Libraries and Learning

Are You Kidding Me?

November 1, 2018

One of the things we are working on during a general education revamp is tying the rhetorical strategies writers and speakers practice to the rhetorical strategies needed to decode texts, which includes understanding that there are different kinds of texts that do different kinds of work for different audiences.

Decoding texts (and even recognizing categories of texts) is a good deal more complicated than it was a few decades ago when we could hold up two publications and say “this is a popular source. That is a scholarly source. You can tell the difference by looking for these features.” That binary was always an oversimplification, but given the multiple kinds of information we see daily, a more firmly rhetorical approach to all kinds of texts seems necessary. Whether it’s a news story, a Tweet, or a political meme we need to be able to ask ourselves: who is speaking? Who are they speaking to? What is their purpose? Oh, and what are they actually saying? In a library context, that last question tends to take priority, perhaps because our search mechanisms assume that’s what you want to know. Type in what you’re looking for and you’ll get a bunch of publications about that thing, just like online shopping.

A lot of our online information shopping now happens through Google searches. We need to talk with students about how to distinguish news reporting from an opinion piece from a news analysis, and those distinctions can be tricky. Is the author of this piece a reporter or an op/ed contributor? What is the origin of this article I came across in my Apple News feed? How close to original reporting or research is this text, or is it a commentary on a recap of the original? A lot of distinguishing markers are lost as things get separated, repackaged, digested, and shared. Many students have never seen a journal in the wild and seldom read a magazine or a newspaper in print, and are not used to thinking “this journal represents an ongoing conversation among social psychologists” or “this news source is written for people living in a particular location, reporting local news with some news service material mixed in.” Each text retrieved in a search is part of a jumble of things, each needing to be decoded.

That decoding can be especially tricky as news and satire, opinions and jokes have blurred. One of the interesting findings of the latest Project Information Literacy report on how students engage with news is that political memes figure significantly in their news consumption – something the original study design didn’t even ask about, until subjects repeatedly brought it up. A previous generation of students may have watched The Daily Show more often than the evening news because they felt it did a better job of explaining what was really going on. That mix of news and satirical commentary added a layer of information that somehow was able to dig deeper into a news story’s implications than the more deadpan delivery of a news anchor.

Something different goes on in internet channels that blend deeply-held opinions and theories with playful raunchiness. That misshapen frog Pepe, for instance, started as cartoon, was adopted as a meme, and became a political symbol for the far right. Some of the tricksters on 4Chan morphed into Anonymous. They pulled pranks that were slapstick while also being serious. Later, a different group of 4Channers celebrated when Trump became president, saying they’d elected a meme. There’s a weird littoral zone where humor becomes serious, where political action is framed as pranks that others take seriously, where it’s hard to nail down exactly what is intended, but the consequences can be significant.

This is where rhetorical analysis gets sticky. We may not know who’s speaking because real names aren’t used, and sometimes speakers are impersonating others; it’s not always clear to whom they are speaking, but a dispute with an opponent can turn into a rallying cry online with consequences. We’re not sure if the facts related are real or just a snare to humiliate the unwitting. Or if, in fact, it’s part of an entire self-referential universe of alternative facts that has emerged out of the chaos.

Our students may know more than we realize about this, and perhaps less about how news is reported or what makes the peer review process a university press book goes through different from what trade publishers do. We have to think about how to give students rhetorical strategies and habits of curiosity for engaging with all kinds of texts – including ones in forms that don’t yet exist. Otherwise, we’re spending a lot of time learning to read scholarship and not enough on how to understand information that’s out there in its myriad and morphing forms.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.