Because of a glorious kerfuffle that only my university can manage, I will not be teaching the online course I was asked to teach this September, but rather I will be teaching a seminar of my choice. Of course, then, my choice is going to be teaching the Pseudo-history course I have been playing with since last October.
As a result, I have been scraping and scrapping to finish the syllabus I had oulined, in order to get it all done in time. Things are going ok.
The problem with pseudo-history is that very few academic historians want to engage with it at all. There is a dearth of articles and serious books debunking pseudo-history out there, and there is so much of it! Conversely, academic archeologists have had to deal with fringe and bunk archeology, if only to ensure that their subjects of study don't get destroyed by wackos who start digging willy nilly or by grave robbers. So, using the ample sources that are out there debunking pseudo-archeology, some very serious and interesting websites, articles and mostly theses excerpts, as well as Ancient Aliens and similar shows, I am devising a course that aims to teach students how to identify and debunk those types of fallacies.
The rationale behind this course is simple and inspired by A. J. Guylas (@firkon)'s paper at the 2013 Mid-West Popular Culture Association entitled History, Pseudohistory and the Survey Classroom. He was stunned by the number of his students who buy into what are (to us) obvious pseudo-history myths and such, asking about it in class. Most students seem to buy into the idea that academic historians and academic archeologists lie and hide "the truth" from the greater public. They have been convinced by all the fringe researchers, the Von Danikens and the over-tanned commentators from Ancient Aliens. A number of history majors in A.J.'s classes, as well as in mine, will become teachers. If they can't escape the bunk themselves, how are they expected to respond to their students who buy, wholeheartedly, into the bunk?
Granted, this is going to be a senior seminar (4th-year), which means I'm only going to have 22 students at most. It's a start, especially for a trial run.
This is what the course looks like right now. It will certainly change, especially as I figure out what readings to assign.
HIST401*: Topics in History
History vs. Pseudo-history:
Ancient Vikings, Ancient Chinese and Ancient Aliens in Canada
In this 12-week senior seminar, students will explore the prevalence of pseudo-history and pseudo-archeology in Canadian popular media (books, television, web). The course aims to provide students with critical tools to identify and debunk these attractive and pervasive modern myths. Popular media, especially television, is filled with wild claims of secret origins, hidden discoveries and forgotten ancestors. From ancient aliens to destroyed civilizations, we are used to being told we have been either lied to by governments or that scientists wilfully blind themselves to the “truth”. Why does history and archeology so easily inspire endless theories about aliens, lost civilizations, dark conspiracies, apocalyptic predictions, and mysterious technologies? How do we tell the truth from the bunk?
One of the most useable definitions of pseudo-history comes from (yes) Wikipedia: “Pseudohistory is a pejorative term applied to a type of historical revisionism, often involving sensational claims whose acceptance would require rewriting a significant amount of commonly accepted history, and based on methods that depart from standard historiographical conventions.” In this course, we will try to understand how this fallacy works.
Students will become familiar with the most common of these theories and unpack the real, evidence-based ones from the confabulations of pseudo-historians and pseudo-archeologists: the numerous purported Viking, Welsh and Irish landings on the Eastern sea-board, the claimed extra-terrestrial influence on First Nation cultures, the "secret" histories of various Canadian political entities, the supposed Chinese colonization of Cape Breton, among others.
Using critical, analytical tools commonly weld by historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and ethnologists, students will better understand the ways in which these ideas emerge and evolve in popular culture and public consciousness. More importantly, students will explore the many reasons why these hoaxes and pseudo-mysteries become and remain prevalent. More importantly, this course aims to explain why pseudo-science can so easily disguise itself as scholarly work in popular media.
To the extent possible, this course will operate in a seminar format, emphasizing discussion and minimizing lectures, though there will be short presentations during most sessions. Students will have three principal assignments in this class. First, each student will prepare a short paper presenting and analyzing a common pseudo-historical myth from a given list. Second, each student will prepare a short paper presenting a pseudo-historical myth of their own invention, explaining critically how their fallacy could become popularly known. Third, each student will be responsible for participating in the online weekly discussions on Moodle. As in all seminars, in-class participation will also be part of your final mark.
Myth Summary, 20%, Week 5
Create-a-Myth, 20%, Week 12
Online Discussion, 10x5%=50%, Week 3 to week 12
In-class Participation, 10%, All semester
Full assignment descriptions and guidelines will be posted on Moodle and explained in class.
Myth Summary (5th week): Pick one theory from set list and present its original inception and origins; provide hypotheses as to why it remains popular despite being debunked.
Create-a-Myth (12th week): Create a pseudo-historical theory and explain the process and details needed to make it fully believable in popular media.
Online discussion (from 3rd week to 12th week): Weekly questions. One entry per week minimum in the Moodle weekly forum.
In-class participation (every week): Diligence in reading and active in-class discussion.
- Introduction to the course: concepts and caveats
- A history of pseudo-histories I: National narratives
- A history of pseudo-histories II: History before/beside professionalization
- Ancient Explorers? St. Brennan and the like
- Ancient Explorers? Vikings, the real and the fake
- Ancient Explorers? The Chinese and The Island of Seven Cities
- Secret History? Ancestors, Indian Princesses and Disgraced Nobles
- Secret History? Secret Societies and Government
- Secret History? Oak Island
- Ancient Aliens? Influencing First Nations
- Ancient Aliens? Mysterious Ruins, or not
- Wrapping up. Why all the bunk?
When I have a bibliography to show for it, I'll put it up as well.