Historian T. Mills Kelly teaches history by having students play a pirate hoax

Historians in the News

Did you know that a pirate roamed the Eastern Seaboard as late as the 1870s, and lived into the 20th century? Edward Owens haunted the lower reaches of the Chesapeake Bay after the economic crash of 1873 wiped out his living as an oyster fisherman. Owens robbed but didn't kill his victims, and when the economy picked up, he gave up piracy for good. He died in 1938.

Owens's exploits might have been lost to the mists of time if not for an undergraduate student named Jane Browning, who stumbled on the story in a cafe in Gloucester County, Virginia, and tracked down the man behind the legend. You can read more about Owens in his Wikipedia entry and on Ms. Browning's blog, The Last American Pirate. On YouTube, you can watch Ms. Browning visit the site of Owens's house and interview a couple of historians about his historical status.

It's a good story. None of it is true.

Edward Owens and Jane Browning are fictions, unleashed on an unsuspecting world by students taking an upper-level history course at George Mason University. Will they get in trouble with their professor now that the hoax has been unveiled? No. It was his idea.

T. Mills Kelly, an associate professor of history at George Mason and an associate director of the university's Center for History and New Media, thought up the course, "Lying About the Past," as a novel way to teach history, not to subvert it.

He wanted to get undergraduates to tackle detailed historical research, using digital-history tools as well as old-school archival work. He wanted them to become more sophisticated consumers of information—to learn when a source could be trusted and when to be skeptical of it. And he wanted them to enjoy it all.

"History classes aren't often as much fun as they could be," Mr. Kelly said. "An awful lot of history classes are the passive-learning model, where the professor dispenses and the students consume. It's an efficient model. There's no evidence that it actually results in learning."...

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