Fulbright Workshop: Fake News

I’m reporting back from Norway, where I am about two months into the Fulbright program. (Information about my Fulbright & my introductory thoughts upon arriving in Norway.) Here are some gratuitous shots of mountains and fjords in case you were worried that Norway is boring.

Back to actual work: there has been a lot to consider and digest while I spend time in Norwegian schools. I have thoughts about the differences between Norwegian schools and American schools and where this differences matter and where they do not. I am still parsing out a lot of these things and what they mean–if they mean anything at all. I will write again later about some larger trends that I have observed and what conclusions I think we can draw from them, but first, I wanted to go through one of my workshops and discuss the responses that I have gotten to it so far.

The Fulbright that I have is unique to Norway. Instead of doing a research project or teaching in a university, I am traveling around the country meeting with students and teachers in upper secondary schools (ages 16-18) and giving workshops on American culture and history. I have to have at least five workshops that I can rotate so schools can pick between subjects that might be of interest to them or fit in with the curriculum they are currently teaching. I currently have seven workshops and one of them that I added towards the end–fake news has been one of the most popular.

It is not a huge surprise that fake news is a popular workshop. It is a big topic of interest not only in the U.S. right now but also across the world. I have found that Norwegian students are good at reading the news i.e. not just absorbing it but applying their critical thinking skills to what they are reading. However, many students I have talked to also get their information from social media, particularly Youtube commentators. While they have good answers about how to spot fake news on the internet–check your sources, find supporting information, etc.–the fact that they get so much information from Youtube makes me think that this lesson is worthwhile for them.

The Lesson 

I usually start by asking for their examples of fake news. Many students will have an example in mind, and this can be a nice ice breaker. Often students think of funny examples, which get the room laughing. If they can’t think of any I usually throw out one that is reoccurring, like so and so celebrity is dead, or give them an example from the U.S. election last year, such as the Pope endorsed Donald Trump.

We discuss how fake news is stories that are posted to deliberately mislead the audience. I point out to them though that this is often done on purpose it is also important to consider that some posters and authors, for that matter, post things that are fake because they are unaware of the truth themselves. That is, while some people are trying to spread misinformation, other are just confused about the truth. I, then, mention the fact that there are fake news sites that generate fake news on purpose to parody or satirize the news. I use The Onion as an example (just in case you are wondering Norwegian students have no idea what The Onion is) and then ask them for their own examples.

Next, we look at examples of fake news. I start with this example of the shark that was spotted on the freeway in Houston.

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This example works well because students can actually analyze the picture. Ask them: why does this not seem plausible? and they will have many answers: from sharks don’t live in fresh water to when someone says, “believe it or not,” don’t believe them. Students are also interested to know that this picture has been used before the hurricane in Houston. I like to say that this shark has been to multiple natural disasters. This is important to hear because it shows that fake news is not just about an isolated incident but a culture of misinformation.

I also talk about Russian interference in the U.S. election. It has been such big news that it would be hard to talk about fake news without mentioning it. I have been using this article, “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election,” from the New York Times about fake Facebook profiles. I picked it because it allows us to consider the role of social media in spreading both real news and fake news. While students confirm that Facebook isn’t cool to use, they still use it and many other social media sites. It helps to connect in a clear way fake news and their social media use. Fake news can seem like other people’s problems: “I wouldn’t fall for fake news,” most students are probably thinking during this lesson. But when we examine this fake profile, I often get more examples of fake stories, fake information, and fake profiles they have seen online. It helps make an abstract problem concrete.

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So far we have a lot of information for students, but you might be wondering what students do with this information. Don’t worry I have an answer. And I am just going to pat myself on the back here for one second, because it takes a lot of work to 1) introduce yourself to students 2) introduce them to a concept and 3) get them to put those ideas to use in 90 minutes. This is especially true when they have never met this strange native English speaker before and aren’t so sure that they should trust her. What I have students do is to use the skills we talk about to decide whether an news article is real or fake news.

Before we work on an article, I discuss the concept of news literacy, which I explain as not only being able to literally read the news but being about to read it in a critical manner. I use information from the Center for News Literary (@NewsLiteracy) at Stony Brook University, the News Literacy Project, this NPR article by Steve Inskeep, and this excellent chart from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (available in English & Norsk).

 

To find an easily digestable article, I turned to the website Factitious, which I read about in this NPR article. Factitious gives players a series of articles, and they have to register if the article is real or fake news by swiping left and right. I pick one article from the website and have students work in groups to decided if it is real or fake. This allows students to put all of what we have talked about to use. They have to decide if the article is real or fake and give at least one reason as to why. This is successful regardless of if students get the answers right or wrong because it encourages them to use their critical thinking skills. Working in groups usually helps here because often students don’t want to make a grand declaration of it is right or wrong on their own.

The whole lesson moves quickly, but I think that students have been getting something out of it. If nothing else, they are exposed to the definition of fake news and the idea of using news literacy to combat it. I always tell them that we can’t solve fake news issues on our own, but I do think that being informed consumers and talking to others about fake news can at least make a minor dent in our fake news world.

Feel free to use these ideas for yourself, and if you do, please let me know how it goes. Below I have a few ideas that expand this lesson and some resources related to fake news.

 Ideas for Future Lessons 

  1. I’m increasingly interested in how to present topics to students that encourage them to think beyond their own positions. What I mean by this, is that it is easy for Norwegian students to understand the fake news that is at play in the U.S.–they read a lot about the U.S. and are familiar with what is going on there, and it is easy for them to see how their news system is very tame compared to U.S. news. If I had them for more than one class period though, I would try to get them to see fake news at work in even more places. Two possible examples that this could be done with are 1) This video from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee about how fake news was combated in Finland. 2) The podcast from Rough Translation on fake news in Ukraine. The point of incorporating examples like these into a further lesson would not just be to add more instances but to interrogate how increasingly global our issues are. Both American and Norwegian students I have taught have trouble seeing outside of themselves and the concerns of their day-to-day lives. It is easy for Norwegians to critique the U.S. because the U.S. because it makes so much news in Norway that it becomes part of their daily experience. But the world is bigger than the U.S. and Norway. And it is also smaller in that many countries and entities are dealing with the issue of fake news around the globe. Presenting a more global view would help students learn to make critiques on a larger scale.
  2. This article from Buzzfeed on the difference between a conservative and a liberal news feed is quite something. It enters my mind a lot when I think of fake news, and it would be really useful to use in a lesson that focused entirely on social media. It would work great in a class or series of lessons that focused on the 2016 election also.
  3. I almost end the fake news class with this chart by Vanessa Otero. A few times I have asked Norwegian students to make a chart for their own news sources. Their chart is less, well, all over the place, but it can still be a useful exercise to think of the way that sources work in relation to each other. Another interesting thing might be to cover alternate charts made by outlets like InfoWars as discussed in this MarketWatch piece. kP4Yax1

Resources 

There are new stories almost everyday about fake news. Here are a few that I have used to build my lesson with the caveat that the information around fake news is so prolific that this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

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Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

This fall, I’m teaching an upper-level literature course on nineteenth century American women writers. It’s a big class, full of mostly English and Gender Studies majors and minors. This is the second time I’ve taught this course, but the first time I’ve included Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.

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(Note: in the 19th century, the Ojibwe people were variously known as Chippewa, Ojibwe, and Anishinaabe. Anishinaabe is the name that is most in use now. Schoolcraft used the name “Ojibwe” to describe herself, so, following scholar Robert Dale Parker, that’s the word I’ll use too.)

Born in 1802, Schoolcraft (whose Ojibwe name was Bamewawagezhikaquay, or “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky”) was one of a large métis (French for “mixed”) population in her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, located on the border of the Michigan Territory and Canada. The daughter of an Irish immigrant and an Ojibwe mother; a bilingual speaker and poet; the métis wife of a white man, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first U.S. Indian Agent in the Michigan territory; highly educated and among Sault Ste. Marie’s social elite; possessing both Romantic and Ojibwe sensibilities; married to another literary writer but not publishing in her lifetime; writing within the poetic conventions of her time—Schoolcraft is a complex figure, and because of this I thought she’d be a great writer to begin the course. I wanted to get students thinking immediately about nineteenth century women as not easily categorized, to get them used to holding contradictions and complexities in their minds without trying to oversimplify these women’s lives or their art.

sound the stars make

Robert Dale Parker’s excellent scholarly edition of Schoolcraft will give you everything you need to get going with this poet: a thorough and engaging introduction to her life and work; all of her known poems and prose; and extremely helpful notes on each poem that detail, as best as can be known, when it was written, in whose handwriting (Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s or Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s) it was found, whether it is a translation, and if so, if it was translated by Jane or by Henry. Often, it’s not clear who wrote or translated what (something Parker does not gloss over but lets be, in all of its complexity).

I asked students to read all of the poems from the Parker edition for the next class period (but to focus on a handful of poems I wanted to make sure to cover in class discussion). Each day, I asked students to reread all the poems while focusing particularly on the poems we’d be discussing in class.

A three-day Schoolcraft plan

I had three days for Schoolcraft, though I wanted more. (Our terms are ten weeks long at my school, so pretty much every writer gets about three days, unless they’ve written an exceptionally long novel—looking at you, Harriet Beecher Stowe.) I tried some different strategies each day to shake things up—and also, since it was the start of the term, so students could quickly get used to the kinds of things I like to do in my courses. This term, I’m ditching the short weekly papers I usually assign in favor of daily informal writing: one or two paragraphs due each class (done mostly outside of class, but sometimes in class) which I am hoping are low-stakes enough to encourage students to play around more, make more of a mess, and take more risks with their ideas. In addition to daily writing, we are using a variety of multimedia, looking at other 19th c. texts and visual materials to provide context, and diving into literary criticism.

Day 1: The Way In

Writing focus: Personal response

Thematic focus: Nature

Poems discussed: “To the Pine,” “To the Miscodeed,” “On the Doric Rock, Lake Superior,” “Pensive Hours”

It makes sense to me to do a more personal writing assignment on the first day of a new writer, particularly with nineteenth century poetry, which may at first feel old-fashioned and off-putting to even the perkiest English major. I think it’s good to encourage students that any way into the poems they can find is a good way in, and that they don’t need to be intimidated by this poetry.

On the first day of class (the syllabus-introductions day), toward the end, I put the names of four Schoolcraft poems—none of which the students had read yet—on the board and asked students to choose one. Then I asked them a few simple questions, which I adapted from an exercise by Lynn Hammond that I first found in the always useful Engaging Ideas, by John Bean:

  • Why did you choose this title over the other ones?
  • What in this title would draw you into the poem—would make you want to read it? (Or conversely, is there anything in this title that causes resistance or makes you not want to read this poem?)
  • Based on the title of the poem, what do you expect this poem to be about?

From here, I told students to keep what they had written and, for next time, to write about whether their expectations were met once they actually read the poem in question.

I learned that for many students, familiar nature imagery (pine trees) was the draw, although a few brave students made their choice based on their lack of familiarity with title words (like the miscodeed flower, also called “spring beauty”). Other students chose a poem set on Lake Superior because we are in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula isn’t that far away from us. Many students were surprised at what “miscodeed” was (they guessed all kinds of things). Others were comforted by the simple fact that Schoolcraft felt such a connection to pine trees (as one student said, “I have a thing for pine trees”).

spring-beauty-splash

This first day on Schoolcraft, we talked about her as a Romantic poet and a nature poet, as well as how her métis identity and geographical region may have influenced her writing. I supplemented this lecture with lots of visuals: pictures of the miscodeed flower, 19th century maps of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and photos of Lake Superior so students could get a visual sense of Schoolcraft’s relation to place.

doric rock

Day 2: Form, Genre, Contexts

Writing focus: Annotation

Thematic focus: Motherhood

Formal focus: Elegy, child elegy

Poems discussed: “Elegy: On the death of my Son William Henry, at St. Mary’s,” “Sonnet,” “To my ever beloved and lamented son William Henry,” “Sweet Willy”

Our second day on Schoolcraft, we discussed her wrenching child elegies, written after the death of her oldest child, William Henry, from croup at the age of two. I wanted students to really dig into the poems’ formal qualities, so the informal writing assignment due in advance of this class was an annotation. Since Megan Ciesla has recently discussed annotation in detail on this site, I won’t say much more about this except try it—it’s old school, and that’s part of the fun for students. I, too, asked students to do the annotation by hand (either in their books or on a photocopy of a page if they don’t want to write in the book) and then take a photo and upload it. I printed them all out (speaking of old school) and then graded them by hand (my usual practice). There’s something really interesting in seeing where students will go when they’re not typing and not thinking “Essay! Must write essay!” I found that most of them uncovered much, much more about the poems’ formal qualities than they might have mentioned if I had had them write a few paragraphs of analysis instead. There was no opportunity for summary, so they had to jump right in and analyze.

informal writing #2 copy

To give students context during class, I put up slides of other poets’ poems from the period: Lydia Sigourney’s “To a Dying Infant,” which allowed us to talk more about the child elegy genre of the period; and Ann Taylor’s “My Mother,” a poem that directly influenced the form of Schoolcraft’s poem “To my ever beloved and lamented Son William Henry.” Because students had thought so much about the craft of the poems in their annotations, they were better able to make connections between stylistic commonalities: similar imagery in Sigourney and Schoolcraft, for example, or similar use of refrains and questions in Taylor and Schoolcraft.

taylor my mother
Courtesy of Florida State University’s Special Collections and Archives blog

Day 3: Criticism, revision, and translation

Writing focus: Taking a position

Thematic focus: Identity, authenticity, ownership

Poems discussed: “Invocation,” “The Contrast,” “Song of the Okogis, or Frogs in Spring,” “On leaving my children John and Jane at School”

Like Corinna Cook, I also assign critical works in class, and I also have students in charge of leading class discussion on those critical works. In the past, these sessions have really fallen flat, but I was trusting to the power of daily informal writing to help us along this time around. Because the discussion-leading group would be outlining the larger points of the article with us, I decided to focus the informal writing assignment a bit more tightly. For this class, I asked students to choose one small point from the article they read (Bethany Schneider’s “Not for Citation: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Synchronic Strategies”) and to make one of these argumentative moves with it: to say “No,” to say “Yes,” or to say “Maybe, but” (which I am again stealing from Bean! Y’all see what I was rereading this summer). Students then had to write 1-2 paragraphs explaining their response.

This article proved extremely difficult for students (it’s quite dense and complex), but that didn’t prove a deterrent to class discussion. I was surprised and thrilled that our class discussion on this article lasted nearly the whole class long (I had only budgeted for half the class, but students had so much to say that we just went with it). This is a big change from how these article discussions have gone in the past, and I attribute this directly to the targeted informal writing I had students do. They had taken a position on the article and they were ready to share those positions!

Much of Schneider’s article asks readers to consider the interplay between Schoolcraft’s poetry and the writing of others, whether that be husband’s translations of her poems, her own allusions to Romantic poets like Shelley and Keats, or her response to the language of letters she received from acquaintances. So the poems selected for this class were in multiple versions: multiple English versions all written by Schoolcraft; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe and translated into English; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe that were translated by others. It’s not always clear, as Parker makes evident in his wonderful notes and introduction, when an English translation is Jane’s and when it is Henry’s. Our discussion, then, revolved around what we perceive as “authentic,” which typically also involved questions of identity (i.e. how do we “read” Schoolcraft as a person, and how does this affect the way we read her poems? how do we read a Schoolcraft poem if we’re not totally sure she wrote or translated it?).

We spent a long time on the poem “On leaving my children John and Jane at School,” discussing (as Schneider also does) the differences between the three versions that are provided in Parker’s edition of Schoolcraft: Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe version, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s “free” English translation, or a contemporary translation by Dennis Jones, Heidi Stark, and James Vukelich. This is a perfect poem to talk about translation and authenticity. How does seeing these three versions on the page next to one another force us to compare versions and ultimately color our readings of all three versions? Do we believe that the literal version by modern scholars is the one Schoolcraft herself would have made had she chosen to translate this poem into English? Would Schoolcraft’s version have looked more like Henry’s, strictly rhymed and metered and adhering to the conventions of early 19th century poetry—since this is how she writes all of the rest of her English language poetry? Or is there something important (we thought that there was) about the fact that Schoolcraft never translated this particular poem into English?

To end our session on Schoolcraft, I played a recording of Margaret Noodin, an Anishinaabe poet and scholar who is the founder of ojibwe.net (an Anishinaabe language site with recordings of Anishinaabe songs and poems—an amazing resource), singing the Ojibwe version of “On leaving my children John and Jane at School.” Although no one in the class speaks Anishinaabe, we agreed that we were all moved by the beauty of the song. I liked ending the section on Schoolcraft in this way, with an acknowledgment that with any writer we read this term, there will be things we can’t access and can’t understand—but that makes these writers from another time more interesting, not less.