Corrigan’s Editorial Note: I designed and taught a first-year writing course on the theme of Fake News. I asked students to write four essays. The first grounded the course in an exploration of what truth is, why it matters, how to sort it out, and how to avoid being duped by those who would distort it. The second and third asked students to practice truth sorting, first together as a class and then independently, using a method I call Empathetic Information Literacy. My student Olivia Mann did excellent work throughout the whole course and then edited her writing afterward for it to appear here. This is the fourth of her four essays.
When I registered for classes the summer before my freshman year of college, I had no idea what English Composition II had in store for me. The rich adventure mirrored my personal journey through that semester, it gave me chances to change and grow that I never knew I needed. Throughout the course, I learned so much more than just writing techniques. I developed as a person and a citizen of the world. What I am getting out of this class is not what I expected to gain from the experience, but I couldn’t be happier. The skills and understanding I have gained will reach far beyond this class into my future life—equipping me for real-world situations and encounters. To quote Dr. Corrigan, “sometimes we’re not right and there’s no one around to tell us,” so we have to have the tools to make informed determinations for ourselves. His course would show me how to utilize truth sorting and empathy for research, while firmly allowing me to determine what truth means, and discover what the opposite can look like.
The first book we read for this course, Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Demagoguery and Democracy, taught me that “feeling certain is not the same thing as being right.” And while “democracy is hard [and] demagoguery is easy,” she taught me the power of empathy: “demagoguery about ‘them’ is undone by empathy.” This book helped me grow in a greater understanding of the fake news and distortion going on in the world around me. Demagoguery is a big-picture problem that pits “us” against “them,” boiling down an argument to who is saying it, rather than what is being said. Investigation of the facts is unnecessary in demagoguery because “we” must be right, and “they” must be wrong. The book taught me that “reducing how much our culture relies on demagoguery is our problem, and up to us to solve,” inspiring me to develop a yearning for truth and a desire to act on that truth. I specifically enjoyed the section about different fallacies and how we can spot and potentially combat them. As the book says, “our differences make our decisions stronger” while demagoguery “tells us we’re good, and they’re bad, that we were right all along, and that we don’t need to think about things carefully or admit we’re uncertain. It provides clarity.” If we do not accept our differences and be willing to listen to the other side, we end up stuck in a pattern where anyone that disagrees with us is evil. Unfortunately, sometimes we can be wrong, and if we can never admit that and consider other perspectives, we will add to the distortion. We have to learn to ask questions even of what seems certain. This was a vital thing I took away from the course. Additionally, I found it fascinating and eye-opening about the role of the media in this demagoguery. Patricia Roberts-Miller explains that they practice inoculation by presenting “dumbed-down (or fabricated) versions of opposition’s arguments.” Because it is all made to seem so simple, we don’t ask the questions we should.
Through “Demagoguery and Democracy” and Dr. Corrigan’s lessons, I learned how to recognize truth distorting and how to practice truth sorting. I was able to develop my own philosophy on truth and what exactly makes truth true. In my first essay for the course, we were asked to define what makes truth true. I wrote, in part:
Your personal morals balance the frequent coldness of “facts”, while multiple perspectives balance your morals. Then, the perspectives can also balance the “facts” by more fully representing the many sides to a complex issue. But without those “facts”, we would forever be uncertain if we were being tricked, persuaded, or incorrect. We need all three of these components working in harmony and tandem in order to get to the truth.
I believed that it was this balance and harmony that would lead to the truth. In a way, the rest of the course, especially Dr. Corrigan’s plan for Empathetic Information Literacy, would support this little theory of mine. Additionally, I continued on in that first essay to explain that there is a correlation between consequences and motivating a change of action, but that there is also tremendous power in “why.” “A child might obey ‘because I said so’, but it will not teach them why they shouldn’t perform the action long-term. We have to start with an explanation of why and end with a warning of what could happen.”
As we moved on with these ideas to the research essays we wrote following the Empathetic Information Literacy method, I gained the tools and skills to navigate this world of “fake news.” Dr. Corrigan taught me that “a mind is not for holding truths but for seeking truths” and “love is a powerful resource in the search.” I learned and grew in my ability to pause, ask, care, check, and act. The discussions and research we needed to do to practice these steps helped me get out of my comfort zone—they taught me to be okay with being a little bit uncomfortable.
I also learned to pause, even in aspects of my life other than truth sorting. In our course, this step is designed to be a deliberate mental recess. We are meant to step away, acknowledge our thoughts and feelings, but mostly ensure we don’t rush into things immediately. This has helped me as a person on a nearly daily basis. As I said in one of my essays, “who knew a bottle of water or checking some emails could have so much power?” Pausing, by stopping to perform some simple actions like these, can allow our minds time to refresh, not unlike how sleep helps us recuperate from the day and prepare for the next. Additionally, Dr. Corrigan said something that has stuck with me: “Use your emotions, don’t be used by your emotions.” Since I can be an emotion-driven person, combining pausing with utilizing emotion—instead of being their victim—has grown me on a deeply personal level. It has helped me maintain control of complex and difficult situations in my life, taking them one step at a time in a much more smooth manner. These lessons I learned will reach far beyond the “intended” application of our research assignments in class. They will be useful in other areas of my life. They were not easy lessons to learn, but I have found them more vital than I could have imagined.
However, there are some places where I know I could grow more. The hardest part of the research essays for me was locating credible sources; it took awhile for me to get the hang of the search. This might be a skill I can continue to practice so that I can learn where and how to look for sources, as well as how to identify credible sources more swiftly. In this same step, I also struggled a bit with fully considering “opposing” viewpoints. I found myself having to pause a lot to truly check into the facts and claims, instead of wanting to partially dismiss them because of my care step or original thoughts. For the most part, I was able to work through this issue, but through practice I could do better. Lastly, I will always need more practice and improvement in pausing and keeping my emotions and feelings in check. I’m naturally empathetic and an over-thinker, which can lead me to not stop and take a breath that I may need to see things clearly, so I will have to constantly develop these skills.
Because of everything that I have said, I can say with certainty that what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown in this course will be beneficial to not only me now but to my future as well. Not being used by my emotions and understanding the power of empathy will be vital to my career as a social worker. The people I will be helping need someone strong, in control of their reactions, able to think things through, and able to take a step back and breathe. All of these things will help me best serve the individuals I’ll be working with. When I enter into a crisis situation, I need to be able to stay calm and not react judgmentally. My panic, or negative reaction to the situation, will only exacerbate an already delicate moment. Furthermore, burnout and compassion fatigue are real problems in social work. If I can’t learn to step away and breathe, balancing empathy with throughout and multi-faceted thought, then I will not function at full capacity.
The strategies and skills in this course will help me be the best social worker I can and keep me “healthier” at the same time. One of my other favorite quotes of Dr. Corrigan’s reminds me of the kind of social worker and person I want to be: “If you were to actually listen to their story, perhaps you would care about them even more.” I want to strive to apply this widely. Additionally, in our media-heavy culture today, with fake news flying all around us, having a plan and the tools to be able to investigate for myself or recognize truth distortion will greatly help me as I go through life in this world. It’s not a guarantee I can find the truth, but I’m better equipped than I was before this course.