Published on 17/11/2021
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Illustration of person being overcome by fake news
  • Students of English literature at Aston University taught critical thinking skills to challenge credibility of what they’re reading
  • Analysis includes novels but also wider range of literature such as films, video games, adverts and political manifestos
  • Students taught how to always ask: ‘How do I know if this is credible?’ and ‘Is this manipulating me?’

English literature students at Aston University are taught proper research and critical thinking skills that help them to tackle fake news and misinformation in the outside world.

Dr Abigail Boucher, a lecturer in English at Aston University, said that from novels to films, from video games to adverts and all the way to what’s said by politicians, students learn how to work out what’s being proposed, or to decide if it really means anything at all.

By challenging the credibility of literature, she explained that students can make more informed decisions in life, from how they might vote all the way to what they might buy.

Dr Boucher was discussing how students can develop these analysis skills in the latest episode of the 'Society matters' podcast series, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.

She said: “All communication is about story-telling, creating a hook to grab and interest the reader or audience and, importantly, trying to convince you of some sort of perspective. A major part of what we do is developing research and critical thinking skills. In particular, by studying English, you learn not to take in media passively, but rather deal with it actively.

“And by media, we don’t just mean novels. We mean everything. When you watch a film or TV show, when you play a video game, when you read a news headline or see an advert, we teach you to think: what is it doing, for what audience, how is it doing it, and why?

“For example, headlines with emotive word choices designed to enrage or scare people is nothing new to the 2010s or 2020s – I can’t think of a time period that doesn’t have this. But with the prominent discussion of ‘fake news’ and ‘wokism’, people seem particularly willing to pick apart language choices, especially by people on the other side of the political spectrum.

“The hard thing, though, is to apply those same skills to things you agree with, or things that seem neutral. It’s hard to be analytical about things that confirm your own biases. That’s why it’s so important we teach students proper research skills.”

Dr Boucher said English students at Aston University are taught to ask themselves:

  • How do I know if this is credible?
  • Am I reading the actual article or just the headline?
  • Where was this published?
  • Is it a reputable, peer reviewed study, an article in a reputable newspaper, or a more casual opinion piece?
  • If a reputable peer reviewed study, what is the methodology of that study?
  • If it’s a genuine newspaper, what’s its stance or track record on issues like this?
  • Do I agree with it? What is it trying to convince me of, and why?

She said the key word was “corroboration”: what do other sources say about an issue? And always tracing an original source to check if it’s been taken out of context or misrepresented.

Dr Boucher explained: “This is why our students study so much more than just the canon of literature. It’s important to read deeply and widely, to know where current ideas come from. These things don’t happen in a vacuum. An idea someone had 1,000 years ago might actually be the foundation of a huge element of modern society.

“Writing is shockingly resilient, embedding itself into very practical, material conditions of the world today. Texts from 2,000 years ago developed long inbuilt ideas lasting until today. For example, Aristotle wrote about ideas of ‘essentialism’ – what is the essence of everything on earth. This is one of the major cruxes of the trans rights debate today.

“What is the essence of a man or a woman? What features do you have to possess to be categorised as such? Applying this to the modern world, these analytical skills can then be used to assess politics and philosophy.”

She added: “Don’t mindlessly assume. Investigate more deeply: where has this come from? What is it doing and how is it doing it? Is this manipulating me? In this way, students learn how all communications – even the most banal – are ideological. There are no neutral words. Even words like ‘the’ are debated in this way. Everything is out to manipulate.”

Series 2, episode 3 of the ‘Society matters’ podcast and all previous episodes can be found here:
Notes to editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston University was named University of the Year 2020 by The Guardian and the University’s full time MBA programme has been ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking. The Aston MBA has been ranked 12th in the UK and 85th in the world.

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