Heather Fester and Jarret Krone of the UCCS First-Year Rhetoric and Writing Program have been working on a digital textbook unit on Fake News with The Independent Critical Thinking and Writing Company. Read on to find out more about their project.
Why does fake news matter?
Heather: The driving force behind fake news seems to have little to do with getting people to believe made up events or stories or to influence beliefs, though there are examples of these uses of fake news for sure. Instead, it seems to have more to do with generating chaos and confusion about what the clearest or best perspective might be on any given topic. The term is used a lot of different ways, and there are some who suggest alternate terms that better encapsulate the nature of the problem–terms like junk news, truth decay, network propaganda, or disinformation. So, fake news and these related ideas matter because we live in a democracy and have to make informed choices based on critical analysis of the best information we can find. This task is already challenging given the exponential growth of information and storage and search capacities paired with the changing emphasis placed on reading carefully and thinking critically. Yale historian Timothy Snyder says in his book On Tyranny (Tim Duggan Books, 2017), “If nothing is true, no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” If we want to keep our freedoms intact, we need reliable information. Fake news interferes with this process.
We developed the textbook to start with a simple binary view of fake news–either a story is fake or it’s true. We imagine a lot of students will start with this assumption. We have them reflect on that distinction. Then, we try to support their movement through a cognitive arc in which they problematize a simple notion of true vs. fake and begin to see how the examples they’re examining might be more complicated. We have them question truth and fact to move toward subtler understandings of each. This last move represents a ripening of critical thinking, especially when they can apply these insights on their own–to truly think for themselves about why fake news matters.
Jarret: While Fake News is not a wholly unique concept, a recognizable aspect of our culture has become how we react to, and engage with, a mainstream media constantly described as “fake,” biased, and deceptive. With the rise of social media, and the ease of creating and distributing information digitally, it has become increasingly challenging to decipher what is real, what may be fake, and why sometimes it’s complicated. A central goal of our project is to help students look beyond the perception of information as fake or real, harmful or natural, ethical or evil. In other words, this unit aims to push students beyond binary thinking, as non-binary thinking is essential for critical thinking. As I often tell my students, as critical thinkers we must learn to live in the gray area. We both strongly feel that this particular moment in time offers an important opportunity and context to practice and refine critical thinking skills.
A concerning aspect of Fake News, for me, is that it seemingly has become a phrase to label a broader and broader range of information we’re presented with online. The phrase certainly can (and should) be used as a way to label legitimately fictionalized news reports written and spread within the network, but interestingly, Fake News has also been used to describe the following:
- Slanted or overtly biased reporting
- Reporting that intentionally or unintentionally misrepresents certain information
- Controversial or hotly-debated topics, issues, or problems
- Unfavorable opinions or perspectives, or opinions that don’t align with one’s own personal biases.
In my view, this expanding scope is what necessitates further examination and dialogue about Fake News, critical thinking, and information literacy. I see this unit as an opportunity for teachers and students to think and work together, with the shared purpose of better understanding how and why Fake News is a cultural problem, how perspectives different than our own are shaped and maintained, and how we approach the hard work of making conscious determinations about who to trust and what is credible.
Why are you choosing a digital format for the textbook?
Heather: This decision was largely made for us by the publisher and the market, but I’m glad to be working in a digital format. We’re able to make more extensive use of a nonlinear presentation of our materials that teachers can adapt to suit their own needs. We also get to play with ideas like having playlists of our materials or linking out to videos and other up-to-date content with greater ease. The digital textbook is also more interactive–for teacher and student.
Another way to say all of this is that the digital textbook remediates the print textbook, as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin would describe it. With remediation, there is a quality of newness created as one uses the digital medium that comes from refashioning traditional media forms, with which it is always in comparison. I’ve enjoyed the way that thinking through the newness of online textbooks has allowed us to deepen application of our pedagogies–whether that be to craft interactive components that enable the student to see their growth and take responsibility for developing a more reflective or critical perspective throughout the unit or to help them see their roles as not only more critical consumers, but also savvy producers of multimedia texts in the dizzying post-truth age.
Jarret: We created this unit with a non-linear approach, so that teachers can remix or re-envision the content of the unit based on their individual needs for the class. Our units have suggested arcs, but we also encourage teachers to develop their own content trajectories and supplement our materials with any of their own. The activities we developed ask students to create and reflect in a range of different ways, often prompting them to record and upload their thinking and findings via videos, audio projects, and other multimodal texts.
We also felt a digital format would be the best option for this textbook because it is important to us that these individual units have the ability to easily adapt and evolve. Part of the problem we have with physical textbooks is that it doesn’t take long for ideas, examples, and case studies to become stale and outdated after they are written and published. We thought a digital format would help us to stay ahead of the curve.
More About Heather and Jarret
Heather Fester, Ph.D., teaches creative writing and composition courses as an instructor in the First-Year Rhetoric and Writing Program at at UCCS, and her research interests include alternative rhetorics and composing processes, the intersection of composition studies and creative writing, poetic theory, liberatory and contemplative pedagogies, Ann E. Berthoff’s impact on composition studies, and the rhetoric of ideologies.
Jarret Krone, MA, is an instructor in the First-Year Rhetoric and Writing Program at UCCS. He has been working closely with LAS students to reimagine rhetorical analysis using multimodal formats. His research interests include digital pedagogy and digital rhetorics.
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