Fake News: An Undergraduate Composition Course

Fake News is a themed undergraduate English composition course on research writing. This course aims to help students develop an understanding and practice of empathetic information literacy—a method for sorting out truths and falsehoods while taking into account both intellect and affect, thoughts and feelings. This annotated syllabus presents assignment instructions, teaching notes, and unit calendars for a sequence of essays designed to give students practice with the moves of this method.

Key Terms: Epistemology, Knowledge, Knowledge Claim, Substantive Discourse, Information Literacy, The CRAAP Test


Course Overview

  • 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 undergraduate college writing courses. I designed this course to teach students to recognize, when they encounter claims that may be false or falsely accused of being false, what truth distorting strategies might be at work and to practice truth sorting strategies in response. The course integrates the affective and the intellectual, respecting that the search for truth 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 a sequence of four units, each of which progresses through daily low-stakes reading and writing assignments and in-class activities to culminate in a larger writing project. 

  1. The course begins with readings, discussions, and activities exploring ideas about truth, fake news, factchecking, cognitive bias, logical fallacies, and “truth sorting” (or information literacy) strategies. This unit establishes a purpose and direction for the course. At the end of the unit, students write Essay 1: Personal Philosophy of Truth.
  2. The course proceeds to practicing empathetic information literacy together. This unit leads students through a group research project, with a great deal of support and scaffolding, to help them learn the skills of pausing, asking, caring, checking, and acting. Using this method, students write Essay 2: Are Refugees Fake News?
  3. After students have practiced the method together as a class, the course arrives at applying empathetic information literacy individually. Students now practice on their own the same skills (pausing, asking, caring, checking, and acting) by undertaking research projects of their own choosing. The unit and the course culminates with Essay 3: Choose-Your-Own “Fake News.”
  4. The last and briefest unit of the course asks students to 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.

Pedagogical Background

How the Course Came About

Like many writing teachers, even with pedagogical training, scholarship, and years of trial and error, I have long struggled to teach the research-focused first-year writing course in a way that I find meaningful and that my students find engaging. It’s the research part that’s the bugbear. Many teachers of such 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 tend to 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 the course I’ve been telling you about. 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 academic 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 truths 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 over and against others’ well being. Those who factcheck will be more likely to get 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 some religious references and assumptions. These emerge from the context in which I designed this course, a predominately white Evangelical university in central Florida. Such a context offers distinctive challenges and opportunities. The key challenge is that some (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 tenant 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 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.

Essay 1: Personal Philosophy of Truth

Essay 1: Instructions for Students

What Is Truth and Why Does It Matter to You?

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.

Essay 1: Notes for Teachers

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 that are mentioned in one of expository 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.

Essay 1: 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 him wrong. How could you use techniques from the Bad News game to fool him? 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 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, Chapter 3 “Understanding Online Searches” and Chapter 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, Chapter 5 “Go to the (Primary) Source!” and Chapter 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, Chapter 7 “Exploring the Credibility of Sources” and Chapter 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, Chapter 9 “Additional Strategies and Resources” and Chapter 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?

Day 10

  • Read: Instructions for Essay 1: Personal Philosophy of Truth. Begin working on writing the essay.

Day 11

  • DUE: Essay 1

Essay 2: Practicing Empathetic Information Literacy Together

Essay 2: Instructions for Students

Are Refugees Fake News?

In this essay, we will practice Empathetic Information Literacy together, walking through the five moves 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 moves 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 in a practical way the method of empathetic information literacy.

  • Heading. Format this essay 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, 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 the claim 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.
  • Check. In this section, you will do the actual direct fact checking and truth sorting. You will answer the following questions: What is the source of the claim? What truth storing strategies are being used to lend credence to the claim? What truth distorting strategies might be at work to watch out for? What are other (perhaps more credible) sources saying? And finally, based on your investigation, what is most likely to be true about the claim? This section is where you will cite credible sources. You will cite the source or sources you are using that make the claim. And you will cite credible sources that support or challenge the claim. The source of the claim might be an opinion stated by anyone—while the credible sources must include actual, professional journalism, scholarship, and/or fact checking conducted by people with professional training in those skills who are practicing appropriate truth sorting strategies and publishing their work in a venue with a reputation for professional integrity.
  • Act. Once you have done your best to sort out the truth about this claim, you must act on that truth. In this section, you will describe what your action is. Some possible actions include: directly helping a person who is affected by the topic, donating to an organization that helps people affected by the topic, helping spread accurate awareness and information about the topic, writing to your elected officials to urge them to act with compassion and with accurate information on the topic. Alternatively, if you decide that you cannot determine whether the claim is true, then your action might involve further investigation.
  • Works Cited. Follow MLA formatting.

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 demonstrably 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.

Essay 2: Example Paper

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 OctoHealth 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.

Essay 2: Notes for Teachers

After students have developed a personal and practical philosophy of truth, the “fake news” course gives them an opportunity to actually practice truth seeking. This second unit of the course introduces the empathetic information literacy method—intellectual and affective “moves” for investigating, in the form of a research essay, the accuracy of a given claim. The five 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 go over with students during class (also available here on Writing Commons). Through 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 US without the proper documentation. Each step along the way, we consider what the move 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 move. 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 move, 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 move, we read the primary text for this unit: Valeria Luiselli’s 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 immigration 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 the unit’s research essay, with written assignment instructions and an example paper as guides.

Essay 2: Calendar

Day 12

  • Rest!

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 this chapter 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 this chapter and respond personally.

Day 16

  • Read: Luiselli, Chapter III: “Home.”
  • Daily Writing 12 Again, copy out at least two passages from this chapter and respond personally.

Day 17

  • Read: Luiselli, Chapter IV: “Community.”
  • Daily Writing 13: Again, copy out at least two passages from this chapter and respond personally.

Day 18

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: All Sides, allsides.com/topics/immigration. Sometimes alternative perspectives will be equally credible. Other times they will not.
  • 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: Complete 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

Day 22

  • DUE: Essay 2

Essay 3: Applying Empathetic Information Literacy Individually

Essay 3: Instructions for Students

Choose-Your-Own “Fake News”

This essay will follow precisely the same instructions as the previous essay—the same structure, the same 1000-word minimum, the same MLA formatting, the same grading criteria. So reread the instructions for that essay while working on this one. The difference is that now you will be investigating a claim of your own choosing. The claim should be something that is potentially “fake news”—that is to say, something that may be false or that has been called false. If you like, you may partner with classmates to investigate the same topic and share resources. But you must conduct your own investigation, find and read your own sources, and write your own research essay. The only added step for this essay is deciding on a claim to investigate. Then, just as you did before, you will find real-life instances of people making that claim and then launch into practicing the Empathic Information Literacy method, pausing, asking, caring, checking, and acting.

Some examples of possible claims to investigate include:

  • CLAIM: Detox diets improve your health.
  • CLAIM: Cramming works.
  • Claim: Sleep is optional in college.
  • CLAIM: You learn best through your learning style (visual, auditory, etc.).
  • CLAIM: Spanking is healthy for children.
  • CLAIM: Some people are just born better at academics.
  • CLAIM: Global warming is a hoax.
  • CLAIM: Violent video games lead to mass shootings.
  • CLAIM: Millions of people vote illegally in US elections.
  • CLAIM: Genetically modified organism (GMO) food is dangerous to eat.
  • CLAIM: Making abortion illegal stops people from having abortions.
  • Claim: The Civil War was not primarily about slavery.
  • Claim: CNN is fake news.
  • Claim: Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization.
  • CLAIM: Feminists want not equality but for women to have power over men.
  • CLAIM: College is not worth the money.
  • CLAIM: Countries that pay for free healthcare for all go bankrupt.
  • CLAIM: Vaccines cause autism.
  • CLAIM: Accusations of sexual assault are usually false.
  • CLAIM: Essential oils can heal you.
  • CLAIM: It’s best to marry young.
  • CLAIM: Women are less happy in life if they do not have children.
  • CLAIM: Money can’t make people happier.
  • CLAIM: LGBTQ characters now dominate movie and TV roles.
  • CLAIM: Pit bulls and Rottweilers are more dangerous dog breeds.
  • CLAIM: You need to eat meat to stay or become physically strong.
  • CLAIM: Evolution is a “theory” made up without evidence to deny God.
  • CLAIM: White men now have the hardest time getting jobs.
  • CLAIM: The KJV of the Bible is the most accurate translation.

You may also come up with your own claim to investigate. The trick will be to find something that is a matter of fact, rather than a matter of opinion, and something about which there exists a lot of misinformation as well as sufficient credible information.

When choosing a claim, you will probably want to pick something that you already care or are interested or curious about but that you have not yet absolutely made your mind up about. That way you will be motivated enough to investigate but not so “motivated” that you cannot investigate with an open mind.

Essay 3: Notes for Teachers

In this penultimate unit of the fake news course, we move from investigating together a claim, with a great deal of involvement and guidance from the teacher, to each student investigating a claim of their own and finding all of their own sources. The daily activities in this unit mostly consist of reviewing the moves the students are supposed to make, having students share and discuss with their classmates their own work in process, answering questions that arise during the process, and giving students structured and unstructured time during class to write. I have also found it helpful to break the class up into smaller writing groups and meet with them one at a time to talk about their work in progress, a form of “small group” conferencing swapped out for class time. Individual conferencing would also, of course, be beneficial.

Essay 3: Calendar

Day 23

  • Read: Instructions for Essay 3: Choose-Your-Own “Fake News.”
  • Review: Corrigan, “Empathetic Information Literacy.”
  • Daily Writing 18: Select a claim to investigate, something that you think might be “fake news” or something that has been accused of being false. Find at least two examples of people making this claim (or examples of people calling the claim false, if applicable).

Day 24

  • Daily Writing 19: Turn the claim you have chosen to investigate into a genuine question. Consider what the possible answers to the question might be.

Day 25

  • Find and Read, Watch, Listen, Have a Conversation with, Etc.: A text or a person that will help you connect with the human beings—the actual lives—at stake behind the issue you’re investigating.
  • Daily Writing 20: Describe what you did for today’s “reading” and then write or create a personal response.

Day 26

  • Again, Engage: Something or someone that will help you connect with the humans behind the topic.
  • Daily Writing 21: Describe what you did for today’s “reading” and then write or create a personal response.

Day 27

  • Again, Engage: Something or someone that will help you connect with the humans behind the topic.
  • Daily Writing 22: Describe what you did for today’s “reading” and then write or create a personal response.

Day 28

  • Find and Read: At least two credible sources on your topic.
  • Daily Writing 23: Summarize what you are taking away from the sources and why you find them to be credible.

Day 29

  • Find and Read: At least two articles that present a perspective on the topic that contrasts with the ones you’ve already considered.
  • Daily Writing 24: Summarize what you are taking away from the sources you choose and explain whether or not you find them credible.

Day 30

  • Daily Writing 25: 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 31

  • Daily Writing 26: Complete and document at least one action based on what you have found in investigating this topic.

Day 32

  • Work On: Essay 3

Day 33

  • DUE: Essay 3 

Essay 4: Final Reflection

Essay 4: Instructions for Students

What Have You Learned?

Write an informal essay of 750-1500 words reflecting on how you’ve done in the course, what you’ve learned, how you’ve grown, what areas you’d still like to grow in, and how you can apply what you’ve learned in this course in the future. Make sure to include and discuss multiple quotations from (a) the course readings and (b) your own work in the course.

Essay 4: Notes for Teachers

The final week of the course is used to allow students to catch up on any late or missing work they may need to, to look back over the course and reflect on what we’ve learned, and look ahead to how it might apply in the future. For the “final exam,” students write and share with one another a final reflection essay. 

Essay 4: Calendar

Day 34

  • Read: The instructions for Essay 4. Begin writing the essay.

Day 35

  • DUE: Essay 4