“When politicians toe the party line in every instance, sometimes  speaking absurdities in order to be ideologically consistent, audiences, toeing the same party line, accept these absurdities as facts of rhetorical life. In a post-truth world, audiences do not seek information on which to base their opinions; they seek opinions that support their own beliefs. In a world where facts, realities, and truths are irrelevant, language becomes pure strategy without grounding or reference.” (12)

Bruce McComiskey, Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition (2017)

Course description

In November of 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as their word of the year, “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’” The concept that people form public opinions based on their feelings over facts or logic isn’t actually all that new. See, for example, Stephen Colbert’s funny monologue on truthiness, which was delivered on the Colbert Report almost 12 years ago, during the Bush administration’s tenure.

That said, two global-political events in 2016 produced a significant uptake in the usage of the term “post-truth”: Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union (i.e. Brexit) and the presidential election of outsider conservative candidate Donald Trump in the United States. These events have not only drawn our attention to the importance of emotional appeals that influence our decision making, but to the systems and technologies of information — the individualized media diets — that have gotten us to a moment epitomized by fake news.

As such, this version of Writing, Research, and Technology will ask you to explore the rhetorical, social, and practical dimensions of writing and research in the networked contexts of the post-truth era. You will focus both on the roles of individuals — whether they lean to the left or right of the political spectrum — and the kinds of networks, forces, conventions, and intermediaries that exist in various web systems, both public and private. To accomplish this, you will: (1) read about the contexts for post-truth; (2) begin to interrogate fake news by fact-checking with web-based research; and (3) collaboratively inquire into the various systems that undergird post-truth reality.

After examining the political, cultural, economic, technological, and psychological factors that led to the rise of post-truth and fake news, you will consider how these contexts continue to play out in everyday, online spaces. Using Mike Caulfield’s recent, free, open-source textbook, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, you will learn how to read and write a bit different on the web by doing things like “going upstream” and “reading laterally.” You’ll finish this first unit by composing a fact-checking campaign on a recent controversial fact, statement, or argument.

In the last unit, you will then probe deeper into the socio-technical systems that continue to sustain our current reality, asking questions about how certain codes, social habits, economies, and discourses affect our rhetorical choices online. Using digital research tools and working in teams, you will describe one technological phenomenon that has played a role in shaping our realities and share with us an effective counter-technology — that is, a tool or practice — for helping us deflect, expose, or manage it better. 

Writing Arts Core Values

Like other courses in the Writing Arts sequence, this one is informed by the major’s core values (note: for more details on how these can help you with Portfolio Seminar, see the document “Questions to Help Further Your Understanding of the Department of Writing Arts Core Values”).

Important: If you are a Writing Major, you will need to use specific textual evidence from your writing in this course once you get to Portfolio Seminar. You will then demonstrating how you accomplished various learning outcomes, by pulling from various reflections, blog posts, or other pieces you create in the course.

While WRT touches upon every value to some extent, the following will be explicitly emphasized:

  • Value 3. Writing Arts students will demonstrate the ability to critically read complex and sophisticated texts in a variety of subjects.
  • Value 4: Writing Arts students will be able to investigate, discover, evaluate, and incorporate information in the creation of text.
  • Value 6: Writing Arts students will understand the impact evolving technologies have on the creation of written texts.
  • Value 7: Writing arts students will show an understanding of the power of the written word and that such power requires ethical responsibilities in its application.

How will these values play out in our day-to-day interactions? Many of our activities in the first unit especially will involve reading and annotating complex and sophisticated texts written by professional writers and scholars which will provide a framework for understanding how claims to facts, truth, and reality are mediated (Value 3). We will then use this framework to produce a series of blog posts that checks the facts on various claims made online. As part of that work, you will learn specific research strategies that put you in a position to incorporate information into your posts that attempt to craft a more truthful picture of what’s going on (Value 4); in the latter half of the course we will then specifically look at the ways in which these dubious actors are supported by socio-technical systems that reward authors for their irresponsibility. Thus, you will work with a group to develop critical counter-technologies that attempt to produce a more ethical engagement with mediation (Value 7). Of course, throughout each of these units we will discuss how evolving technologies have impacted the creation of written texts (Value 6) in terms of mediation, identity, publics, and ethics.

Major Assignments

NOTE: My teaching is flexible and responds to your evolving needs as the course progresses. This is one of the reasons I use a blog to organize course content. As such, you might notice that I will communicate more specific information about our learning goals and assignments as we get closer to certain deadlines. Although no new information will be given, my responsibility is to help you develop ways to respond to course challenges as you encounter them and communicate them with me. Please use the unit pages as well as the daily plan blog to help you in this regard. Each of the following units is worth 100 points for a total of 300 possible points in the course. See the individual assignments (links are nested above) for more details. In the meantime, here is a quick overview:

Unit 1 | Reading reality [Weeks 1-3]

The first unit aims to provide a context for post-truth and fake news by offering five frames (politics, economics, culture, psychology, and technology) while also introducing three methods of annotation, including those designed for print and digital/web texts. You are expected to read and carefully annotate each text and at the end of three weeks, reflect on both the process and frames we discussed in class.

Unit 2 | Fact-Checking the stream [Weeks 4-8]

As one of your assigned readings points out, recent research tells us that many people, especially students, have a difficult time evaluating information on the web. And although the future of trust online might be headed for better days, the reality is that digitally-networked spaces require a different kind of toolkit than those offered through traditional, print-based literacies.  In this second unit, then, you will learn several of these approaches and practice describing your process by blogging on your own WordPress blog. This unit will end with a more sustained fact-check on an issue of your choosing.

Unit 3Counter-Technologies for Digital Literacy [weeks 9-14]

In the final unit, we will inquire deeper into the forces affecting digital literacy, shifting to understand the social, cultural, and economic trends that have increasingly required such savvy fact-checking strategies. In teams of four, you will identify and research these forces, select readings for the class, and lead us in a large-group discussion that spans our classroom and social media. Because some of these forces threaten the foundations of our democracy, our discussions risk becoming a bit depressing; as such, a significant and essential part of your time will also be spent teaching us about one effective counter-technology — a tool or practice that can help writers and researchers resist, expose, or otherwise mitigate these forces. 


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