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Project Proposal


Amitava Kumar (English)

Project Description

I’m interested in developing a nonfiction project (a long essay or a brief monograph) that takes as its starting point the phenomenon of fake news. In the wake of the Trump election, this subject has acquired both prominence and urgency. For the past couple of years, however, I’ve been leading up to this topic by thinking about two separate but, to my mind, related issues. On the one hand, I want to record how rumors in different societies, and at different times, have led to historical consequences. (The notes I have collected apply to subjects as varied as cannibalism and small pox, AIDS and race riots, the Vietnam War and the death of Osama Bin Laden.) On the other hand, I’ve been amassing evidence of how scientific truth, particularly in psychology, is established through experiments and the stories or narratives that are mobilized by the researcher. (I’m not a psychologist or neuroscientist but it has been fascinating for me to read scientific articles on lying and behaviors or on the brain and storytelling.) By gathering more evidence, it should become possible to pose a simple question for a broad audience: How do facts become facts—and is this process different from the ways in which lies become facts?

Anticipated Project Activities

I would first share the materials I have collected with a student-scholar who is an aspiring journalist or researcher—and then ask them to pursue a project that could be titled “The Lifespan of a Fake.” In other words, having seen and learned from how I was developing the project as a whole, and the links I was making, perhaps the student-scholar would track a single lie or rumor or even a bogus scientific study. Ideally, I’d like the student-scholar to be able to write a magazine about this and fashion a Tumblr site or even a website which elegantly and attractively told the story they had discovered. I would supervise this research and writing. While the above project would be the principal activity, I would like the student-scholar to also collaborate with me on conducting wider research on all aspects of the proposed project: 1. Fake news 2. Rumors in diverse settings and times 3. Experiments. The work would proceed with a scheduled meeting each week on campus and regular updates via email. I would also like to investigate the possibility of making day-long trips with the student-scholar to the New York Public Library to learn the protocols of research and then follow-up. If funds can be allocated for train-fare and a cheap meal, I would think it valuable to participate in archival search at a large library that makes available, sometimes through sheer serendipity, material for writing and reporting.

Preferred Student Qualifications and Skills

While good writing skills would be helpful, I’d emphasize curiosity and passion as the critical requirements. It would be important for the student-scholar to have an interest in searching archives and other data bases. Familiarity with social media a plus. The same goes for acquaintance with media studies as well as visual culture.

Anticipated Follow-up Teaching/Professional Activity for Student

About a decade ago, while seemingly far away the Iraq War was in progress, I had taken part in the Ford Scholar program. The student-scholar who collaborated with me on that project prepared a blog on letters written by soldiers in Iraq during the First World War—it was written about in the press and the student-scholar was able to keep the interest alive in subsequent years. He went on to serve as an editor at Foreign Affairs and is now a senior editor at the World Politics Review. I mention this because ideally the follow-up ought to be a long-term one. For the present project I’d like the student-scholar to write a short but dazzling magazine article and perhaps also make an attractive presentation on social media. I’d also want the result to be shared in a special presentation in the journalism class I teach each Fall semester in the American Studies program. That said, I would really like the student-scholar to take something from this collaboration that aids in the development of an intellectual outlook which finds joy in telling a story about how stories are told—among the latter, stories that are true but also, more important, stories that are false.

Project Location

Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY

Project Duration

Eight weeks

Project Start Date

May 30, 2017

Project End Date

July 31, 2017