21 Teach Selective Lying

A photo of Kenneth Roemer
Figure 21.1: Kenneth Roemer

Kenneth Roemer

I read over the class roll of 120 students for my sophomore American literature course. Not one was an English major. These students were all on a forced march.

I faced two big challenges common to many core courses: (1) discovering an issue valuable to a variety of majors, and (2) creating a method of engaging students so that they might imagine themselves as colleagues of the creators of knowledge. The issue I selected was identity formation. Whether in person, on paper, or on the Internet, students create identities. This focus worked in an American literature course because so many writers have wrestled with the question, “What is an American?”

To engage the students, I lied and required them to lie selectively. I announced that there would be four guest lecturers and represented each in a numbered column. I’ll discuss two of them here. The students quickly decided that one lecturer was wealthy and one was poor.



Lecturers Mother

From a wealthy family (chauffeur, maids; parents rented Carnegie Hall for her to perform) Worked as a maid; so poor she had to dig clams to feed her children

Lecturer’s Father

Owned the Packard that carried Charles Lindberg in his ticker-tape parade; Harvard graduate So desperate for a job that he was willing to teach seven courses and drive the school bus for $25 a week


Harvard graduate; spouse has given away billions of dollars; has traveled to Vienna, Lisbon, Tokyo, and many other international cities; spent more than $200,000 on his children’s college education Worked for $10 a week in Gallup, New Mexico; farmhand on sod farm; first car cost $1 (it was a stolen car); spouse was a minimum-wage cashier at a discount store.

Especially in required core courses, teachers need to create ways to invite their students to imagine themselves as colleagues of the subject’s creators.After a discussion of the columns, I admitted to the class that all the columns were the same person: me. I explained that every author we would examine did what I had done: selected facts from their backgrounds and arranged them in a way that created the desired identity. In my case, I stacked up selected facts in one column and then placed that beside a stack of contrasting facts. All the facts were true but were stripped of context. For example, my wife was a General Manager in Financial Aid for the U.S. Department of Education; all the trips were invited lectures; we saved for fifteen years for the children’s educations; and the car was a gift – by law I had to pay $1 to get the title, and when I tried to sell it I discovered it had been stolen. The students’ first assignment was to do what I had done. The contrasting identities could be rich/poor, smart/dumb, musical/tone deaf – whatever was appropriate, and they could select relatives other than mother and father. The goal was to give them a taste of what the authors we were studying had done. In a small way the students would become colleagues of the authors instead of students studying a subject.

My assignment could be used in any course that focuses on identity formation. But my overall point is that, especially in required core courses, teachers need to create ways to invite their students to imagine themselves as colleagues of the subject’s creators. They might then forget they are on a forced march and join the parade.

A photo of UT San Antonio campus with overlayed text reading, "Are you teaching the best class you are capable of?"
Figure 21.2: UT San Antonio
A photo of Art Brownlow
Figure 21.3: Art Brownlow


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