Foregrounding the Question

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“I have to question the validity of everything now,” read a student’s comment in the course evaluations for my recently concluded first-year writing seminar.

Though the comment may have been offered as a complaint, the fact that it was provided in response to the questions “Did the course help you learn? Why or why not?” suggests a more positive valance. And as far as reported learning outcomes go, it’s one for which many professors would strive.

Indeed, Trump’s win and the barrage of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that surround it have resulted in numerous calls for increased instruction of media literacies precisely in service of achieving an outcome such as this one.

But where Trump’s win may provide the impetus for media literacy instruction, not enough methods of teaching media literacies prompt students to see source verification as anything more than an exercise. Moreover, a recent study showed that even when students applied traditional protocols for assessing a website’s credibility to assessments of websites, they were often wrong about the overall reputability of the content on the site. As Mike Caulfield has suggested, such results indicate some fundamental problems with how we conceptualize and teach media literacies.

Additionally, I believe these results demonstrate a fundamental problem with narrowly focusing on media literacies as skills at the expense of cultivating the type of critical inquiry that would prompt exercising such skills in the first place. Put differently, I locate the power of my student’s evaluation comment not in its focus on validity, but in its foregrounding the act of questioning.

In the remainder of this post, I will focus on how I attempt to foster such questioning in my writing seminar, as well as why I believe that developing such a need to question is particularly important in our “post-truth” era.

My writing seminar, versions of which I’ve taught since 2013, focuses on media hoaxes, plagiarism, and remix culture. Through analysis and discussion of case studies that range across time periods and media formats, we examine the ways that concepts such as truth, authenticity, and originality—though often presumed static and absolute—are constantly shifting and morphing in relation to time, context, and audience.

In part, then, the course aims to cultivate more critical attitudes toward media consumption. However, rather than pursue this aim through more standardized media literacy methods (e.g., RADCAB, the CRAAP test), the course invites students to question the underlying beliefs and behaviors that lead people to consider lies as true.

Among the assignments and activities that invite students to do so is the course’s first formal paper assignment, which asks students to analyze one of the hoaxes we’ve discussed in class and craft an argument about how elements of its content and context affected its believability. To complete this assignment, students draw on class discussions and activities. These include a prior writing assignment and in-class activity wherein students craft their own fake news story and, in teams, select one story to read aloud alongside a real (but incredible) story.

Collectively, the class votes on which story they believe to be real. I admit that fake news stories have only occasionally won out over the real ones. Nonetheless, both crafting fake news stories and discussing what makes these stories believable help students begin to understand concepts such as truth and authenticity from the inside out. And, through mimicry and analysis, they begin to understand how such concepts are constructed, subjective, and provisional.

In this vein, media hoaxes are especially fruitful exemplars. Though false by definition, a hoax—particularly when successful—reveals a lot about what an audience believes or would like to be true. And while the affective power of a hoax rests in its appeal to emotion, the most persuasive hoaxes do more than summon pathos. They expose the provisional nature of truth by representing events and ideas that conform to the logic and ethics of their audience.

In short, hoaxes confirm what many already assume true; even while perpetuating lies, hoaxes have the capacity to demarcate truths that particular audiences find acceptable or, even, preferable.

In confronting, analyzing, and even mimicking hoaxes, students must look beyond the content of a hoax and ask themselves more profound questions, such as: What does this hoax reveal about those who believed it? About the person or people who created it? About the person or topic it concerns? In an age of alternative facts and fake news, it is only in response to such genuine and complex inquiry that any of us will choose to respond intellectually when our instincts scream at us to respond emotionally.

The opportunity to cultivate inquiry and choose intellect is what we, as academics and teachers, have to offer after Trump’s election. We must nourish these behaviors in our students. In addition to providing them with skills to understand what is true, we must provide them with the impetus to ask: what is truth?

About Author(s)

Elizabeth Lenaghan is an Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Cook Family Writing Program and the Assistant Director of the Writing Place at Northwestern University.

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