Lying about the past.

T. Mills Kelly is a History professor at George Mason University. He is innovative in both his use of technology and his pedagogy. The title of his most recent blog post (as of September 25th, 2013) on his website is “I just want to move some shit.” The post is a story about how he was doing some trail maintenance (a hobby of his) and a Marine who was helping him out told him about how sometimes he just needs to move something, do something. Kelly relates this to history students, and reflects that the best way to get students involved in history is not to lecture them, but get them to “move some shit.” This idea is also a central theme of his book Teaching History in the Digital Age.

Throughout this book I argue that historians need to get over the fact that the landscape of historical production has already shifted under our feet, and it is time for us to accommodate our teaching to that shift. If we do not, our students will make history without us. (ix)” He goes onto say that “we should be worried that we are losing the rising generation of students because our approach to the past seems increasingly out of sync with their heavily intermediated lives. (3)” Kelly makes a strong argument in the first part of his book that technology has rapidly changed our culture. People behave differently, they interact differently, and as a result they also learn differently.  The lecture isn’t dead, but it is certainly getting less relevant. As an alternative he presents the idea of using emerging technology as a way to help students “make history,” or “do history.” This allows them not only to have ownership of their knowledge but also to gain valuable technical skills, and to learn what it really means to be a historian.  Several times he talks about how research, presentation methods and learning how to think like a historian are more important than learning the facts.  There is a quote from Charles Haskins that Kelly quotes which I think is relevant to the conversations we have been having in class.  “Freshman ought to be taught in small seminars more focused on the close reading of historical evidence, and only in their final year of college should they be expected to take a grand survey of a historical subject. (15)

Kelly spends a good deal of time talking about how we now live in a mash up, or a remix culture. As an example he writes of how one of his students remade the soundtrack of a film clip that he presented in class. The class all agreed that the remix was better. Instead of being afraid of this kind of malleability in history Kelly suggests we should embrace it. As an example of what can be done by embracing the mash up or the remix he references a YouTube channel called History for Music Lovers. It is a collection of music videos made by two history teachers named Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona. The videos are retellings of famous historical events set to popular music, but with the lyrics re-written to tell the story. I’ve thought a lot about the idea of mash ups and their validity as a way to facilitate history education. At first I thought it seemed kind of absurd. But, I remembered something that happened to me in high school. I was the vice president of the Latin club. I was not good at learning Latin, I don’t remember anything, and I never studied ever. We went to a state competition were we had to take tests on things like Latin grammar, vocabulary, and mythology. I tanked the grammar and the vocabulary, but I won an award in mythology. I had yet to ever crack a book about ancient mythology but I had seen every episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, and Hercules. These shows are dramatic mash ups of real history and modern drama. My knowledge of those shows was at least enough to do great on an exam. That may not mean that I have a nuanced understanding of Roman mythology, but it was at least as good as what was being tested for, and surpassed what most of the other students retained from their traditional classroom learning. Clearly there is room for innovation and improvement in the way we teach history (really everything).

In an effort to allow students to “make history” and in the process learn important research methods, think about ethics questions, understand the concept of triangulation, ponder the meaning of “historical truth,” and create authentic meaning through an activity they were actively interested and engaged in Kelly created a class called “Lying about the Past.” The goal of this class was to create a historical hoax. The students got to choose the subject. The first class created a historical fiction about the last American pirate. They used a real name, and real historical documents to create the hoax. It fooled many historical scholars. While Kelly came under a lot of criticism (as you can read about in an article by the Atlantic) and even one death threat, he maintains that is was a useful tool of instruction, and that he had never seen students so engaged.  I think this is an amazing idea. It is so much harder to fake something than just be able to learn about something that is authentic. Think about a $10 bill. We can all easily recognize one. We see them everyday. Think about how you would fake one. You would have to do an incredible amount of research to even make a reasonable facsimile. The students in Kelly’s class also did an incredible amount of research. They read primary sources, and talked to experts. They created websites, blogs, and Wikipedia pages. They made sure that the information that they were putting out could all be triangulated together so that it would be harder to tell that they had presented the world with a lie.  They spent a lot of time talking about the ethics of what they were doing, and also realized that they should spend more time vetting sources of historical information, since clearly they could be faked.

Creating a false history, while controversial is certainly “moving some shit.” As Kelly says, “from my perspective, the most important lesson they learn is that history can be fun after all. This is a class in which the students showed up for class early and stayed late, remained engaged throughout the class sessions, worked in small groups outside of class, and laughed throughout the semester.(121)” If you can’t engage the students, then you can’t win in any educational goal. The activities that Kelly provided taught his students valuable skills, and hopefully a deeper appreciation of history and how its made. Times are changing, and history teachers must adapt. “I believe that unless we muster the will to re-conceptualize the way we teach students about the past, taking into account the new realities of the digital world and the many varied ways our students work, think, and live in that world, we are in trouble. (127)”

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