I have found a way to turn passive undergraduates into active learners.
I watch them become critical thinkers. I see them learn to identify and analyze relationships among diverse aspects of American culture and become skilled in the methods of interdisciplinary study.
My secret: conspiracy theories.
Why study conspiracy theories usually relegated to the margins of academic life? Because they are, in fact, a defining motif of the American experience. The Puritans brought to these shores a world view that they were God's elect persecuted by agents of a Satanic conspiracy. The Salem Witch Trials, for example, were interpreted through this perspective. The Revolution and founding of our republic are bathed in suspicion against government and how it might, without our vigilance, remove our liberties. We are, by national experience, a people skeptical of authority.
Anti-Masonic conspiracy theories flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, followed by a resurgence of anti-Catholic theories of papal domination that survive today as fears of a "New World Order." Antebellum America trembled over alleged plots of slave revolts. Our fascination with conspiracies is not new. And of course, some conspiracies are real: MK-ULTRA, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and others.
Even far-out conspiracy theories reveal how people make sense of the world. These theories have social functions; they reflect responses to alienation, the feeling of being disconnected from self, society, or the past. In the conspiratorial view, there are no accidents; everything is linked together. The individual who can figure things out also feels empowered. "They may have gotten to the rest of you," this individual reasons, "but at least I know the truth."
All of this makes conspiracy theories a wonderful teaching tool. To the students, exploring them is a "real-world," and therefore valid, exercise. Each student in my American Studies course picks a theory and, using information obtained from several disciplines, attempts to assess its credibility and social function. Were the moon landings faked? To write about that one, you have to get into history, astronomy, physics, photography, and political science.
When students blur that line between learning and having fun, there is a tremendous release of positive energy. They perceive the course as fun something they might do for enjoyment like watching "Conspiracy Week" on cable TV or arguing in the cafeteria over whether the Super Bowl is fixed. ("You think it was an accident that a team called The Patriots won the Super Bowl just as we're starting a war on terrorism? Do I have to draw you a map?").
Once the barrier between learning and recreation is broken, students become motivated. Participation is never a problem in this class. Hands are up, and students contribute all the time.
They do a pretty good job, most of them, at exploring and assessing their chosen theories. Many learn in the process to unmask bias in scholarship and to perceive events from multiple perspectives. These are hallmarks of educated people, skills that will serve them throughout their lives.
I learn, too. The course has taught me how to democratize the teaching experience. I'm not the first to discover this, I know, but I see that when students take ownership of their learning, they accomplish much more than they do when they are simply digesting information put in front of them.
That's no accident. In fact, it's a plot by me to get students to learn more. You don't think I'm alone in this, do you? Do I have to draw you a map?
Marcus LiBrizzi is assistant professor of English at the University of Maine at Machias.