Project 1: Personal Philosophy of Truth

This page presents the assignment instructions for the first writing project in my Fake News first-year writing course—an informal essay reflecting on what truth is, why it matters, and how to sort out distortions—followed by an explanation of how I teach this project and a calendar of daily reading and writing assignments.

Key Terms: Course Objectives, Truth Sorting, Truth Distorting, Logical Fallacies, Cognitive Biases, Factchecking


Instructions for Essay 1: Personal Philosophy of Truth
Write an informal essay 750-1500 words explaining your own personal philosophy of truth. You are welcome to draw from the daily writing tasks you completed in this course as well as from the readings, discussions, and activities we’ve done. Make sure you include the following components. You may simply list out each part, but it would probably be more effective to try to weave them together, make them flow, and have an introduction and conclusion.Tell a story related to truth or “fake news.”Discuss a scripture passage, a passage from The MLA Guide to Digital Literacy, and at least one other text from this class. (You can discuss these while discussing any of the other items on this list.)What is truth and why does it matter to you? What is “fake news” and why do you care?When seeking truth, what do you do about the fact that what is true is often hard to determine, complex, not obvious?How can only listening to people who are like you or who already agree with you distort truth and what can you do about that?Create a list of as many “truth sorting strategies” and “truth distorting strategies” as you can think of. Select a few to discuss in more detail, explaining what they are and how to avoid or practice them.If there are other things you want to add, feel free.Since this is your philosophy, you are not graded on whether you are “right” or “wrong” but whether the work is thoughtful, thorough, and on time.

Rationale for Project 1: Personal Philosophy of Truth

The “fake news” course begins with a unit intended to prime students for seeking truth by asking them to reflect on what truth is, why it matters, and what practical strategies they may use to sort out information they encounter. The idea is to motivate students to care more about truth, to get them thinking about what truth is, and to give them some key concepts for sorting out distortions. Through homework assignments and in-class activities and discussions, students engage with several practical, accessible texts on truth and on information literacy. 

The primary book for this unit is Ellen C. Carillo’s The MLA Guide to Digital Literacy. (In an earlier version of the course, I’ve used Patricia Roberts-Miller’s more theoretical Demagoguery and Democracy.) I also bring in passages from Timothy Snyder (a viral clip on modern authoritarians’ assaults on truth from his interview on The Daily Show and some quotations from his book On Tyranny), an op-ed from the New York Times by psychologists Gordon Pennycook and David Rand (“Why Do People Fall for Fake News?”), a TED Talk by the journalist Stephanie Busari (“How Fake News Does Real Harm”), an audio clip from NPR by Shankar Vedantam (“Facts Aren’t Enough: The Psychology Of False Beliefs”), and a blog post by Susana Martinez-Conde (“I Heard It Before, So It Must Be True”). We also read several stories from the Bible, specifically the stories of the Serpent, Adam, and Eve (Genesis), Jeremiah and Zedekiah (Jeremiah), and Jesus and Pilate (John). I also ask students to provide their own stories related to truth and falseness, which become part of the course discussion. These include stories from their own life, from the lives of folks they have to interview, and from an adapted version of the party game “two truths and a lie.”

For many of these discussions, I put a two column chart on a class whiteboard and ask students to identify all of the things that happen in a given story or mentioned in one of the less narrative texts that either help folks find out what’s true or that help folks obscure what’s true. For example, in one of the texts, the story of Maranda Dynda shared on the NPR episode, the students might notice that fear, accepting things too easily, not checking the credibility of sources, and walling herself off from sources that potentially contradict her current views all collude to keep the young mother trapped in misunderstandings about vaccines, while care, asking questions, assessing the credibility of sources, doing research for herself, daring to consider alternatives perspectives, and seeking out more thoroughly vetted information all helped her change her mind to a more accurate understanding. As we consider story after story through the lenses of sorting and distorting, students accumulate an awareness of a range of strategies they should consider practicing and of strategies they should watch out for. We also consider the “truth stakes” in these stories, what’s at stake in knowing the truth in any given situation. Sometimes it’s just the humiliation of being fooled or the gratitude of knowing what’s what. Other times literal life and death are on the line.

In this unit we also draw on a number of digital resources for information literacy. We do activities drawing on sites for fact checking (we look at selected articles from snopes.com, factcheck.org, politifact.com to see what truth sorting strategies they use that make them credible) and sites with information on ways we might trick ourselves (we create stories in which folks fool themselves using the biases and fallacies explained at yourbias.is and yourlogicalfallacyis.com). We also spend time in writing workshops for the essay for the unit, which asks students to write their own “personal philosophy of truth,” a reflection on what truth is, why it matters to them, and what they plan to do, practically speaking, to seek it. 

If all goes well, students will complete this unit with a sharpened awareness of and commitment to truth and with some practical strategies for sorting out distortions. They will also, hopefully, be engaged and excited about the class—from the experience of asking meaningful questions, participating in lively activities with their peers, and having accomplished authentic intellectual work with vivid and interesting materials and stories.

Calendar

Day 1

Welcome & Introduction

Day 2

Daily Writing 1 Write at least one page (200 words) on the following: First, quote a scripture passage about truth or falsehood and describe how you think it applies to your life. Then, tell about a time you did not know what was true, what you did about it, and why it matters.

Day 3

Daily Writing 2 First, collect and describe stories from two or three different people about a time when they were wrong about something. Then, reflect. What could they have done to have a better chance of knowing the truth? What difference might it have made?

Day 4

Play Bad News getbadnews.com

Read Ellen Carillo, The MLA Guide to Digital Literacy, Chapters 1 “What Is Digital Literacy?” & 2 “Understanding Filters and Algorithms, Bots and Visual Manipulation.”

Daily Writing 3 First, imagine your friend brags, “I’d never fall for fake news” and you decide to prove them wrong. How could you use techniques from the Bad News game to prove him wrong? Then consider how the beginning of The MLA Guide to Digital Literacy applies or does not apply to your own life. Chapter 1 describes eight principles that guide the book. Which of these is most meaningful to you and why? Chapter 2 describes three or four ways we can be manipulated or misinformed online. Do you think you’ve been affected by any of these? If so, how so? If not, what makes you so sure?

Day 5

Read Cass Sunstein, “The Polarization of Extremes” and Michael P. Lynch, “Fragmented Reasons: Is the Internet Making Us Less Reasonable?” included in The MLA Guide to Digital Literacy

Daily Writing 4 Quote a few statements from Sunstein and Lynch make and then offer examples from your own life or of the lives of people you know that would either support or challenge what these authors are saying.

Day 6

Read Carillo, Chapters 3 “Understanding Online Searches” and 4 “Conducting Online Research”

Daily Writing 5 How does your usual way of looking for information online compare and contrast with what Carillo describes in these chapters? Is there anything she recommends that you are not already doing that you might incorporate into your own search strategies?

Day 7

Read Carillo, Chapters 5 “Go to the (Primary) Source!” & 6 “Surveying the Conversation by Reading Laterally”

Daily Writing 6 Describe a situation—either real or imaginary—where someone gets duped into believing something that is false because they fail to go to the primary source and because they fail to read “laterally” by finding out what other sources say about a source. Offer some suggestions for how this person might do better in the future.

Day 8

Read Carillo, Chapters 7 “Exploring the Credibility of Sources” & 8 “Working with Your Source”

Daily Writing 7 Write a short, fake article about some topic. Make the article as not credible as possible, by doing the opposite of all the things that Carillo says credible sources should do.

Day 9

Read Carillo, Chapters 9 “Additional Strategies and Resources” & 10 “Customizing Your Online Experience”

Daily Writing 8 Do you think you will use any of Carillo’s recommendations in these last two chapters in your own life? If so, which ones and why? If not, why not?

DUE: Submit Daily Writings 1-8

Day 10

Read instructions for and begin working on Essay 1: Personal Philosophy of Truth

Day 11

DUE: Essay 1: Personal Philosophy of Truth