What Does a History Course on Conspiracy Theories Look Like?

As far as I know, I am one of only four history professors in the U.S. to offer a course on conspiracy theories. Kathy OlmstedRobert Goldberg, and Jeff Pasley are the other three I know of. Pasley even has a website devoted to his course. (Update: Sara Morris alerted me to Jonathan Earle‘s course on the history of conspiracies and paranoia at Kansas University.)

I’m not as ambitious as Pasley and certainly not as well known as he, Olmsted, and Goldberg. Regardless, I want to outline the structure of my course in case someone else is interested in developing his/her own.

Course Description

The course is a 300-level course, geared toward junior and senior history majors  but also any student in the humanities and social sciences. The course description reads:

Conspiracy thinking has been a part of American society from the colonial period through the present day. Americans have labeled as enemies numerous groups, including Catholics, Communists, Democrats, Jews, Masons, Mormons, Republicans, and women, to name just a few. They have accused leaders such as George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Franklin Pierce of working to undermine the American way of life, not to mention the various conspiracy theories about aliens, AIDS, and the One World Government.

This course will explore a sample of those theories in United States history. Using an array of written and visual sources (personal correspondence, newspaper articles, editorial cartoons, televised speeches, etc.), students will be exposed to the conspiratorial language used by Americans to explain the unexplainable. They will emerge from the course with a better understanding of the differences between conspiracies and conspiracy theories, the historical context for the belief in conspiracy theories, and the use of evidence and argumentation in critically analyzing conspiracy theories.

Course Readings

This semester, I’m using Donald T. Critchlow, John Korasick, and Matthew C. Sherman, eds., Political Conspiracies in America: A Reader (2008) and Robert Alan Goldberg, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (2001).

If you’re looking for alternate texts, there are several available. I’ve used David Brion Davis’ reader,  The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present) and Daniel Pipes’ Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From (1997). Also good would be Kathy Olmsted’s Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 and David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History.

I’m also assigning several articles that address early U.S. history:

David Brion Davis, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47 (September 1960): 205-24.

Robert A. Goldberg, “‘Who Profited from the Crime?’ Intelligence Failure, Conspiracy Theories, and the Case of September 11,” Journal of Intelligence and National Security 19 (Summer 2004): 249-261.

Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 3-40.

Elaine Frantz Parsons, “Klan Skepticism and Denial in Reconstruction-Era Public Discourse,” Journal of Southern History 77 (February 2011): 53-90.

Gordon S. Wood, “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century,” William & Mary Quarterly 39 (July 1982): 401-441.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown,Honor and Theater: Booth, the Lincoln Conspirators, and the Maryland Connection,” Maryland Historical Magazine 104 (Fall 2009): 302-325.

Course Schedule

WEEK

TOPIC

Readings/Writing Assignments/Quizzes/Deadlines

Holidays

1—January 11-13 Introduction of Course and Themes
2—January 16-20 What Is a Conspiracy? Read Hofstadter article; W.A. #1 due on Wed., January 18 No class on Mon., Jan. 16—MLK Jr. Holiday
3—January 23-27 Conspiracy in EarlyAmerica Readings: Wood article, Critchlow, Sect. 1, and Goldberg, ch. 1  
4—January 30-February 3 Conspiracy in AntebellumAmerica Read Davis article and Critchlow, Sect. 2  
5—February 6-10 The Assassination of a President: The Case of Abraham Lincoln Read Wyatt-Brown article and Critchlow, Sect. 3  
6—February 13-17 The Ku Klux Klan as a Case Study of the Paranoid Style Read Parsons article  
7—February 20-24 Conspiracy in Late 19th- and Early 20th-CenturyAmerica Read Critchlow, Sect. 4  
8—February 27-March 2 Who Killed JFK, X, MLK, and RFK? Readings: Critchlow, Sect. 5, and Goldberg, chs. 2 and 4; JFK group presentation on Mon., Feb. 27; MLK group presentation on Fri., March 2  
9—March 5-9 Spring Break   No class—Spring Break
10—March 12-16 Deep Throat, Richard M. Nixon, and the Watergate Conspiracy Read Goldberg, ch. 7  
11—March 19-23 Conspiratorial Literature Writing Assignment #2 due in class on Mon., March 19  
12—March 26-30 The Conspiratorial Mindset Among Christian Fundamentalists Read Goldberg, ch. 3; Antichrist group presentation on Mon., March 26  
13—April 2-6 The Truth Is Out There: Fighting Aliens with Mulder and Scully Read Goldberg, ch. 6; Area 51 group presentation on Wed., April 4 No class on Fri., April 6—Good Friday
14—April 9-13 TheUnited States’ Role in theNew WorldOrder Readings: Goldberg article, Goldberg, ch. 5, and Critchlow, Sect. 6; Oklahoma City bombing group presentation on Mon., April 9; 9/11 group presentation on Fri., April 13  
15—April 16-20 Movie presentations Presentation dates assigned in class  
16—April 23-26 Course Wrap-up    
16—April 27-May 4 Reading Day and Final exams Final Exam: Mon., April 30, 1-3:00 Reading Day (Fri., April 27)

Course Assignments

Students’ first assignment is to read Hofstadter’s essay on the paranoid style and, in a thought piece, explain their understanding of the difference between an actual conspiracy and a conspiracy theory. This gives us a baseline from which to work as we progress in the course.

The second writing assignment asks students to analyze a novel by answering the following questions in their essay:

  1. What is the conspiracy at the heart of the novel? How does it threaten American/human values?
  2. Who are the villains? What traits do they possess? What are their goals? Why do you think they are identified as the villains?
  3. Who are the heroes? What traits do they possess? What are their goals? Why do you think they are identified as the heroes?
  4. What “truth” is the author trying to convey to readers in his/her presentation of the conspiratorial struggle between the heroes and the villains?

The list of novels I’m assigning this semester include:

James BeauSeigneur, In His Image (2003)

Glenn Beck, The Overton Window (2010)

Steve Berry, The Jefferson Key (2011)

Steve Berry, The Templar Legacy (2006)

Dawn Blair, America 2014: An Orwellian Tale (2004)

Larry Burkett, The Illuminati (1991)

Taylor Caldwell, Captains and the Kings: The Story of an American Dynasty (1983)

Orson Scott Card, Empire (2007)

Michael Crichton, State of Fear (2004)

Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (1989)

Nelson George, The Plot Against Hip Hop (2011)

Stephen King, 11/22/63 (2011)

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Left Behind (1995)

Bob Larson, Dead Air: A Novel (1991)

Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness (1986)

Pat Robertson, The End of the Age (1995)

Joel C. Rosenberg, The Last Jihad (2002)

Dan Simmons, Flashback (2011)

Gore Vidal, The Golden Age (2000)

There are some other novels that might work, such as John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I tried to avoid books that have been made into movies to head off the tendency of students to take shortcuts.

I’m also assigning two group projects. I don’t particularly like group projects, but I’m building in safeguards (I hope) to prevent slackers from sponging off of their colleagues.

The first project assigns groups one of several conspiracy theories: the MLK Jr. assassination, Area 51, the Antichrist, the Oklahoma City bombing, and 9/11. The second assigns groups a movie with a conspiracy theory or conspiracy thinking as its main theme: Arlington Road (1999), JFK (1991), Left Behind (2001), The X-Files (1998), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962 or 2004). There are other movies, such as Conspiracy Theory (starring Mel Gibson) and Enemy of the State (starring Will Smith), for example.

Groups are required to conduct research on their conspiracy theory and to analyze their movie. On their assigned day, they lead the discussion. I encourage them to use a mixture of approaches in leading the discussion, including lecture, surveys, film, Powerpoint, the Internet, music, etc. I am also requiring them to produce a two-page artifact to hand out to the rest of the class.

Other Course Materials

There’s a lot of pop culture material to interweave into this course. I’m plan to show an episode of Community (“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”), play some rap music (Dr. Dre, Mobb Deep), and view parts of documentaries (Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke) and Internet productions (Loose Change). The real problem is finding just enough to stimulate discussion without spending the entire class passively absorbing the media.

Obstacles

The number one obstacle to offering this course is the suspicion of faculty and administrators. “What exactly are you going to teach in the class?” is the common question, with eyebrows raised suspiciously. The answer is that I am teaching students to think critically about historical rhetoric and evidence, with the objective of helping them be less susceptible to the paranoia that infuses U.S. politics and society.

In class, the major obstacle is student enthusiasm, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is the one course in which I’ve never had to encourage discussion.

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13 Replies to “What Does a History Course on Conspiracy Theories Look Like?”

  1. Hello, I’m currently a university student possibly seeking to major in history. I very much see the value in teaching history as a conspiracy theory. I had a great Literature/History professor who based his class on his own cirriculum and as he put it, he wanted to “turn his students from sheeps to shepards”. I was then a engineering major, and I was very much inspired by his class… Since then I’ve spent some time doing my own research and now it’s my dream to follow in his footsteps and become a History professor and base my class on the research that I have found. Any advice you could give me on what I should do, which degree path I should follow? What were the biggest obstacles you encountered in pursuing this path? My biggest fear is that if I do pursue a history degree, I’ll be confined to teach under the current cirriculum, and to me that’s just slavery. Please give me some advice. All i need is some confidence in that what I’m pursuing is possible, and although I know there will be many obstacles along the way, I am willing to do what is necessary so I can continue what my professor has started and maybe pass the torch on to one of my own students. Thanks in advance!

    1. Jorge,

      Great question. I gave one of my students some advice years ago, which I wrote up in this post: https://jacksonianamerica.com/2010/11/10/advice-for-new-history-graduate-students/

      Realistically, if you teach K-12, you have to teach to the standards in your state. If you teach at the collegiate level, you have much more latitude. The history job market at the collegiate level is extremely competitive, and most historians would likely advise you to only go to graduate school if you do not have to pay much (or any) out of pocket.

    2. Hi Jorge – That is great advice from Dr. Cheathem. I might add – be wary of any totalizing view of history. If you look at the course materials shared by Mark, or me, you will see that these are critical thinking courses which are not based on the idea of “history as a conspiracy” but something more like: the roles played by conspiracy theories in history, the nature of belief in unverifiable and unfalsifiable conspiracy theories, tools to help one separate conspiracism from “conspiracy theory,” and of course, also the roles played by real conspiracies (that is, conspiracies that are verifiable). Anyway, good luck!

  2. Dr. Cheathem, thank you for sharing your course in this blog. I deeply believe courses like this play an important role in helping students make sense of the “information” bombarding them. There are others teaching conspiracy theory courses at the college level too – I’ve been teaching it as an honors colloquium every few years since 2009 – here is a syllabus from the last time I taught it if you are interested… https://drive.google.com/#folders/0B2p1T9vjo2ScYVIyMTZ4NlBqZzA

  3. I discuss conspiracy theories as part of social psych course, and in particular psychological mechanisms involved, and personality and sociological traits of those more likely to embrace. Also the phenomenon is not unique to the US of A.

  4. 911, Bigfoot, the Moon landings (we never landed on the moon of course), Kennedy assassination, and now i am watching a show on the Discovery channel called the Myth of Pearl Harbor. Trying to paint the whole picture of the Pearl Harbor attack as if it didnt happen the way the history books tell us. They are trying to say that the Americans possibly fired on the Japanese first.
    When will it end?
    Oh-and dont forget the Roswell aliens. Out of all the conspiracy theories i must admit that one is the most likely to be true as crazy as it sounds!
    Any more good conspiracy theories that im missing out on?

  5. A possible suggestion for future iterations of the course: it might be interesting to add material on slave conspiracies during the 18th century — a hot topic then (and increasingly now). Something like Jill Lepore’s New York Burning might be useful in thinking about not only the conspiracy, but how to unravel its evidence. (And the evidence is shaky enough in some cases that Lepore is pretty transparent about how she goes about sussing out a narrative.)

    Or perhaps a conspiracy that turns out to be less than that, through Michael Johnson’s essay on Denmark Vesey as a contrived case.

    The course looks really interesting, though. As I said on Twitter, I’ll be curious to see how it turns out to use the historical sources alongside more recent media depictions of real-life and fictional conspiracies.

    1. We will briefly cover all of those conspiracies, but you’re right–the slant is toward the 20th century. When I conceived the course, I started with modern conspiracies/theories and worked backward, which is part of the chronological bias.

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