Project 2: Practicing Empathetic Information Literacy Together

This page presents the assignment instructions for the second writing project in my Fake News first-year writing course—a group research essay using the “empathetic information literacy” method to factcheck a claim about refugees entering the US from Central America. The page also includes an example essay written following that model, an explanation of how I teach this project, and a calendar of daily reading and writing assignments.

Instructions for Students: Are Refugees Fake News?

In this essay, we will practice Empathetic Information Literacy together, walking through the five steps of this “truth sorting” method as a class to investigate a common claim, to see whether it is true or false or something else. Specifically, as a class, we will consider the claim that those people traveling from Central America and crossing into the United States without permission constitute an “invasion.” This is, of course, a very loaded claim. It matters to get it right. If it is false, we need to know. If it is true, we need to know. If it is complicated, we need to know. So over the course of several weeks, we will practice the method of pausing, asking, caring, checking, and acting. We will work on these steps through daily writings and through class activities. At the end of the process, you will gather all that you have done and shape it into a research essay of at least 1,000 words. This essay needs to be formatted according to MLA and needs to cite at least three credible sources. You may also find it important to cite some not-so-credible sources, as a way to show some of the not-credible views that exist on the topic. The essay should include the following components, which will apply practically the method already described above in this guide.

Heading. Format this according to MLA.

Title. Inform readers of what you’re talking about and catch their interest. You can use a title and subtitle combination if you like.

Introduction. Explain what the essay is about and what the parts will be. Present and explain at least one actual example of someone making the claim that you are investigating. You may also announce your conclusion, if you don’t want to wait until later in the essay.

Pause. In this section, describe what you have done to pause and why you find it important. This might include taking a deep breath or a walk, journaling, praying for humility and discernment, or stopping to remind yourself that you don’t have all the answers or stopping to remind yourself why this topic matters and why you want to get it right. Basically, this section describes how you keep yourself from rushing to conclusions, how you set yourself up to have an open mind and an open heart, how you prepare to follow the truth the best you can wherever it leads.

Ask. In this section, you will turn the claim being investigated into a genuine question. At the most basic level, this simply involves restating it from “This is so” to “Is this so?” Once you spell it out as a question, you might also list all the possible answers you can think of. You might also explain all of the follow up questions that the original question leads to.

Care. In this section, you will explain what you have done to learn about the human beings, the lives and stories, behind the “facts” or “fake news.” These lives are why it matters to “get it right.” You will share the stories you’ve encountered—from books, documentaries, poems, people you meet in real life—and explain the ways that they inform, ground, and motivate your investigation.

Grading Criteria
The essay will be graded on the basis of thorough, thoughtful completion of all of the instructions above. It must also be formatted and edited so that it is relatively free of errors. It must cite multiple credible sources. It must practice truth sorting strategies. It should not make any demonstrable inaccurate claims. It should appropriately acknowledge complexities and things that are not known or not certain. Any essays fulfilling these criteria will be considered satisfactorily completed. Any essays needing significant development in one or more of these aspects may be revised and resubmitted.

Schedule for Project #2

Day 12


Day 13

Daily Writing 9 Collect at least two real-life examples of folks making the claim that those traveling from Central America into the US without permission amount to an “invasion.”

Day 14

Read Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends, Chapter I: “Border”

Daily Writing 10 Select at least two passages from each of these chapters to copy out and then relate or respond to in some personal way. You might journal about how it makes you feel to read. You might imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of the people it describes. You might also respond creatively, such as with a drawing or painting or song. You might write out a prayer.

Day 15

Read Luiselli, Chapter II: “Court”

Daily Writing 11 Again, copy out at least two passages from each of these chapters and respond personally.

Day 16

Read Luiselli, Chapter III: “Home”

Daily Writing 12 Again, copy out at least two passages from each of these chapters and respond personally.

Day 17

Read Luiselli, Chapter IV: “Community”

Daily Writing 13 Again, copy out at least two passages from each of these chapters and respond personally.

Day 18

Find and read at least two articles about the topic that are written by qualified journalists, fact checkers, or scholars and are published in a reputable newspaper, magazine, scholarly journal, or fact checking site. Sources you might check include but are not limited to:

Daily Writing 14 Summarize what information you are taking away from the two or more articles you choose to help you investigate the topic and explain why you find the sources to be credible.

Day 19

Find and read at least two articles that present a perspective on the topic that contrasts with the ones you’ve already considered. You may have already come across some in the sources listed above. Additionally, the following website exists to specifically help people find multiple perspectives on topics. Sometimes alternative perspectives will be equally credible. Other times they will not.

All Sides,

Daily Writing 15 Summarize what information you are taking away from the two or more articles you choose to help you investigate the topic and explain whether or not you find the sources to be credible.

Day 20

Daily Writing 16 Based on all of the checking you have done so far, make a determination—it can be tentative, your decision so far, open to revision in the future—about the claim you have been investigating. Is it true? False? Mostly true? Mostly false? Mixed? Impossible to determine with the evidence you have encountered so far? What are the reasons for your determination?

Day 21

Daily Writing 17 Do and document at least one action based on what you have found in investigating this topic. What your action will be should be informed by what your determination is. Some possibilities follow, though not all of them can be accomplished in the time frame available for this assignment.

If you determine this claim is true, then you might

  • Donate or volunteer for an organization defending the border
  • Write to your elected representatives to ask them to act
  • Vote for candidates who prioritize border security or neighborly policies toward Central America
  • Raise awareness about the invasion among friends, family, social media, etc.
  • Counter protest those supporting refugees

If you determine this claim is false, then you might

  • Donate to or volunteer for an organization supporting refugees
  • Write to your elected representatives to ask them to help
  • Vote for candidates who prioritize helping refugees or neighborly policies toward Central America
  • Raise awareness about the false claim among friends, family, social media, etc.
  • Protest in support of refugees

If you determine that you cannot determine yet, then you might

  • Become a paid subscriber to a newspaper that produces investigative journalism
  • Donate or volunteer to an organization promoting journalistic integrity or fighting fake news
  • Go to the border to continue researching in person
  • Write your elected representatives to ask them to investigate
  • Vote for candidates who prioritize accuracy

If you determine something else, then you might

  • Come up with your own appropriate action, perhaps combining actions from the above lists

Submit Daily Writings 1-16

Day 22

Submit Essay 2: Are Refugees Fake News?

Example Research Essay

Orville Coralton
Dr. Corrigan
English Composition II
25 October 2019

Does Squid Ink Make Octopi Live Longer?
Last summer, on a vacation near the beach, I came across an article on the website Octo Health Report that claimed that drinking squid ink can extend an octopus’s life by up to five years. Specifically, the page said: “Octopus scientist discoverS secret to doubling life! Buy our freshly scared organic squid ink and live up to five years longer!” Well, I’m an octopus and all my family are octopi. So this obviously caught my attention. My grandmother is getting up there in years and I’m not ready to lose her just yet. And, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t mind living a little longer myself. On the other hand, is it too good to be true? In this essay, I explain my journey to check out this claim.

1. Pause
I decided not to rush to a conclusion. It would be easy to just accept it (“great, let’s get some squid ink!”) because I would love to find the secret to long life. It would be just as easy to dismiss it out of hand (“oh, it’s a scam”) because I don’t want to end up looking gullible or poisoning myself or worse. Instead, I wanted to actually find out the truth. So I took a deep breath and went for a long swim by myself and decided I would carefully consider the claim. I also thought about the things that might bias me toward one conclusion or another. One thing I realized was how, having grown up in a tight knit conservative octopus community, I was taught to be wary of other kinds of cephalopods. How could squid ink be good for us if squids aren’t (as my grandmother would say) good at all? But that’s speciesist. So I will make sure to pay careful attention instead of not automatically associating anything squid with “bad.”

2. Ask
After pausing, I turned to ask some questions. First, the claim itself. Was it true? Does drinking squid ink extend an octopus’s life? And that led to all sorts of other questions. Who were the scientists who supposedly discovered this? How was the study conducted and what were their exact results? Where can I find that information (since it wasn’t on the page I read)? Could the opposite even be true, that squid ink is actually bad for octopuses? Come to think of it, who is making money selling the ink? How is it obtained? Are squids harmed in the process?

3. Care
Before I looked for answers to these questions, I thought I should make sure I was listening to the actual cephalopods whose lives affected by this whole issue. When I was visiting my grandma at Golden Shells Retirement community, I listened to her talk about her aches and pains and about how she feared the end of her life and what she would do if she had a few more years. Knowing and loving her as an octopus made me want to know if this “cure” worked. If it did, I could help her.When I was talking about this conversation with my friends at school, one of my squid friends, Calli, said I should talk to her grandmother. I hadn’t thought about that before—how this “medicine” might affect squids (this is where I got the question from that I added above). So I went home with Calli after school one day and her grandmother told me all about how octopi had treated squid in the old days, how they made them out to be bad but took advantage of their labor. When I asked about the ink thing, she was clearly hurt by that. She actually just spit. (I mean, I think she did. I couldn’t tell. We’re all underwater.) Calli told me it was probably time to leave and explained that there used to be all sorts of seafloor legends about squid ink vs. octopus ink and how older squids are still very sensitive about it. So seeing Calli’s grandmother so hurt by the very mention of a claim about squid ink helped me realize that if it wasn’t true, then it could just be reinforcing false views about squids.So at that point, I still didn’t know what to think, but I definitely wanted to get it right.

4. Check
Finally, it was time to start checking credible sources to see if what I had come across was legit or not. First, I looked into Octo Health Report, the source of the claim itself. I actually could not find much information about it. There were no names of publishers or reporters. The name of the website didn’t come up much in other places. And the article itself made lots of claims about scientific evidence and whatnot but did not cite any of this evidence and did not tell me where I could learn more. So that all sounded fishy.Then I came across an article in Ocean Times, written by the Wellis B. Owen, who has a degree in journalism from Atlantis U and has covered health and wellness for reputable newspapers for almost four years. In “Aging Octopi Anticipate the Ocean Floor,” Owen interviewed a number of octopi who were four or five years old, reaching the ends of their lives. Some of them shared anxiety about dying, others said they were still focusing on living. Owen then quoted a researcher on age and aging who recommended helping older sea creatures get out and swim and socialize at least twice a week. “When older fish are still really living,” Dr. Cephas Fishbourne said, “they’re not so worried about dying.” Owen also quoted another researcher saying there was a tie between end of life anxiety and gullibility for medical hoaxes. The more death looms, the more fish will believe anything.Finally, I found a scientific article by B. Loon, J. Flomboxton, and G. Gut—who all have PhDs in marine biology—published last year in Journal of Cephalopod Research, that almost directly addressed the squid ink claim. They did not speak specifically about ink but what they said was close enough. The article was titled, “Medicinal Misinformation about Squid.” The scientists wrote:Given how widespread misinformation on the supposed medicinal properties of squid and given the dire consequences both for octopi who ingest any part of a squid’s biology instead of pursuing legitimate medical options and even more for those squid who may be harmed in the pursuit of pseudoscience, we felt a responsibility to exhaustively review the research related to the topic. Based on an assessment of 215 articles published in the last ten years, every scientific study we could locate remotely connected to the topic, we can conclude that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support that idea that squid biology has medicinal benefits for octopi. (390)This is pretty clear. It’s only one source but it’s a source that looked at many others and the authors are qualified to do so.So, based on all of this, I can only conclude that the claim is false. I cannot believe that squid ink is good for octopi at all. The only places that say so are fishy, apparently in it for the money. Not only that but ideas like this aren’t harmless. They inflame old squid/octopus conflicts, get old octopus’s hopes up on a lie, and spread false rumors about squids.

5. Act
Having determined the claim about squid ink was false, I decided to do something about it. My first thought was to just tell everyone it was false. But then I thought I should do something more. I realized that part of what allowed the lie to float around was old prejudices about squid that some octopi still harbor. So I donated ten sand dollars to Octo-Squid Alliance to help address that. But then I realized that another factor was the isolation and fear of death that aging cephalopods sometimes face. So I started Sundays Under the Sea. I gave it a name as a joke. Really it’s just me and some of my friends taking our grandparents for a swim and a snack on Sunday afternoons. The exercise and the chance to get to interact with people—including octopi and squids interacting with each other, since my friend group includes a diversity of species—will help allay fears and stereotypes as well.

Works Cited

“Live Double.” Octo Health Report.Owen, Wellis B. “Aging Octopi Anticipate the Ocean Floor.” Ocean Times, Sep. 17, 2017.

Loon, B., J. Flomboxton, and G. Gut. “Medicinal Misinformation about Squid.” Journal of Cephalopod Research, issue 2, volume 234, 2018, pp. 45-67.

Rationale for Project #2

After students have developed a personal and practical philosophy of truth, the “fake news” course gives them an opportunity to actually practice truth seeking. The second unit of the course introduces the empathetic information literacy method—a series of intellectual and affective “moves” for investigating, in the form of a research essay, the accuracy of a given claim. The moves—pause, ask, care, check, and act—ask students to genuinely investigate a given claim in a thoughtful and careful way (in both senses of care-ful). The method and all of the moves are explained in an essay I give to students. Through both homework assignments and in-class activities, we work through the five moves together in investigating a claim often made against those folks from Central America who enter the U.S. without the proper documentation. Each step along the way, we consider what the step is and why it matters and how to practice it in this particular case. 

We begin with discussing specific actual instances of the claim being made, which students are required to find as a homework assignment and bring to class. Instances range from the El Paso mass shooter manifesto to Tweets from the president of the United States. After putting the claim on the table, so to speak, we launch into the investigation, beginning with the pause step. Here I lead the class in breathing exercises, invite them to journal a bit about why they care to get the investigation right, and even lead them in a prayer for wisdom and discernment. For the ask step, we turn the claim we are investigating into a question (is it true?) and brainstorm together as many related questions that this question leads to, which often include questions about how many folks are entering into the US, who they are, why they are coming, what the law actually says, what the definition of certain words in the claim are, etc. 

Next, for the care step, we read the primary text for this unit: Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, a memoir of the author’s time translating for unaccompanied child refugees from Central America appearing before US imigration courts. I make sure to tell students that, since Luiselli is a writer and an activist, we are not necessarily to take her book as a credible source on the facts of situation. That’s not her area of training nor her aim. Instead, we are to take in the human stories she tells as a way to care about the facts of the situation. Her stories ought to motivate us to “get it right.” The same goes for a number of short video documentaries we watch together in class, including “’If you come back, we’ll kill you’: Central Americans seek refuge in US only to be sent home,” “Between Borders: American Migrant Crisis,” and “On the Road with the Migrant Caravan.” Upon watching these videos in class, I invite students to free-write in ways that practice empathetic imagination, considering the motivations, fears, and joys of the people whose faces they’ve now seen, whose voices they’ve now heard, whose names they now know. Again, I stress, these documentaries do not necessarily tell us the answer to the questions we are investigating, but they give us a human connection and context for our investigation.

After we have gone to such lengths to set ourselves up to find the truth the best we can—pausing so as not to rush to conclusions, asking questions rather than grasping immediately for answers, putting our hearts in the game—then we do the more traditional work of fact checking. I ask the students to find several credible sources that speak to the claim we’re investigating as well as several sources, whether credible or not, that offer an alternative perspective to what they’ve seen so far. I also bring in several articles for us all to look at together, working through them as a class sentence by sentence to see how credible they are based on the truth sorting and truth distorting strategies they use. For instance, a Washington Post article by Meagan Flynn (“An ‘invasion of illegal aliens’: The oldest immigration fear-mongering metaphor in America”) presents multiple perspectives, gives historical context to the claim, quotes and links to qualified experts on the topic and to primary documents, and leaves the final conclusion appropriately open ended for readers (all truth sorting strategies), whereas a Breitbart article (“Donald Trump: ‘Invasion’ Coming at the Border; U.S. Has ‘Captured’ Thousands of Illegal Aliens”) simply repeats uncritically, without fact checking or providing context, one perspective from someone who is not an expert in the area (all truth distorting strategies). I tell students, though, that they still have to do their own research. I might have stacked the deck with my examples. They can’t take my word for the facts. Following my example on how to check the credibility of sources but not necessarily coming to the same conclusion as me, they have to do their own checking. Once they have done so, I require them to make a determination—what, based on credible sources, they conclude, pending further evidence, about the claim they are investigating. They may decide the claim is true, false, somewhere in between, mixed, or indeterminate based on the research they have done so far.

After they make their determination, I require the students to undertake one real and tangible action based on what they find. I give them examples of what they might do, including voting, donating, volunteering, raising awareness, writing their legislators, and committing personal acts of kindness. 

The whole time that we have been practicing these five moves together, students have been writing informally about each move as homework. When we get to the end of this unit, we spend some time pulling those homework assignments together, revising them, and adding to them to create a research essay.