August
25th 2009
Historiann presents an After-School Special: Young Goodman Wood

Posted under: American history, childhood, jobs, weirdness

wingedskullgraveyardVery scary stuff, kids–don’t let it happen to you!  Seriously, go read Timothy L. Wood’s dark tale about someone assigning him the authorship of a fairly stupid-sounding essay about Barack Obama that goes straight from zero to Godwin’s Law.  There was our innocent young Assistant Professor and expert in puritan studies last winter, thinking about anything but net-famousness as he plodded his way through marking final exams:

One deleted e-mail marked the beginning of my ordeal. It was finals week, just before Christmas break, when I received a strange message asking me to comment on some kind of online political essay that I had supposedly written. Since I’m not a blogger and make it a point to avoid the many rancorous political forums on the Internet, I immediately dismissed it as spam and hit delete.

But the notes kept coming, increasing in their fervor and frequency, until I could no longer deny it: I was receiving “fan mail.” Some writers called me courageous. Others hailed me as a visionary. A few suggested that I was predestined to play a pivotal role in the apocalyptic events foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Seriously.) Now, over the past 12 years I have published a scholarly book and eight journal articles on various historical topics, but I have to admit that through it all I never even attracted one groupie. So with my curiosity very much piqued, I began an online quest in search of the mysterious article.

I suppose it was inevitable that I was not going to like what I found. There, prominently displayed on a rather extreme Web site, was an essay (information about it can be found here) that likened President Obama to … Adolf Hitler. Underneath the title was the inscription “by Tim Wood.”

Awesome!  Imagine that our Professor Wood is both the duplicitous, Satanic husband and the innocent bride in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown.”  His own secret identity was so devious and so secret that even he didn’t even know about it!  Only, there are about a million guys named Tim Wood on the internets–but only one with an education and pedigree worth exploiting:

I ignored the article — at least until one of the versions of the essay being forwarded via e-mail mutated into a form which included the rather unambiguous phrase “Professor of History, Southwest Baptist University.” The writer of this message also helpfully appended my office phone number and e-mail address.

Stunned, I struggled to regain my bearings and tried to grasp the full implications of this professional identity theft. Beyond the fact that the comparison is utterly ridiculous (anyone who believes that truly has no understanding of the depths of evil plumbed by the Nazi regime), it was now personal. Who had the right to speak for me like that? How dare they hide behind my name! What if my colleagues — or my friends and family — read this and believed it?

But the most pressing question seemed to be what kind of damage control would be necessary in order to prevent this from irreparably damaging my career. And that, in turn, led me to begin reflecting on how scholars will need to safeguard their professional reputations in the 21st century.

Go read the essay–he’s got some good ideas about how to respond to situations like this.  Wood says that he learned not to ignore weird things when they pop up, and tried to take away some “teaching moments” from his experience.  He was supported early on by his university, which established a web site that debunks the claims of authorship in the dodgy e-mail.  Finally, he writes:

Moreover, this incident has led me to reconsider my somewhat adversarial relationship with technology. (I’m the guy who still refuses to buy a cell phone.) But one of the greatest difficulties I encountered in all of this was finding a platform from which to launch a rebuttal. Although I did write personal replies to many of the people who wrote me inquiring about the article, it seemed clear that such a strategy alone was like battling a plague of locusts with a flyswatter. Instead, Internet rumors are best refuted by channeling people toward some definitive, universally available, online point-of-reference (a Web address, for instance) that exposes the lie. In my case, the university was kind enough to grant me access to a page on its Web site, and I quickly began disseminating the link to my posting. However, that solution may not be available to everyone who falls victim to this kind of a hoax, and I am beginning to believe this issue is far too important for faculty to leave to others anyway. A year ago, I would have considered the creation of an “official Tim Wood Web site” to be pretentious in the extreme. Today, I’m not so sure. Like it or not, faculty are public figures, and if we do not take the initiative to define ourselves in ways that are accessible and relevant to those outside the academy, we risk being defined by others in ways that suit their agenda, not ours.

cowgirlromancesbrandsIt’s like we say out here on the open range:  you’re either doing the branding or you’re getting the brand on your backside.  The web has made us more knowable and more reachable–in many ways this is for the good, but on the other hand, it also makes us vulnerable to incidents like the one Wood experienced.  I’ve got a blog, and I’m not afraid to use it–but who’s to say that people with blogs and their own websites won’t be spoofed too?  It gives us a greater platform from which to respond to attempts at professional identity theft, and many of us have audiences that would be able to distinguish the counterfeit from our authentic voices as writers.  The beauty of the world-wide non peer-reviewed internets is also teh suck, isn’t it:  it’s so easy to self-publish, I just might want to publish “you,” too!  Try to stop me!

Here’s a little refresher, for those of you who might have forgotten those weirdly didactic and depressing but compulsively watchable “ABC After School Specials” of the 1970s and 1980s. Enjoy!

My favorite from this countdown? “The Boy Who Drank Too Much,” starring Scott Baio (natch!) as though there was an acceptable amount of alcohol for a boy to drink.  Hey–it was the 1970s. It coulda happened that way.

13 Comments »

13 Responses to “Historiann presents an After-School Special: Young Goodman Wood”

  1. Kathie on 25 Aug 2009 at 8:39 am #

    And the essay has apparently been attributed wrongly to David Kaiser (who does have a blog, History Unfolding, http://historyunfolding.blogspot.com/) and perhaps others; Snopes, that model of background research, has a good entry about this whole mess: http://www.snopes.com/politics/soapbox/proportions.asp

  2. squadratomagico on 25 Aug 2009 at 8:43 am #

    Hands down, it’s “My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel.”

  3. Historiann on 25 Aug 2009 at 8:43 am #

    That’s right, Kathie–the link to the Snopes is in the first block quote from Wood’s article. Thanks for putting in a link to David Kaiser’s blog.

    And Sq.–that’s my second choice! It would have been first if not for the “too much” modifier in the Baio vehicle.

  4. Susan on 25 Aug 2009 at 8:46 am #

    Wow. I basically was televisionless throughout the 70s and 80s, so I missed all this.
    What intrigues me about the Tim Wood story (aside from its definite spookiness) is the morphing of the essay attribution. It may well have been written by someone named “Tim Wood”. And then people tried to figure out *which* Tim Wood, and decided on this guy because he’s a professor. And so someone added the contact information. So on the one hand there is a real concern with WHO wrote it, and a kind of funny research. (Let’s google Tim Wood and see who comes up who might have written this.) It’s not as if the essay claimed to be written by Ermengard Weirdname. So I’m not sure it’s that his identity was stolen as much as highjacked. I think this is different, really, though I’m probably not being clear enough…

  5. Historiann on 25 Aug 2009 at 8:50 am #

    Susan–I see what you mean. However, although the attribution wasn’t probably made out of malice, there could be consequences for Professor Wood’s career. (Who wants to be known as the net-famous author of an inflammatory essay one didn’t actually write?) But, I can imagine a case in which a rival launches an attack on another person this way. It’s the digital version of writing someone’s name and phone number on a bathroom wall and suggesting that ze specializes in certain sex acts.

    It would have been nice if the person who first made the specific attribution to Wood had bothered to e-mail him first to verify that he’s the author–since ze clearly had his contact information!

  6. James Stripes on 25 Aug 2009 at 9:34 am #

    Thanks for bringing this story to our attention. I read the story and followed the links. According to Snopes, the story appears to have originated with Pat Dollard’s blog. Dollard’s blog has a compelling design, and serves as part of a broader web presence that includes blogtalkradio. Some of the links on his blog serve advertisers that employ intrusive pop-ups that are able to navigate through my Maginot Line of internets protection.

    The New York Times ran an article concerning Dollard’s Iraq War documentary project. This guy likes to push buttons (don’t most bloggers?), and seems proud of the confusion generated by TPS, the purported author sharing credit with several bona-fide historians that are not amused.

  7. Indyanna on 25 Aug 2009 at 9:34 am #

    I kinda liked “Mom’s on Strike” best. But why did I get a bottom-of-screen “Ads by Google” insert for the “Montgomery County School District” about thirty seconds into the trailer? A first for me. I guess they’re leveraging or dollarizing everything by this time, even my attention span.

    The only other person I know of with my actual name works for an obscure Defense Department sub-agency, so hopefully that would keep me off of the pseudo-authorial lists. But you never know I suppose.

  8. Comrade PhysioProf on 25 Aug 2009 at 9:40 am #

    I am glad that my name is 100% unique.

  9. identity, information literacy and professors as celebrities « info-fetishist on 25 Aug 2009 at 10:05 am #

    [...] someones thought so enough that they started forwarding emails based on that assumption.  Via Historiann, in today’s Inside Higher Ed, professor of history Tim Wood tells the story of how his name [...]

  10. GayProf on 25 Aug 2009 at 11:07 am #

    There have been other “GayProfs” lurking about on the internet. Obviously, it’s hardly a unique name. Still, it’s not so good to find comments from a faux me.

    So, according to after school specials, the British have molecular transporter technology? Which they then use to keep American schoolchildren safe? If they’re not busy being Death?

  11. John S. on 25 Aug 2009 at 12:30 pm #

    I had a minor experience with this earlier that taught me an important lesson: never say anything in an email–private or especially public–that you aren’t ready to see circulated around the whole world. Several years ago my campus newspaper was writing a story on the Birther question and whether or not our Celebrity Governor could ever become President. They wanted to know why the Framers put a clause about natural born citizens in the Constitution. So I gave them some historical context, got a sentence or two in the article, then that was it.

    Or so I thought. I heard from a friend about a year later that he had seen me quoted in USA Today, in an article about Celebrity Governor’s Presidential prospects. The quote has then turned up in a published biography of my Gov. And as some of you may have heard, the Birther question has since become a political hot topic.

    Since then I have had a very small but persistent fear that someone might dig up this old quote. It doesn’t say anything remotely controversial, but I don’t want my name anywhere close to any article with the words “Obama” and “Kenya” in it. It’s a small chance, I am sure; but would any of you have guessed that USA Today relies on the Daily Aggie for its research? If anything, my fairly unusual name makes it even worse. I have doppelgangers running funeral homes and selling real estate, but no one else who is a writer.

    So now I am more careful, even when responding to inquiries from the student newspaper like “Where did Thanksgiving come from?” You never know!

  12. Historiann on 25 Aug 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    Ugh. That annual “First Thanksgiving” ritual interview is a real turkey. Why do they need steamin’ hot quotes from us when they just write the same damned story over and over again?

  13. That’s gotta hurt! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 25 Aug 2009 at 1:15 pm #

    [...] And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post for today, “Historiann’s After School Special:  Young Goodman Wood.” [...]

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