I’ve never really understood the whole pirate thing. Talk like a pirate day can come and go without my noticing, and despite the presence of Johnny Depp, I didn’t make it through the whole Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.
So even if I had seen the mentions of the Last American Pirate hoax on the blogs I read all the time, I’m not sure that I would have bothered to follow the links. But maybe I would have. This story does combine two of my favorite things – scholarly uses of social media and history. Still, amidst holiday preparations and Oregon-style snowapocalypses I totally missed the initial stories on the topic.
Which is relevant in that I’m not a disgruntled blog reader feeling taken in. I was not personally hurt in any way by the deliberate historical hoax created by the students of History 389 at George Mason University last term.
And yet. I keep thinking about it and I’m not sure I can really articulate why.
So, quick recap. Professor Mills Kelly of eduwired.org fame taught a class on historical hoaxes last term. Early in the term, he gave advance notice that his class would be perpetuating their own historical hoax. The class created a fake story about the search for the Last American Pirate, a guy named Edward Owens. The search was chronicled by fake student Jane on this fake blog, discussed in these fake interviews on YouTube, and finally reported as fact in this fake Wikipedia article. Some people were taken in by said hoax, most notably a pop culture blogger at USA Today. Kelly reportedly pulled the plug on the hoax when some of his real-world colleagues were taken in and the whole thing was revealed in the December 19th Chronicle of Higher Education in an article only found behind the paywall.
So why do I keep thinking about it? There has been a fair amount of discussion about it, some I really like. Some talking about things I really don’t care about. There are some people that love the experiment. I’m not really moved by any of those arguments. They seem to be mostly focused on the idea that kids today can’t get into traditional historical research, so this is a good, creative alternative.
The criticisms i find most compelling are found here, where Michael Feldstein explains why vandalising Wikipedia for the sake of a lesson is uncool and here in the comments on Dr. Kelly’s reveal post. Commenter Martha, in particular, talks about the impact of this kind of project on trust networks. Given that trust networks are, I think, a crucial part of meaningful information evaluation on the social web and thus a tool any information literate student should know how to use in this context, an assignment that deliberately devalues and damages those networks strikes me as problematic, even if there is some small benefit on the cautionary tale scale.
But that’s not what I keep thinking about except in a tangential way. No, what’s got me thinking is what this project means for teaching information literacy and research — first in terms of the evaluation skills that are an overt, intended outcome articulated in the syllabus but also, and more deeply, in terms of research itself – why we do it and why we want students to do it. These are, I suspect, related, but I’m not sure how. Maybe if I write about it they’ll come together. Maybe this will be in two parts.
Dr. Kelly says at the top that he is hoping for an information-literacy, information evaluation benefit to this assignment.
I’m hoping that this will mean that my students dig in and do some excellent historical research. I’m also hoping that they’ll learn a number of technical skills, will learn to work in a group, and will develop greater “information literacy” as we like to call it here. And, of course, I’m hoping they’ll have fun.
Specifically (from the syllabus – opens in PDF):
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.
So the quick issue I have with this is that I just don’t see where the information literacy skills here translate into what most students need in their real work with online information sources. Increasingly, I just think that a focus on deliberate hoaxes isn’t a very good way to teach students how to evaluate information.
Now I get that the work done to create the hoax might give the students in this class a greater appreciation for stuff that could make them more information literate, and that knowing specifically what they did to create a fake site might give them some stuff to look for in other sites, but I don’t really see the larger benefit here beyond the reminder that stuff on the Internet can be fake and I honestly don’t think that our students don’t know that full well already.
Because here’s the first thing – helping students learn that there is stuff on the wild, wild web that was put there just to trick them, to punk them or to prank them – well, there’s not a lot of value in that. The punker or the pranker will either be really good at it, in which case all of the abstract stuff we might teach them about how to identify bad information won’t help them because the good pranker isn’t going to do any of that stuff. Or, and this is more likely, the prank won’t be all that good. And our students – I really think they’re very able to identify the obvious crap that exists online.
They don’t need help identifying stuff that is fake or wrong just for the sake of being fake or wrong because there’s not a ton of stuff like that out there. Honestly, our ability to identify stuff that exists for no other reason than to trick us is not a real-world problem that keeps me up at night. Most people who put fake or wrong or misleading information out there on the Internet have an agenda beyond April Fool’s – they’re trying to do more than trick us and what our students need is help identifying those agendas. They need help identifying the information that isn’t flat out lies, but that is a particular kind of truth.
There’s not a lot of historical information TO evaluate on the pieces of this hoax that are available to the public – the blog talks a a lot (I mean, a LOT) about how painful and difficult research in archives and mircofilm collections is – but the details about the sources themselves are pretty light. Most sources are presented as transcripts (“once I found the articles, there was no way to get a copy of them, apparently the machine is broken, so I had to transcribe them by hand,” that kind of thing). The main thing that is presented as a digitized image is a will, not found in any archive or collection that could be investigated further – it is from the private attic-type collection of one of Edward Owens’ “descendants.”
No, what we have to consider here if we are evaluating information is not the quality of the historical sources in question (for the most part). We don’t have the information to evaluate most of the fake sources, and beyond that – most historical sources in the world aren’t on blogs or YouTube so the skills that would help us evaluate them there wouldn’t necessarily translate to evaluating sources in archives. What we really have to evaluate here are the classic foci of Internet evaluation: the authority of the scholar/author herself and the nature of the digital tools used to present that scholarship. And here is where I think it is useful to return to the criticisms mentioned above – the tools we need to use to filter the social web are different than the tools of historical scholarship – and this project made those tools less useful for the rest of us.
Yes, we should remember that our trust networks and Wikipedia pages aren’t infallible. Treating them as if they are is dumb and dangerous, of course. But not starting from the assumption that someone is willing to do all this work just to fake you out? That’s not unreasonable. Creating a hoax like this just for its own sake, after all, is not more fun than the work it takes to do it is not fun. This one took an entire class of students working for a whole term with the great big huge carrot of the GRADE as motivation, after all. When someone, or a class of someones, does deliberately put false information out there – and I’m not talking here about the fake historical documents, but the fake blog posts and tweets and comments and pointers – it makes it harder for all of us to use the skills that really do help us navigate and evaluate the social web.
I think it’s pretty significant that outside of the USA Today blogger, most of the people who got excited about this story – excited enough to blog about it – weren’t excited because of the history beyond the “that’s kind of cool” level. The excitement was about how “Jane” leveraged social media tools to present her research broadly:
This undergraduate took her research to the next level by framing the experience on her blog, full with images and details from her Library of Congress research, video interviews with scholars and her visit to Owens house, her bibliography, along with a link to the Wikipedia page she created for this little known local pirate.
Or stated more directly, after the reveal:
But I want to concentrate on something else. Amidst all the fiction, alternate and virtual realities, hoaxes and pranks, one thing jumps out at me as utterly real, wholly genuine, honest. Read Jim’s post on this when he first came across the project. Here is passion and excitement, a celebration of what a student might be able to achieve with the tools now available, given the right puzzle to work on and a supportive network and intellectual environment.
And I agree with all of this in theory, but in terms of this specific hoax there is still something missing to me, and it’s an important something. It’s research – and inquiry – and discovery.
I know I am only seeing a tiny portion of what is going on in this classroom – and from the syllabus just the idea that one of the goals of the class is to show that hoaxes can themselves be the topic of serious historical research, just like wars or elections, is something I find fairly awesome. I have no idea how the process of discovery was inculcated in the other projects the students did. All I have is the public pieces of the course – the blogs, the videos, and the rest.
And that’s a piece of this discussion that shouldn’t be missed. By putting this material up on the real web, on the public web, by consciously trying to get people to access and engage with this material the question of what kind of learning experience does this material provide for those of us NOT in the class is a valid one. Is our learning experience supposed to be related to information literacy as well? To history? Or is it just a clever, creative prank?
Because here’s the next thing – I don’t think that there is much of a learning experience for the rest of us in this project – at least not in terms of information literacy.
Don’t get me wrong, I value creation and creativity. I value world-building and imagination. And I don’t think those things are separate from academic research. There is definitely creativity and imagination in scholarly inquiry, in looking at sources and seeing what might have been or what could be and re-searching based on that new potential meaning. Watching a class of students using the social web to extend and communicate such a learning process would itself be valuable in that information literacy context.
And I think there’s room in that picture for fiction as well – in telling a story that you know in your bones to be a kind of truth even though you can’t prove it, at least not in a way that would be recognized as proof, epistemologically speaking. I think there are truths and stories and voices that can only be captured with fiction. So it’s not the made up or false part that gives me pause.
But in the case of this project, as it is laid out for us to see — the public pieces of this class project combine to celebrate what a truly information-literate student can do to take control of their own learning – but all the time that information literacy only exists on the surface.
This is why I have problems thinking about the pirate hoax as a great new way to talk about or teach information literacy. Because beyond the fact that I don’t think hoaxes are a great way to teach evaluation, I’m also not sure they are a great way to talk about research and scholarly creativity. At its heart, I think information literacy is inherently linked to inquiry, and discovery. It’s about the ability to learn from information – not just to find the sources worth learning from but to use that new information to change the way you understand things, and change the way you approach the next question.
“Jane” talks endlessly about the physical pain she feels as a result of days of looking at microfilm:
But, I have no idea how I am functioning right now…I can barely look at the screen without wanting to throw up, my eyes are in so much pain.
And she goes on about how frustrating it is not to find that evidence in the documents that will prove that her pirate existed:
After my failed trip to the town, I was really discouraged. I found out enough information to keep me going, but nothing really substantial. I have not gotten any closer to figuring out a name, and my trips to the library that last four hours at a time to look through the microfilm (I’m convinced I’m causing permanent damage to my eyes), have yielded absolutely no results.
But she never talks about that other kind of pain and frustration that comes with research and learning – one of the big things that makes research hard – feeling stupid, or having to question what you thought you knew before. That’s what I mean when I say “Jane’s” process is all surface-level. She never finds anything in her research that leads her in a new direction. She finds additional things she can use on the path she’s already on, but that’s not the same.
In the end, it is a lucky break that brings Jane’s process to a close. The lucky break isn’t the issue — the real issue is that at the end of the research process described in the blog she finds exactly the single document perfect right source she had been looking for from the start. The perfect right source she imagined might exist that would answer the narrow question she formulated before she even know much about her topic at all. That’s not how research usually works. You could argue that that’s not how good research ever works.
And that’s the last and main thing. At no point does Jane really engage with something that leads her to change her mind about anything, to reevaluate her process, to go back over the same ground with a new understanding or a new set of questions. It’s needle in the haystack searching she does – she has to be creative to find different ways into the haystacks but at the same time she’s not going into the haystacks to find out what’s there. She’s going in to look for that one needle that she thinks/hopes must be there.
And yes, I get that she’s pretend, but the fictional process the real class came up with does suggest that historical research is difficult and tedious and one doesn’t make the great discovery by engaging with sources in an open-minded way. If the class had been engaged in a discovery-based research process I would hope that that would have come through in their fictional avatar’s narrative. It doesn’t. There is no doubt that this group of students were truly engaged – playing with history, creating a new world and the characters to fill it.
I can’t find it now, but when I was reading about this project earlier I was struck by the description of how the topic was selected in the first place – all of the considerations were practical – not too well known, not too likely to inspire a lawsuit if the hoax was discovered, and so on. The reasons for piracy were practical as well – a topic of broad popular interest, local, not likely to be something anyone would already be an expert on, etc. They didn’t talk about discovering the space in the historical record for their hoax to exist, they talked about creating it.
And if it’s mainly about creativity, about the class’ engagement around creating this alternate reality, around engaging with each other, and about engaging with others on the social web, then I’m not sure I see the value in making it a hoax. Except that that was the topic of the rest of the class to which we were not privy. If the skills they were learning were about creativity and world-building it seems like the resulting project could have taken the form of an ARG or a similar project where those creative muscles could be flexed in the service of creating a world for the rest of us to play in, too.