My professor, Liz Losh, gave the William & Mary Tack Lecture this past Thursday night.
The Tack Lecture series is a pretty big deal. It’s a part of a new W&M tradition in which each semester, a professor is asked to give a public lecture on something that both academics and community members will find engaging, allowing everyone to be a part of the University’s intellectual discourses. This semester, Professor Losh gave a talk entitled “Fake News for Real People.” As the rhetorician that she is, Losh began by discussing what creates a persuasive news story: ethos (an appeal to ethics), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and logos (an appeal to logic). Fake news stories, she argued, include too much pathos and not enough ethos or logos– we need all three in credible news. Losh argued that fake news is not a purely partisan issue, that fake news may have purposes other than deception and the problem isn’t just fake news– it’s a crisis about truth telling in an era of simulation.
Fake news is not a new concern, it dates back to Orson Welles creating mass panic with his radio broadcasts, however our fake news tends to be a simulation, copies for which there is no original– or in this case, news stories for which there is no source. She argues that there are three genres of fake news: Fake News 1.0 (satires of political theatre), Fake News 2.0 (asymmetrical disinformation warfare) and Fake News 3.0 (disparagement that undermines traditional news organizations.) Fake News 1.0 was actually helpful in some sense– it improved media literacy. Viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report tended to do well on news quizzes and were more equipped to identify satire. The problem is that people care less about the source and focus more and more on the content, which is to say that they care less about the context and more about the content.
In our current moment of Fake News 3.0, Losh argues that there is confusion about what fake news is. There is cause to doubt traditional news sources and, therefore, people become confused about basic facts. She proposes three trends which may explain our issue with fake news: authority is replaced by authorization, authenticity is replaced by authentication and veracity is replaced by verification. Finally, she offered a few solutions to fake news: technology companies created the problem, therefore they should be in charge of creating solutions; teach media literacy and news literacy early and often; and fund the humanities, because knowing history, rhetoric, philosophy and foreign languages helps in identifying fake news stories.
Professor Losh ended her lecture by shouting out the Equality Lab fellows (I am one) and the Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities Symposium, which I wrote about last semester. Hilariously, the picture that she chose to represent RMDH with was one of me flashing my conference badge and smiling like a goofball. The picture (which several of my colleagues made sure to take snapshots of) stayed on the screen throughout the entire Q&A section. It was mildly mortifying but also hilarious and had been done with good will.
Professor Losh ending with a picture of me made me start think about her commitment to mentorship. Yes, she is a prolific scholar; yes, she is basically an academic rockstar; but she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work she does with her students. When Adrienne, Ashley and I came to her with a partially formed syllabus for an independent study on comics, Professor Losh did us one better and turned our independent study into a real class that would show up on our transcripts. She makes sure her students and Equality Lab fellows have access to scholars in our fields so we can ask them questions and share our own work with them. (She’s also willing to give you a little nudge when you might otherwise be too shy to share on your own. [Me. All the time.]) She makes sure that we have a physical space to work and create together. She gives you lengthy, but kind, feedback on your writing with the sole purpose helping you get better. Stick around long enough, she’ll present you with all kinds of opportunities you would have never thought imaginable and, best of all, she gives really great pep talks.
For the last few weeks (or much of the semester, take your pick), I had been feeling completely burnt out and utterly uninspired. I talked incessantly of quitting grad school– taking my MA degree and hightailing it out of her to pursue a glamorous (though admittedly not lucrative) career in publishing or editing in a city like D.C. or Richmond. I hated going to class, I hated reading for class, I hated talking to people, I hated being here. I had talked to everyone I knew about quitting, including my advisor– everyone, that is, except Liz. I had avoided talking to her because I knew if I did, she’d make me stay. Professor Losh was the one person I knew who would be able to talk some sense into me and I wanted to leave so badly I didn’t want to hear sense.
Sure enough, it took a quick chat with her and a week off to help me clear my head.
Ever since, I’ve been trudging along with a little more determination in my heart. I still don’t know if I can finish this whole PhD game, but I do at least know I can finish this semester. This graduate school game is wild, but good mentorship, like what I get from Professor Losh, and a strong support system can pull you through.