Conspiracy in the Classroom: Oh My!

This semester, I am teaching a course under the generalized rubric “Perspectives on Literature” that I call “Alternatives.” It’s a cobbled-together course, taken on at the last minute and soon after I had sworn never, ever to teach literature again. Not surprisingly, it is proving to be the most successful course I have taught in years.

As anyone who has organized a class in a hurry can attest, it is best, in such circumstances, to begin with what one knows. As any successful teacher understands, it is also necessary to challenge yourself, to make sure that you are doing something new or in a different way, so that you won’t get stale and so you can have a little fun—and maybe even learn something. So, I started the course off with Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, an alternative-history novel by the author I wrote on for my doctoral dissertation. I followed that with another novel in the genre, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, a somewhat more straight-forward work meant to be something of a breather before Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I had first assigned in an independent study a couple of years earlier. Taking alternatives into the future, I followed that with Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, a change both of pace and direction and a set-up (believe it or not) for Shakespeare’s The Tempest—where we are now. Next will come Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49; we will end the semester with Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I also initially planned to bring in poetry, and have done so, including such works as Andrew Marvell’s “To This Coy Mistress,” e. e. cumming’s “pity this busy monster, manunkind,” W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” and much more.

The first paper assigned was a book proposal, each student having to present the scenario for an alternative-history novel that they might write. For the second paper, each student will explicate a part of The Crying of Lot 49, their work together forming something of a reader’s guide to the book. The midterm required them to write on two of the first three novels; for the final, they will have to find parallels between V., Prospero, and Kinbote.

The students are loving the class. Oh, not all, but I rarely have an absence—and we meet at six o’clock in the evening. The midterms were good, and some of the novels proposed in their first papers really should be written.

One of the most delightful things about this course is that it is affirming for me that the students here at New York City College of Technology really are better than some of my “older” (in terms of tenure here) colleagues give them credit for being. I’m treating them as intelligent and able college students, and they are rising to the challenge—no matter that dreadful educational mills have ground up and spat out quite a number of them.

More interesting, however, is the fact that I seem to have stumbled onto an organizing topic particularly suited to students today.

Most of us professors have been out of school for some time, and long ago went through our own conspiracy-theory phases, many of us doing so in the 1980s, when The Crying of Lot 49, in particular, was something of a rage for lower-level literature courses and curiosity about Watergate and the Kennedy assassination lay behind much of our political discussion. Today, we tend to find such topics passé and cliché, scoffing at the conspiracy theories concerning 9/11 and the moon landing—let alone all that blather about Area 51 or Roswell, New Mexico.

Our students today, though, approach conspiracy from a perspective different from that of earlier times—or from the “nuts,” be they apocalyptic visionaries or refugees from images of bureaucratic intrusion. They know that just about all of the information they are given is questionable, so approach everything with caution. For, what they don’t have is an apparatus for determining the validity of what they are shown.

It is this they seek, a way to evaluate data—not the hidden data that was so much the focus when “we” were young.

To many contemporary college students, the existence of conspiracies of some sort or another is a given. They read Dan Brown’s The DiVinci Code without being convinced or dissuaded. Strangely enough—or maybe not—they have a strong understanding of ambiguity and uncertainty. Over the past few years, they’ve seen a war sold to the nation through definitive statements about WMD’s and mushroom clouds—only to unravel as rationale. They’ve become cynical about the information they are provided—but they don’t want to be. Rather, they would love to be able to unravel the tangle web of deception themselves.

Here, once more, it is the process that is proving more important than the product. The “fact” of conspiracy is, to many contemporary students, a given—even to the point where they get bored when another conspiracy theory pops up. They don’t want to hear about it.

But, when they come across tools they can use for debunking or—more fundamentally—for understanding the thinking behind the theories, they perk up.

There’s a new book out by Christine Borgman called Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure and the Internet (there’s an interview with her today on Borgman is writing to and about professional scholars, but I think much of what she is saying applies to student scholars as well. In both cases, right now, it is the how, and not the what, that’s becoming increasingly interesting.

Yeah, we do care about the subject matter but, in the knowledge explosion we are experiencing right now, the manner of evaluating the thing becomes as important as the thing in itself. Conspiracy theories, then, become particularly interesting, for they are based on differing ways of viewing and understanding information.

Is Charles Kinbote really the bare Professor Botkin gone mad or an escaped and hidden deposed king? Or is he some other sort of madman—or sane man—completely? Or a figment of John Shade’s imagination? Certainly, he comes from Nabokov’s imagining, but so what? The answer to these questions, my students are coming to understand, are far less interesting than the process of discovery that might or might not lead to an answer.

In a sophisticated information age, my students are rising to steal the bait from the hook, taking away the knowledge about the process of gaining knowledge without getting caught up in the conspiracy theories that raise questions of the validity of knowledge in the first place.

More power to them!

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