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Teaching What Didn’t Happen

More has been written or said about Bowling Green, Atlanta, and Sweden than about Quebec and Pakistan.  Although by now exposed as a lie, about half of all Americans who support the travel ban executive order believe that the supposed Bowling Green massacre justifies limiting immigration from Muslim majority countries (see poll by Public Policy Polling as quoted in The Hill). Since February 18th, 2017 , the number of experts on Sweden and its immigration policy has risen palpably on social media. This phenomenon can be defined as propaganda: the “spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person” in an attempt to “further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause” (Merriam Webster). False news stories can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. Maybe you have come across the claim that Melania Trump tried to sell her jewelry on the official White House page, have seen the picture of a boy in handcuffs, or have heard that police have burned down tipis of indigenous activists fighting the Dakota Access pipeline (all of these “fake news for liberals” are quoted in a Guardian article). The pictures circulated online connected to the two latter “news” stories are from 2005 and a 2007 HBO movie, respectively, and triggered outrage, the emotion most connected with retweeting and linking on social media (see the Smithsonian magazine’s article “What Emotion Goes Viral the Fastest?”). In this climate of propaganda, lies, and conspiracy theories, how do we teach what didn’t happen?

Let’s look at Sweden to think about this dilemma facing educators (and the press) today. During a rally in Florida on February 18th, 2017, Donald Trump spoke of an incident that had allegedly occurred in Sweden the night before. Being vague about the actual event, he clearly drew a connection to immigrants, and the recent increase of Muslim refugees in Sweden. While, the twittersphere had fun with the hashtags #incidentinSweden and #lastnightinSweden, Swedish officials tweeted both their disbelief about the statement as well as offered their own explanations of what had happened the day before in Sweden (nothing but a car chase and mechanical problems at a concert). The Swedish embassy offered to brief the President and his cabinet on Swedish migration policy, and news outlets were quick to report that in fact nothing had happened in Sweden the day before. Stephen Colbert tried to combine jokes about the lie with actual facts, quoted from Reuters, about declining crime statistics since 2005 (see video). But this was not the end of the story. Although Trump tweeted that he had quoted a Fox News story on Sweden and immigration (something that was apparently taken out of context and fabricated in a way that fit the anti-immigrant agenda of the clip. See The Guardian), the seed germinated. Conway, Spicer, and Trump have had success with sowing such seeds, retracting lies, but still being able to watch them grow. In reference to Sweden, self-proclaimed experts on Twitter took the statement and molded it into a conspiracy theory that alleged there was no proof of the incident because the Swedish government was covering it up.

Here is an additional problem: News outlets disproving a statement is not enough. There aren’t two sides to this story, as in “biased” reporting, there is in fact no story at all. So either nothing happened (truth) or somebody (i.e. a government) doesn’t want you to know that it happened (conspiracy theory). So what do educators do in this situation? A resource for the classroom is Mike Caulfield’s Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers (available online). Caulfield presents four strategies to deal with news that need fact-checking: 1) “check for previous work” (Politifact and Snopes are mentioned as good sources for this step), 2) “go upstream to the source,” (that means check the quote’s sources) 3) “read laterally” (read related articles as well as other material on the page to determine veracity) and 4) “circle back” (repeat the process). He also introduces additional advice: “check your emotions” which may be the most important piece of advice. As the above mentioned Smithsonian article found, a news item that triggers anger often overrides any caution; we are more likely to share such an item, in a deliberate attempt to spread our outrage and convince others to be as outraged – quite a convincing explanation for the recent proliferation of “fake news.” But this is also where we can begin with our students: if something angers you, check it! If something appears to be a perfect quote, check it!

Returning to the Sweden case, what are concrete steps we can take with our students? First, check credible (multiple and international) news sources. Second, investigate the profiles of the people and news sources who are spreading the conspiracy theories. What else do they publish/tweet? Do they have an agenda? How would spreading a lie help their agenda? Third, go to the source. Research Swedish news sources, maybe European ones. What stood out to me here is that most right-wing, populist parties in Europe, haven’t supported the claim that Sweden is having massive problems because of their immigration policy. Why haven’t they? Wouldn’t this story help their cause? If it was true, they certainly would. So, we can conclude certain things about the validity of a statement from who isn’t tweeting/promoting it.

You may notice that I didn’t mention looking at actual crime statistics. This seems like the logical first step, but I would disagree. Facts don’t help dispel propaganda because the propaganda is going to maintain that such statistics are fake. If something is being covered up, statistics would also be fabricated. Therefore, fact finding may not be the solution to proving events or crises didn’t actually happen, particularly because there is no story there. Critical thinking and web literacy, which includes the ability to weigh the veracity of Twitter accounts, tweets, clips and other shareable items, need to be at the forefront of this effort (more information about this, including activities, in Caulfield’s book). This is where, I believe, we should focus our teaching efforts.

One final thought for the foreign language teacher. Students may not know what news sources from the countries they study are credible and it is harder to detect certain alarm bells in the target language. Big newspapers may become the first source for students but these are often tabloids. For example, the German tabloid Bild recently admitted that it fabricated a story about sexual assaults by immigrants (see New York Times). While I didn’t come across this story until several international publications, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian, exposed the lie, my students may have. This incident emphasizes the need for including critical news literacy in the foreign language classroom as well.

A speak-out as a strategy in today’s “post-truth” climate

Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” the word of the year 2016 and defines it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries). The 2016 presidential campaign, the traditional media coverage as well as the emergence of fake news throughout the internet (and now with the appointment of Steve Bannon on the way into the White House) are exemplary for this move towards emotional politics that do not correspond to facts but rather to felt realities. Voters were swayed by what they felt was true, and no factual contradiction could convince them otherwise. Climate scientists, political analysts and journalists are facing accusations of lying (the German word Lügenpresse has made it into white supremacists’ rhetoric in the US and journalists are defamed as liars throughout social media) or political correctness (a long, but interesting article about the history of political correctness and how the right uses it to demonize liberals can be found here). Many of us have seen the Professor Watchlist by now which lists “professors with liberal bias.” Liberalism and anti-bigotry appear to oppress conservative perspectives and to push a liberal agenda. In this climate of felt realities, it is difficult to argue rationally against that view. So, what can we do? How then can we teach critical thinking and openness to multiple perspectives?


A few weeks ago, I organized a speak-out on refugees on campus. To avoid the “feeling” of being lectured to and to promote substantial and open dialogue, I conceptualized this speak-out as student-centered with a few professors present who could answer questions and straighten out misconceptions but who would not lecture, push any kind of agenda, or even engage with their own opinion. To say this right away, the latter was the most difficult thing about this event. Being used to a teaching role in the classroom, it is not easy to hold back and to not answer provocative questions such as “why do we need to take in refugees, can’t others do it? It’s just too dangerous.” While I managed to not chime in then, this question weighed on me and I had to answer it at least in the echo chamber of my blog later. Here is what I would have said in a class setting.


I do believe, however, that it was beneficial to hold back. The discussion proved to be excellent. There was a multiplicity of voices and students seriously engaged with each other. There was no polemic back and forth but rather mutual respect and the students who argued for welcoming refugees held their own. In the end, there was no need to engage with my opinions, the students were capable enough to do so on their own and experienced a sense of empowerment. Some ground rules were necessary to make this happen.


I borrowed the set-up from the fish-bowl approach which is a cooperative learning strategy. This method consists of two circles – a smaller inner circle where the discussion happens and a larger outer circle where the rest of the group observes the discussion. The inner circle should not be larger than 10 participants while the outer circle can have as many as 50. In classes, I would place half of the students in each circle and switch later. For this event, I used an alternative approach and observers could switch into the inner circle to participate.


Our inner circle of ten participants included four “experts” plus six students. Everyone faced inwards. This was the circle of discussion, everyone who sat here could participate in the debate. The outer circle of about thirty students, faculty, and members of the wider community (somebody from Freedom House joined and contributed practical examples) faced also inwards and thereby constituted the observer position. When somebody in the outer circle wanted to participate, he/she tapped out somebody in the inner circle and switched seats with them. I asked in the beginning to tap people out who either hadn’t said anything in a while or who had a similar opinion to one’s own to avoid the silencing of voices and perspectives. This set-up had two benefits: the smaller setting of the inner circle allowed substantial discussion and the necessity of moving into the inner circle before speaking helped emotions to calm before contributing. I believe that this set-up was a great success in both hearing many voices and also keeping the dialogue productive and open.


We got some good feedback about the fish-bowl approach from students who felt that their opinions were taken seriously and that the debate was in fact open-ended and not, as they sometimes feel in class, led with a specific goal in mind. That did not mean, however, that the discussion was held at the level of felt realities and fake news. The multiplicity of backgrounds and voices ensured that misconceptions and false narratives were corrected. Such a speak-out then seems to be an excellent strategy to combat accusations of bias in teaching and to push back on “post-truth” tendencies. I will certainly employ this strategy in future classes as well and we are already in the process of organizing the next speak-out on campus. This time on “Russia-Europe-US and the role of NATO”.


A well written preview article of the event, published in our campus newspaper, with more information on the approach, background, and goals can be found here.

Post-Election Teaching

This is the first post in a mini-series on teaching and campus action after the presidential election. Today, I am concentrating on what I said in class the first time I taught after the election. We will have future posts about a campus speaker who focused on electoral politics and the clash of race and class, about teaching constitutional law, about teaching foreign students before, during and after the elections, and about a speak-out on refugees.

I teach a German language class and while I include German culture and touch upon human rights issues, this is not a typical class in which you talk politics. The class then never discussed the presidential campaign before last week. After the election however, I felt that I needed to address the issues in class. Not only because half of my students belong to a marginalized group that has been threatened during the campaign (namely African American, Muslim American and LGBT students, even more than half if you count women) but also and maybe even more so the other half does not belong to a minority, therefore can lean back and wait and see, can believe that everything is going to be ok. So, here is what I said:

“If you don’t belong to a traditionally marginalized group, and that means at this point that you are white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered and male, be an upstander. Don’t let racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobic, ableist comments go unnoticed or unchallenged. Listen to those who have been threatened and violated, believe them and stand with them. If you belong to a minority, know that this classroom is safe. That this community stands with you. And that we, the faculty and your peers, are here to listen and to help. You may feel angry, but you also may feel sad, overwhelmed, desperate. There is counseling on this campus for this reason. I have the number, don’t hesitate to contact me or anyone.

White people did this and white people need to stand up against bigotry now, stand up for those who have been threatened. We cannot let oppressed groups carry the burden of fighting those who threaten them directly. This is not about the President-Elect, but about what our classroom, our campus and our community can do to make sure that these are safe spaces for everyone.”

Given that I teach on a diverse campus in a diverse community, there was no push-back. This may be different in other locations (even though this study would suggest otherwise:, but it is important nonetheless. There may be opposition, and we will speak about teaching in the post-truth era in a future post, but I believe that it is more important that students know that we stand with them.

Many centers for teaching have issued guidelines and advice after the election. The one at your institution may have as well. This is a good place to start finding concrete ideas for teaching during the next weeks. There may also be teach-ins at your campus. And finally, here is one article that stood out among the many that have been published during the last week. Whether you teach human rights or not, all of us can try to be more inclusive in our teaching: Kevin Gannon – “Inclusive Teaching in Exclusionary Times”: