Information, Belief, Credibility, and Behavior: A Writing Project

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I love words: their sounds, etymologies, and inherent possibilities. One word that has dominated my inbox for at least a year now is information, along with its prefixed variants disinformation and misinformation. Simply put, information is that which forms—gives shape to—our thinking from within: our minds are given recognizable form through the propositions and interpretations we accept.   

The events that have unfolded over the past few weeks illustrate how “in-forming” with problematic or inaccurate information leads to terrifying consequences. I have asked myself, time and again, as I’ve heard countless unfounded assertions about the virus and our election results here in Georgia, how we judge the veracity of information, and how friends, family, and colleagues can come to such vastly different conclusions about what is true, particularly in the face of what seems like incontrovertible facts.

In their 1980 classic, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that conceptual metaphors shape our understanding of abstractions, grounding them in concrete or spatial realities. These conceptual metaphors are so deeply embedded in our minds that we may not be aware of them, but they shape (in-form) our thinking by constraining our speech. For example, one metaphor is that theories (or arguments) are buildings: they are founded (or unfounded), constructed, built, supported, undergirded, and in-formed by “raw materials,” aka evidence, facts, and data. We construct interpretations—and then our construction itself may serve as an arbiter of what additional “raw materials” we choose to incorporate into the whole, and those which we choose to discard. The work of theory or argument construction may take place in mental construction zones that we don’t see—but which impact our lives in powerful ways. 

In my second semester composition class this term, I am going to invite my students to explore these mental constructions zones with me, and the information used within them. In other words, we will step outside of ourselves as much as we can and review the criteria by which we assess the validity and credibility of information. And then we will write about what we discover about our own “in-forming.” 

The first major assignment will be a credibility assessment guide: I will be asking students to articulate a definition of credibility, develop a rubric of questions or criteria by which they can evaluate credibility, and apply their rubric to two sources presenting contradictory information on the same topic. Ultimately, I will ask the students to reflect with me on how we know things, and how an understanding of our own thinking can (perhaps) help us talk with those whose conclusions differ from our own.

To get to that final assessment guide, students will begin by profiling a person, institution, or information source that they trust implicitly, considering why they trust them, as well as a source or person they are not likely to trust, and why not. From these initial profiles, students will begin to generate criteria of credibility—factors that are explicit and conscious, but perhaps also those that are implicit and subconscious. In the drafting and application of these lists, I will ask them to play both the believing game and the doubting game, in a variation of Peter Elbow’s approach to texts: how am I shaped (in-formed) by my assessments of credibility? What can my understanding of credibility contribute to larger discussions? What would happen if I applied someone else’s criteria for credibility? What if I found my judgments of credibility were incomplete or inappropriate? What would I do in response?

I am looking forward to what I will learn about my students—and my own thinking—during this writing project.

Are you addressing current events in your writing courses this term? How do you plan to approach these events? I encourage you to share your assignment plans. 

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.