun than showing an existing conspiracy theory false is to make up your own conspiracy theory. Another instructor has used a similar approach for his history class, “Lying about the Past”. Professor T. Mills Kelly tells his students that in the course “we’ll be focusing our attention on the lies told about what happened—lies told with the specific intention of deceiving others (most typically known as historical hoaxes).” Very similar approaches, however Blaskiewicz claims Kelly has taken the active learning too far when the class doesn’t just stop with examining hoaxes but goes on to “make up our own hoaxes and turn them loose on the Internet to see if we can fool anyone”.
Why is this going too far? Blaskiewcz explains,
We do not release our conspiracy theories onto the public because they are likely to be believed by someone. An important theme of the course is that conspiracy theories are not good things, that they are time sinks for people who would otherwise want to participate in American political life in a meaningful way, and that they perpetuate ignorance, misinformation, and hate (often targeting scapegoats). They are, to use Chip Berlet’s phrase, toxic to democracy.
Even Kelly describes this behaviour as “unthinkable”, but does it anyway. Why? He offers these reasons,
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.
Blaskiewcz is not satisfied with these reasons as creating a hoax is not required to accomplish the goal of learning about hoaxes or making history fun. Furthermore, Blaskiewcz argues that purposefully misleading people violates ethical standards.
I have to agree with Blaskiewcz. This blog is all about being creative and engaging students, but we also have ethical obligations. Kelly seems to encounter these ethical violations as he writes his syllabus when he explains the backlash from the previous class, states which topics are off limits, advises students to keep course activities secret, and discusses academic honesty, however he ignores these red flags. Encouraging students to lie to people should not be encourage by professors that should know better.
What do you think? Is Kelly a history professor extraordinaire or has he crossed an ethical line?