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Punk’d had celebrities walking on eggshells and viewers regularly tuning in. Jackass had people imitating the self-injuring stunts and antics. What is it about pranks that we find so interesting and entertaining?

That question is at the core of a unique freshman seminar class to be taught by UT’s “Court Jester,” Beauvais Lyons. More than just the campus trickster, Lyons is also a gifted artist, mentor and a force behind the UT Knoxville School of Art’s graduate program in printmaking.

Students in Lyons’ freshman seminar 129 course will study and stage a number of pranks during the semester to explore the social, political, ethical and artistic uses of the prank.

Lyons is also curator of the Hokes (pronounced hoax) Archives. He has built his career straddling fact and fiction — creating art and the accompanying narrative to fool you.

One such piece of art is “The Centaur Excavations at Volos.”

The Centaur Excavations at Volos is a permanent display installed several years ago in John C. Hodges Library. This display uses the conventions of scholarship to present a work of fiction as authentic. The only clue that the viewer should be skeptical is the showcase title plaque, which includes the question “Do you believe in centaurs?”

[flowplayer video=”mp4:Centaur” width=”480″ height=”295″ captions=”” splash=”” /]

The centaur, which is actually made from the tea stained bones of a pony and a deteriorating human skeleton, was originally constructed by Bill Willers, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who is also an artist. Willers exhibited the project at the Madison Art Center as well as several college galleries in the mid-1980s before putting the work in storage.

In 1992, Neil Greenberg, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Lyons undertook a campaign to raise funds to purchase the display for the university. They were able to secure a prominent location on campus for the exhibit with a commitment from the library and generated support from a variety of campus organizations. Lyons designed the showcase and exhibition text and Bob Cothran from the Department of Theater painted the fake marble and wood panels.

While presenting a work of fiction as fact may be construed as counterproductive to the educational mission of the university, the exhibit has been endorsed as a valuable object lesson on importance of skepticism. Many students are conditioned to believe the word of authorities, whether they are academic, political, scientific or religious. This work of academic parody functions as a conscious form of self-critique.

“The centaur is a work of fiction; a kind of prank,” Lyons said. “This serves as a model for the freshman seminar ‘Pranks’ class that I teach. In this class we study pranks; we stage them; we produce fake fliers; we create fictitious student groups and organizations. It’s a way of looking at pranks, but also asking ourselves about the ethics of pranks as well.”

A fictitious club created by students from Lyons' freshman seminar

Over the course of the semester, Lyons’ students will complete five projects ranging from creating a prank flier for a campus audience to inventing a student club/organization.

As part of the course, the class also will meet with a UT Police Officer to discuss the ethics of pranks and how pranks are regarded from their perspective.

Freshman seminar courses are designed to help incoming freshmen acclimate to college life and learning. Class sizes are limited in order to allow students to interact with an experienced faculty member as well as peers who share the same interests.

For more information about Lyons and the Hokes Archives, including the centaur exhibit, visit