Media Literacy in The Age of Fake News and Big Data: Course Debrief and Reflections

Students in my Media Literacy course looked at archival materials in the John Hay Library at Brown University.

Earlier this month I taught a two-week course titled “Leadership and Media Literacy in The Age of Fake News and Big Data” for the Brown Leadership Institute. My first teaching job (way back in 2003!) was with a summer reading enrichment program for K-12 students, so it was fun to pick up teaching high school students again fifteen years (!) later. I wanted to reflect on some of the things I learned from this experience, since I know that some folks on Twitter seemed interested in the class. I’m not sharing the syllabus here because it has lots of “Leadership Institute” stuff in it that ties it pretty explicitly to the programs particular aims and pedagogical contexts. That being said, here are three major areas of inquiry for the course that I provided to parents, relatives, students, and my Leadership Institute colleagues at our session’s closing remarks:

The history of media and the long history of Fake News: We started with an overview of “pre-digital” media and data contexts by inventorying and describing popular forms of media and the material conditions informing their use and reception. A major component of this work involved collaborating with and talking to local archivists: specifically, Heather Cole at the John Hay Library and María Victoria Fernández at the John Carter Brown Library. Heather was gracious enough to show students a wide assemblage of archival materials relevant to the course’s investments in propaganda, activism, and small and large sites of circulation. Together we looked at copies of The Black Panther newspaper and Marvel’s Black Panther comic book, LGBTQAI zines, anti-slavery almanacs, and early attempts to falsely attribute work to William Shakespeare (documents that came with what they claimed were literal locks of hair from The Bard’s head!). María introduced us to the various challenges that the JCB faces in digitizing and disseminating its materials online, attempts to connect primary texts held by elite institutions to highly-trafficked, networked, and more accessible resources like Wikipedia, and ongoing efforts to consider the roles digital tools and their users might play in efforts to decolonize archival spaces.

We also discussed various attempts to misrepresent, falsify, deceive, or otherwise manipulate audiences in these pre-digital spaces (like the Shakespeare example), but to be honest we didn’t do as much of this as I’d originally planned (we discussed them in digital contexts). I’m halfway through Kevin Young’s Bunk and I think that book and other resources might give me some ideas if I revisit this topic.

Algorithms and Filter Bubbles: Two of our core texts, introduced at the start of the course, were Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression and Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble. These perspectives helped frame our discussions of the ways factors like algorithms, feeds, filters, and facets shape our view of the web in explicit and implicit ways. The goal here was not just to raise awareness of these conditions (some students had a general sense of the factors shaping their online experiences, but didn’t have this particular research or vocabulary) but to consider how we respond to these conditions.

More general discussions of bias and objectivity came up, but it was important for me to ask students to think about what happens after we recognize and are made aware of certain rhetorical strategies, attempts to construct “facts,” interpretations of reality. In other words, I didn’t want the conversations they were having and the work they were doing to end with an acknowledgement that subjectivity exists in the world and is inescapable: I wanted them to think about what they might do with this knowledge as it relates to digital spaces and contexts. Noble and Pariser are also great models here, given their interests in non-academic audiences and in changing perceptions as well as the material conditions that create the problems they identify.

A visualization of student data created in Media Literacy class. Student names have been redacted in the interest of privacy.

Living in The Age of Big and Small Data and Networked Information: This interest in answering the questions “so what?” or “what now?” led us to think about how data (and more specifically, our ideas of data) presents many ethical challenges and concerns even as they open up new modes of reading, organizing, telling stories, and accessing information. This “so what?” question get a bit big and general, so we tried to ground it with a look at data visualizations as well as opportunities for digital activism. These two areas have a bit of overlap, but they were introduced separately.

With the discussions of data and data visualizations, I wanted students to describe and document the ideas of data they brought to the class, to think about the ways that data-oriented conditions of reality might be beneficial, harmful, messy, or too ordered, and to consider who read them and valued them as data and why. The digital activist conversations were an attempt in part to talk back to these conditions, but also to consider how activists were using digital means to organize, protest, and network (and here we relied on Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas), and what readings of these actions (positive, dismissive, or in-between) told us about the material realities those readers and authors were invested in or overshadowed by.

Course Reflections: What We Talk About When We Talk About Technology

Inventory of Media Literacy course keywords, completed on the last day of class.

Despite my current standing as an postdoc who institutionally resides in a Public Humanities program (that institutionally resides in an American Studies department), I can’t escape my past life as an English major. Robert Frost once said that “All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it.”  I think I’ve used versions of these lines from his “Education By Poetry” lecture in every digital humanities course I’ve taught. How we talk about technology informs how we think about technology and vice versa, news that is probably not surprising to many reading this but nonetheless worth keeping in mind when creating avenues of inquiry for students. Why is a “feed” called a “feed,” and where have we heard this language used before? When do we casually adopt brand names like “Google” to describe certain online behavior, and what do these tendencies tell us about our investments in these companies? What do our metaphors reveal, and what do they obscure? In assessing the rhetorical strategies and language prevalent in our reflections on life online, we sometimes find that, as Marianne Moore notes, “Omissions are not accidents.”

Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble” metaphor is arguably clunky and definitely breaks down, but it proved to be a useful starting point for classroom conversations about our digital networks, our approaches to social media, our virtual reference desks and sites of news consumption. Students generally found the imagery this metaphor generated (augmented by Pariser’s additional remarks on the subject) helpful when interrogating their own habits of media consumption.  “Gamification” was another term that students gravitated towards, and it was one that they used to describe previous experiences with classroom technology: specifically, their use of Kahoot, “a game-based trivial learning platform used in classrooms, offices, and social settings.” Their associations with Kahoot were mostly positive, and they were surprised to learn that many higher education classrooms didn’t use similar tools. Gamification helped us talk about why this approach resonated with them as well as why it might seem limiting and even troubling as a pedagogical approach (and why instructors at Brown and elsewhere may seem reluctant to use them).

Discussion of memes in Media Literacy

Taking internet memes seriously as forms of cultural knowledge was also a way to talk about what we don’t always like to talk about, in the sense that students were all familiar with and appreciative of particular kinds of memes but weren’t necessarily interested in reflecting on or explaining why they gravitated towards particular types of humor or forms of expression. They were surprised that I had written in an academic way about internet memes (coming soon!), and that the job of “meme librarian” exists in the world. Memes were a useful way for us to ground our larger conversations about archival technologies. We also used memes to talk about the uses of digital spaces to construct and deconstruct identities and ideas of community, spaces that were often dominated by users and discourse conventions who preferred narrower identities and conservative ideas of community and at times explicitly rejected and policed abnormal behavior (this conversation led to a crash-course in panopticism one afternoon!). And we made memes for a homework assignment, an exercise that helped the class see the challenges of doing something that at first glance seemed easy, trivial, inessential. At one point in our discussion of memes I wrote “Memes will never stop” on our classroom whiteboard: it was difficult for us to imagine a digital future where memes had disappeared, a feeling that suggests there may be more work to do on this ubiquitous form of online expression.

One of the tougher “sells” as an engaging concept that resonated with high school students was a discussion of “The Politics of Citation,” a unit in which I took the relatively dry topic of citationality and tried to make it more interesting, in large part because I think it is interesting and should be to them! The ways we talk about and value citation with students (in K-12 and higher ed) often don’t help this cause: our conversation began by considering how we have been introduced to citational conventions, what forms of evaluation followed, and why certain sources (particularly Wikipedia) were rejected without much explanation. We also talked about citation as a methodology that often conflicted with our aesthetic sensibilities regarding cultural knowledge: citations can look and feel messy, disruptive, and distracting, and we should think about where these feelings come from and how we might develop new connotations.

Beyond particular styles of citation like MLA and APA, we talked about what it would mean, for example, to adopt a feminist approach to citationality. Citational records and conventions often reveal the power dynamics behind conventions of knowledge production and argumentation, and Wikipedia’s transparency with regard to its public records of revision and iteration were helpful here. But we also talked about how this transparency doesn’t result in a productive reimagining of citational approaches: we still see Western canonical texts and figures at center stage, we still find ideas and lives and experiences dismissed by gatekeepers who don’t explain their motivations, we still see the institutional forces that limit our views of the world wield their power here. What Wikipedia provided our classroom with was a space to have these sorts of conversations. I’m still working on the mechanics and logistics of these conversations, but I was happy with what came out of these class discussions.   

Overall, it was great to break out of my own educational bubble and work with younger students from a range of backgrounds and educational contexts (I’m not going into much detail on particulars here, for what I hope are obvious reasons). Lots to think about and lots of ways to apply the lessons here to the range of pedagogical spaces I wind up in as an educator and collaborator in digital humanities!

Questions, comments? Feel Free to email me at james_mcgrath[at]brown[dot]edu or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.