Paul T. Corrigan
This page presents my rationale for developing Fake News as a theme-based course for first-year writing.
- In 2014, the Boko Haram terrorist group abducted hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls, but the country’s officials dragged their feet in working to get the children back to their families, dismissing the kidnappings as a “hoax” (Busari).
- In 2016, the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, a move that will exacerbate the suffering caused by climate catastrophe and that was enabled by the widespread belief among folks in the US that climate change is either not urgent or an outright “hoax” itself (AP-NORC).
- In 2019, outbreaks of measles rocketed to “emergency levels” in multiple countries in significant part because a growing number of parents have been taken in by debunked claims supposedly linking vaccines to autism (Benecke and Elizabeth).
- In February 2020, on the eve of the coronavirus breaking out in the United States, the president called the attention journalists and others were giving to the global pandemic merely a “new hoax” being perpetuated by his political opponents (Franck). At the time I am writing this sentence a month later, well over a thousand people in the country had died from the disease (Fox et al.), a number likely to appear quaint by the time you read this sentence, given the exponential spread predicted by medical and epidemiological experts.
These few examples illustrate how, as the journalist Stephanie Busari puts it, fake news encountered on the internet and elsewhere can do real harm to people in real life. The term “fake news” covers both false misinformation and false accusations against accurate information. The term gained widespread prominence in the past several years when a prominent politician in the United States slung it repeatedly against journalists and even against journalism itself, at the very same time as he himself was lying with breathtaking frequency and blatancy. That pattern follows the historian Timothy Snyder’s recipe for “modern authoritarians”:
Step 1: You lie yourself. All the time.
Step 2: You say it’s your opponents and the journalists who lie.
Step 3: Everyone looks around and says, “What is truth? There is no truth.”
In this way, fake news not only undermines specific truths—such as whether windmills cause cancer, where a hurricane is predicted to go, whether masses of people voted illegally—but also the very possibility of truth itself. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, fake news as a whole—where “alternative facts” are just as good as actual ones, where “what you’re seeing . . . is not what’s happening”, where there is “open hostility” to the very notion of verifying things (Snyder On Tyranny)—undermines the ability for ordinary folks to sort out for ourselves with any degree of reasonable confidence what is and is not credible and accurate among the claims we encounter in our daily lives.
Strangely, as the philosopher Simon Blackburn observes, the difficulties we face in sorting out truth lead many people not to practice humility about what they do or do not know but rather to feel free to “believe whatever they like with as much force and conviction as they like” (Truth: A Guide). This is a dangerous situation for us to be in. Importantly, the danger is not even remotely the domain of one politician, one political party, or even politics itself. The wash of “fake news” can affect any aspect of our lives where accurate information matters.
What can we do? One important response to fake news is what educators, especially English teachers, have long strived to do: we can teach critical thinking, research, and information literacy. More specifically, as Timothy Snyder urges folks, we can teach students to “Believe in Truth” and to “Investigate”:
Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.
These are among the very practices English teachers have long taught. Moreover, as the best pedagogues have always exhorted us, we can teach critical literacy, research, and information literacy not merely as technical skills but as personal dispositions—as ways of being and perceiving in the world.
Few sites seem better poised for this sort of teaching than first-year college writing courses. I have designed and taught a version of this course where I seek to teach students, when they encounter claims that may be false or falsely accused of being false, to recognize what truth distorting strategies might be at work and to practice truth sorting strategies in response. The course integrates the affective and the cognitive, respecting the search for truth as something that cannot be relegated to the page, screen, or even our minds but that also plays out in our feelings, bodies, and lives. The course revolves around a holistic research method I call empathetic information literacy, wherein I ask students to Pause, Ask, Care, Check, and Act. The “fake news” course consists of three sequenced units, each of which progresses through daily low-stakes reading and writing assignments and in-class activities to culminate in a larger writing project.
- Unit 1: How and Why to Fight/Heal Fake News with Honest Research establishes a purpose and direction for the course. At the end of the unit, students write Essay 1: “Personal Philosophy of Truth.”
- Unit 2: Practicing Empathetic Information Literacy Together helps students learn research skills with a great deal of support and scaffolding, with a group research project. At the end of the unit, students write Essay 2, “Are Refugees Fake News?”
- Unit 3: Applying Empathetic Information Literacy Individually gives students the opportunity to practice those skills on their own, undertaking a research project of their own choosing. At the end of the unit students write Essay 3, “Choose-Your-Own ‘Fake News.’”
- Reflections on Truth, Information Literacy. As the final exam, students write one more short essay, a final reflection on what they’ve learned in the course, how they can apply that in the future, and what related learning they would still like to do.
In the following sections of this page, I will present the materials I’ve developed for each of these units and assignments, including project instructions, a course calendar, and other teaching materials. I begin with a few words about the pedagogical background of the course—the experience and scholarship that led to its development.
I have taught first-year writing for over a decade and, although my degrees are in literary studies, I do also have graduate training in writing studies, have attended and presented at writing studies conferences, and have read pedagogical scholarship in writing studies my entire career. Nonetheless, like many teachers, I have long struggled to teach English Composition II—the research-focused first-year writing course at my institution—in a way that I find meaningful and that my students find engaging. It’s the research part that’s the bugbear. In the course, I am tasked to teach researched writing. Many teachers of this and similar courses ask students to write argumentative essays, which use “research” to marshal evidence in support of a particular claim they would like to put forward. But I find making arguments, at least of this sort, outside of any particular discipline artificial and facile. I want, rather, to teach students a form of “research” that is authentic and that they can actually use in their everyday lives. In the current era of fake news, the lens of “information literacy” strikes me as the perfect form of critical thinking and research to teach students. However, focusing solely on the technical and intellectual tools of information literacy—whether that means how to use the library databases, how to check the credentials of a writer, how to assess a claim for logical fallacies, etc.—long struck me as insufficient. It was just “too dry,” among other things.
It was only upon reading Patrick Sullivan’s A New Writing Classroom: Listening, Motivation, and Habits of Mind (2014) and then Ellen C. Carillo’s Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America (2018) that the pieces fell into place for me. Among other things, these scholars stress the importance of affect and of reading in the teaching of writing—principles I had previously found much easier to practice in all of my other courses, which did not require the same kind of “research” as Composition II. But the spark that led to the course design presented on this page was when Carillo argues that we should teach students to read well as part of a response to the era of fake news and that part of teaching students to read well is teaching them to attend to the affective dynamics of reading. This resonated with me deeply because empathy has long been a crucial aspect of my teaching in so many other courses—particularly in my teaching of personal writing, creative writing, and literary reading. For some reason, I had failed to find a place for it in the more “technical” context of teaching source-based research. Carillo helped me see that empathy and information literacy need not be separate. In fact, just the opposite. We need what I am calling empathetic information literacy. We need to teach students to use their mind and hearts to seek truth. The course I present here revolves around that insight.
The aim of the fake news themed composition course—informed by a growing bibliography of resources on Fake News—is not to make students impervious to being fooled, nor to give them the tools to always know what is true and what is not. That would not be possible. We, too, get fooled, scholars though we are. Following what I have learned from some of the best scholars of pedagogy, from bell hooks to Patrick Sullivan to Ellen Carillo, the idea is to help students internalize habits of heart and mind that will, over the long term, make it more likely that they will uncover the truth in their daily lives. I believe those who pause before jumping to conclusions will get to correct conclusions more often. Those who ask questions will become more thoughtful investigators. Those who care about the human beings affected by this or that issue will be less likely to become obsessed with “proving” their own preconceived ideas. Those who fact check will be more likely to get the facts. And those who act on truth will be more likely to make any of this truth seeking matter.
Note on Religious Content
Readers will notice the following materials contain religious references and assumptions. These emerge from the context in which I teach this course, a predominately white Evangelical university in central Florida. Such a context that offers distinctive challenges and opportunities. The key challenge is that (white) evangelicals appear particularly susceptible to fake news—as illustrated by, say, the strong skepticism about climate science or the strong support for Donald Trump among this demographic. But the key opportunity is that truth nonetheless remains a central religious tennant in Christianity—as numerous Biblical passages attest, such as “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 12:22) and “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). In short, as is the case with many communities, Christianity’s own ideals call many Christians to do better. Those teaching in similar contexts to mine may find the religious references in these materials helpful, while those teaching in contexts where such recourse would not be helpful or appropriate may simply skip or replace those aspects of this material.