Fake news is in the news. But what, exactly, is fake news? For answers, we turned to two Trinity University communication professors, Jennifer Henderson and Aaron Delwiche. They are among faculty presenters at the Trinity on Tour conference in April. To learn more about them and more about fake news, keep reading.
What do like best about teaching Trinity students?
Jennifer Henderson:Teaching Trinity students is like walking into your favorite coffee shop and having thoughtful conversations with the smartest people you know. Every day. You have to be prepared ahead of time, and you have to be willing to listen.
Trinity students keep me on my toes – always asking challenging questions and probing new lines of inquiry. Because of their insights, I leave each class period thinking about challenging problems new ways.
How do you motivate your students?
JH: In the classroom, I try to motivate students by showing my passion for the subject. I truly get excited about First Amendment legal cases, advertising strategies, and fan communities. All I can hope is that my excitement is contagious. Outside the classroom, I spend a great deal of time reminding Trinity students how bright and talented they are. It is easy to lose confidence in college. I think one of my most important jobs is reminding students that they can have the dream career or get into the premier graduate program. I don’t doubt their potential. A Trinity education is transformational.
How did you get involved in your field of study?
JH: I’m a First Amendment historian who researches groups who have pushed the boundaries of free speech and press. My first real exposure to these ideas was in college during a Media Law and Ethics course. I was transfixed by the stories behind the legal cases that became Supreme Court precedents – the people behind the decisions. When I was trying to decide what to study in graduate school (I had undergraduate majors in advertising, public relations and English), that class stuck out beyond all the others as the one I found most inspiring and the most important. Teaching the power of the First Amendment–for good and for ill–became my driving passion.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching? Least favorite? Why?
Aaron Delwiche: It’s hard to identify just one aspect of teaching that would count as my favorite. There are so many things to choose from!
But there are three interrelated moments that I will always think of as something I love about teaching. It starts with that exciting moment on the first day of class. We walk into the classroom holding a stack of syllabi and a TigerPAWS roster with a list of students and photos. Some of the names on the list are familiar, but many of the students are stepping into a communication classroom for the first time. Whether they identify as engineers, biologists, sociologists, musicians, computer programmers, literature majors, philosophers, or–most likely–undeclared, each of these students brings a unique perspective and background to the classroom.
The second moment comes a few weeks later in the semester, and it’s impossible to predict when it will happen. It’s the feeling that things are coming together and connecting in the classroom. By now students have learned each other’s names, they begin making reference to previous readings or linking their ideas to things they’ve been working on in other classes, and some of them have become friends simply as a result of sitting next to each other in this course.
The third moment comes at the very end of the term, usually during the examination period when students are delivering presentations to the rest of the class while nibbling on breakfast tacos or pizza. As I look around the classroom, as we laugh, applaud, and reflect on the ground we’ve traveled, it occurs to me that this exact configuration of people, ideas, place, and time will never happen again in exactly this way. It will live on only in our memories. This is a wonderful, bittersweet moment.
As for the least favorite thing about teaching? Grading. I hate assigning grades. Commenting on papers and interacting with students is fun, but it always feels strange to boil things down to a letter grade. Of course grades are important to many students – especially those who intend to apply to graduate school or for certain internships – so I try to make sure that grading is rigorous and fair. But I hated grades when I was a student, and I’m not much more fond of them as a professor.
How do you define "fake news" and how do you identify it?
JH: I love reading, watching, and listening to news. I love the precision of the language and the power of a handful of carefully chosen words. I hate that we must remind people that news is about a search for truth; for telling a story as accurately as possible. Fake news is very easy to define. It is news that is false. Not news you disagree with or news you don’t want to hear. It is not poorly written news. It is not news that points out flaws in celebrities or politicians.
AD: As Jennifer says, “fake news is false.” In previous decades, we might have termed it disinformation. Often, fake news is published by fake media outlets such as the Denver Guardian or Baltimore Gazette. These aren’t actually real newspapers with editors, journalists, and a history of regular publication. They are slick websites that use peripheral cues to convince hasty readers that they’re legitimate publications.
How should schools prepare K-12 students to have greater media literacy?
JH: Generation Z kids are skeptical, but not discerning, consumers of media. There is so much content, passing by so quickly, all through the same device, that kids must be given the tools to understand the nuances of those media messages. I would suggest we need to begin by getting everyone (not just kids) to ask five questions about whatever they are reading online: Who created the message? Who edited the message? Who sponsored the delivery of the message? Who is the target audience for the message? What is the core message?
Who inspires you and why?
AD: Jennifer and I have learned so much from the mentorship of senior colleagues in our department. Bill Christ (who is currently on phased retirement), Sammye Johnson (an emeritus professor who recently returned to teach another communication course), and Rob Huesca (who we hope will stay at Trinity for many years to come) continue to be a source of inspiration. In addition to being accomplished scholars with global reputations, all three professors played a vital role in designing a holistic curriculum that differentiates our department from most other communication departments on the planet. I often ask myself “What would Sammye recommend? What would Bill do? What would Rob say to help this student with her Capstone conceptualization?”
What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Why?
AD: I can think of few places where I would rather earn my living than in a Trinity classroom, talking to (and learning from) our students. As much as I love this profession, I understand that there might be someday be a time when it makes sense to leave this wonderful campus and forge new adventures on the other side of the world. When that day comes, I would love to move to a small coastal town with Jennifer and run a bookstore café. We would sell new and used books and magazines, and the walls of the store would be adorned by paintings from local artists. In the evenings, the space would be converted to a performance venue where musicians, poets, and small theatre companies could express their creative vision.
Where would you like to retire?
AD: It would be wonderful to open this café in a small town near the ocean. We would be able to savor the enjoyments of building community alongside our friends and neighbors, but we would also benefit from a regular influx of new ideas and newcomers who choose to visit our beautiful town. In many ways, this vision parallels what it is like to teach at Trinity: working with other faculty and staff to nurture an enduring community, while also being refreshed and inspired by each new cohort of students.
Henderson and Delwiche will discuss “Communicating in an Era of Fake News” at the annual Trinity on Tour event, to be held this year on April 21, in Washington, D.C.