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July 13, 2007

Apocrypha Now?

A friend has asked about a story that may be the academic equivalent of an urban legend. I had never heard it. I asked some journalists who cover higher education, and they also say it does not ring a bell. But the thing sounds just plausible enough that it might really have happened. So at my friend's request, here is a call for leads in case there is anything to it.

I will avoid naming the university in question, leave gender uspecified, and say only that the events in question are supposed to have happened within the past decade. Here is the the gist of it:

A doctoral candidate has finished a dissertation based on the archives of a village in Italy. It has been accepted, the defense has gone well, and all that remains is a little paperwork. A member of the committee (or possibly just someone who knows about the dissertation topic) happens to be on vacation in Italy and decides to visit the village. It's not clear why -- curiosity, time to kill, maybe to explore the archive? In any case, it turns out there is no village.

So there you have it. Does anyone know of a real case like this?

A few years ago, I read around in the literature on "contemporary legend" (the term now preferred by people who study them, rather than "urban legend"). Usually they amount to cautionary tales of some sort, in which some norm or rule is violated and punished. The tale of the faked archive seems to qualify, though I suppose it's possible that it might be based on something that actually happened.

(crossposted to Cliopatria and Crooked Timber)

Posted by smclemee at July 13, 2007 10:40 AM