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Composition Forum 50, Fall 2022

Review of Ellen C. Carillo and Alice S. Horning’s Teaching Critical Reading and Writing in the Era of Fake News

Mallory Pladus

Carillo, Ellen C., and Alice S. Horning, editors. Teaching Critical Reading and Writing in the Era of Fake News. Peter Lang Inc., 2020.

I approached Ellen C. Carillo’s and Alice S. Horning’s edited collection, Teaching Critical Reading and Writing in the Era of Fake News, with appreciation for the argument that informs much of their work: that writing instruction is strengthened by attention to critical reading pedagogies. I am a staff member at a university writing center, where I have plenty of opportunities, while dialoguing with students at various academic levels about their writing, to identify reading as an area of focus for meaningful revision. My interest in how writing centers, and composition scholars more broadly, can attend to the work of reading brought me to Carillo’s and Horning’s research. This volume, Teaching Critical Reading and Writing in the Era of Fake News, provides a topical lens through which to consider a layered understanding of reading and writing. Carillo and Horning situate the need for new literacies—digital, media, and information literacies—within the context of fast, frequent, and fake news. Their volume imparts to composition instructors the increasing need to focus on critical reading—if they are not already doing so.

The “era of fake news” is Carillo’s and Horning’s term of choice for our information landscape, one in which digital technology and social media, have lowered the barriers for creating and disseminating disinformation. As Carillo and Horning note, disinformation and misinformation are terms that are important to define and distinguish; they seem synonymous but differ according to intention (8). Disinformation describes the act of sharing incorrect information with the intention to mislead, while misinformation describes the act of sharing information that happens to be incorrect. The volume’s introduction explains that the term fake news communicates the political entanglement of disinformation, the “politically-charged manipulation of information” that we have all encountered (Carillo and Horning 8). As I’ll explain in more detail below, I wanted from the collection more of a critical apparatus around this title term than was provided. Still, the volume is clear about its twofold goals: 1) to “help faculty understand where students are with respect to reading and understanding the information they encounter on a daily basis,” and 2) to “help faculty improve students’ critical reading, writing, and thinking abilities” (Carillo and Horning 1). The collection is successful on both counts.

The volume is organized into three parts. Part I focuses on Disciplinary Responses to the Era of Fake News; Part II explores Composition Classroom Practices; and Part III covers Teaching Visual and Digital Media Literacy. I’ll highlight here several of the chapters from Part II, as they specifically contextualize digital, media, and information literacies within composition classrooms. One of my main takeaways from reading this section was finding that a focus on new literacies entails teaching new texts—ones that might be unfamiliar to composition instructors.

For instance, in the chapter Factual Dispute: Teaching Rhetoric and Complicating Fact-Checking with The Lifespan of a Fact, Danielle Koupf describes the experience of teaching this unconventional book, published in 2012, that features John D’Agata’s essay about a teenager’s suicide in Las Vegas and Jim Fingal’s annotations in his effort to fact-check it. The Lifespan of a Fact showcases the debate over D’Agata’s creative license to tell a “true” story and Fingal’s adherence to the “facts” of the matter. Their exchange helps to generate in readers a sense of skepticism, particularly toward facts. As Koupf explains, the book conveys that even when it comes to the reporting of events, “Writing is a representation, not a reproduction” (Koupf 93). This perspective on writing has important implications for the way students view and consume news. As a result, Koupf notes that The Lifespan of a Fact “combin[es] rhetorical education with information literacy” (93). Students learn from the text that “all writing is a rhetorical construction, even the writing of facts” (Koupf 93). The chapter suggests that discerning accuracy in the news involves understanding that even nonfiction accounts have a point of view.

While Koupf’s chapter focuses on one text as a useful teaching resource, the chapter Fighting Fake News with Critical Reading of Digital-Media Texts, by Lilian W. Mina with student authors Dakota Mills and Shifat Niha, includes several texts, broadly defined, that anchor the learning goal for a writing-intensive seminar on “Seeing the Unseen.” Mina says of this goal that “Students should be critical readers of the digital texts they encounter and consume all the time” (95). Developing students’ critical digital reading skills, as Mina explains, means helping them to interrogate content and how they perceive it. To this end, the course incorporates viral videos as a text for study and aims for students to “learn how to assess the authenticity and credibility of the content that invades their social media spaces” (Mina 99). This personalized element to the course—equipping students to bring a more trained eye to their own digital spaces—extends to the course texts as well. Mina explains that in a unit centered on Media Bias, the course invites students to assess the bias of their own preferred media outlets. Additionally, in a unit on Digital Content, students are invited to run their own photographs through tools from The Citizen Evidence Lab, a platform that authenticates user-generated content (Mina 103).

The chapter News as Text: A Pedagogy for Connecting News Reading and Newswriting, written by Kristina Reardon, caps the “Composition Classroom Practices” section and highlights news as a genre for students to study and compose. Reardon argues that a news report, often brief and governed by clear generic expectations, is well-suited for first-year composition courses. Moreover, Reardon suggests that long-form news and features lend themselves to “rhetorical and interpretive reading”—that is, reading that blends opportunities for analysis with “meaning creating and interpretation” (162). In this way, the tasks of critically reading and writing the news develop a mutually informing relationship: reading the news enhances students’ abilities to write news reports, and writing enhances students’ capacities to be informed, analytical readers of the news stories they encounter every day. Reardon explains that “Such an approach helps students come to terms with the so-called truthiness of what they read in their daily newsfeeds by identifying and questioning the rhetorical framing of the news” (173).

In the quote above, Reardon refers to the commentator and comedian Stephen Colbert’s notion of truthiness (as described by Ben Zimmer in The New York Times). Colbert’s idea is that truthiness captures the feeling of truth, a feeling that has precedence over facts. Reardon unpacks the benefits of prompting students to analyze truthiness in their newsfeeds: “Sitting with a story,” she explains, “even a manipulative one—teaches students to not just label stories in a binary way but rather to treat a story as a narrative to unravel, one whose narrators might be unreliable for particular reasons, intentional or unintentional” (165). As a reader, I found myself pausing on key terms that circulate in the volume, such as truthiness and rhetorical framing, and considering how they productively complicate the concept of fake news. The collection shows that there is a seductive simplicity to fake news, in that labeling news as “fake” forecloses difficult conversations; and when wielded by political figures, the claim of fake news can avert being held to account for things one has said or done. The contributors in this volume question, challenge, and expand the term in interesting ways, so much that as I read, I became less certain that fake news can support the unraveling work that Reardon describes—the work that is part and parcel of critical reading. For this reason, I wanted more of a critical framework around the title term.

Even so, the volume has many more strengths to mention. As described above, the chapters offer a range of ideas for instructors looking to incorporate new texts into composition courses: hybrid texts, such as The Lifespan of a Fact, digital texts, such as viral videos, and even a pedagogy structured around news-as-text. Another strength to highlight is the way the collection emphasizes and attends to the affective component of news. The chapter “Hacking Fake News: Tools and Technologies for Ethical Praxis,” by Stephanie West-Puckett, Genoa Shepley, and Jessica Gray cites “heightened emotional responses” as one of the hallmark traits of fake news (233). Taken together, the chapters convey that fake news, viral videos, and social media stories have a pace to them, not just evident in the rate at which they are produced and shared but in the way in which they are often cursorily consumed. I was struck by a through-line within the collection, that critical reading, which emphasizes a purposeful, self-aware reading practice, can productively slow the pace of news consumption and downgrade heightened emotions. Scholars and instructors who are interested in a literacy pedagogy that takes student affect into account might also consult Carillo’s Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America (2018).

Carillo and Horning write in the introduction that “this volume ultimately contributes to discussions about what instructors can do in and beyond first-year writing courses to attend more consistently, deliberately, and effectively to reading in their classes” (10). Teaching Critical Reading and Writing in the Era of Fake News provides strategies for dovetailing course reading and writing, and the angle of fake news contextualizes the need for critical reading pedagogies. Altogether, the contributors seem less interested in students’ abilities to parse real from fake and seem much more invested in helping students to develop the skills that have long been considered essential for critical literacy, including interpretation, synthesis, reflection, and discernment. This volume is a tool for helping students derive and create meaning from the texts that call on them most, including the news.

Works Cited

Carillo, Ellen C., and Alice S. Horning, editors. Teaching Critical Reading and Writing in the Era of Fake News. Peter Lang Inc., 2020.

Zimmer, Ben. Truthiness. The New York Times Magazine, 13 October 2010, p. 22.

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