Teaching American Politics: Epistemology Module for Introduction to American Politics Courses

Epistemology Module for Introduction to American Politics Courses

Anne Gillman (American River College)

Were members of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 correct in claiming that the presidential election was stolen? Is the true 2020 election outcome something that we can know with certainty? When I asked my Intro to American Politics students these questions, some expressed strong but unsubstantiated convictions about the election results. Others felt that we–or at least they, as mere students–could not confidently assess whether the election was fair. Few could explain how we can definitively know that Biden won.

Concerns about democratic deconsolidation in the US and beyond have spurred increased interest in cultivating students’ political engagement. Meaningful participation requires not only political knowledge, but also confidence in that knowledge; uncertainty breeds inaction (Wedeen, 2019). Most of our students’ information about politics will come from outside of our classrooms. They must seek this out in a limitless field of information, made worse by polarizing algorithms, disinformation campaigns by antidemocratic leaders, and unhelpful features of human psychology. A natural response might be to retreat either into a state of political paralysis stemming from ambivalence, or into “siloed publics” (Wedeen, 2019) of information echo chambers, unable to converse across partisan divides.

How can we help our students gain both the skills and confidence to engage as informed political actors? To do so, I have added a week-long introductory module, entitled “Epistemology: How We Know What We Know,” to all of my classes (online and in-person). In this context, I use the term “epistemology” to refer both to the conviction that there are true facts which are accessible to students and to the methods for seeking them. The module primarily reframes and repackages existing material, drawing from online resources for teaching digital literacy and from Introduction to American Politics textbook chapters on public opinion and media. I divide the module into two parts that focus on: a) how we develop unique perspectives (values, beliefs, etc.) through processes of political socialization, and b) how we identify universal facts through reliable strategies for evaluating information. After teaching the initial module, I integrate the approach established in Epistemology throughout the class.

In the pages that follow, I share:

  • Resource 1: Text from my Epistemology Module Canvas pages, including links to the relevant videos and corresponding critical-thinking questions
  • Resource 2: The assignment I use in the Epistemology Module for both my online and in-person classes in which students apply their fact-seeking skills
  • Resource 3: A list of in-class activities that I use during the Epistemology Module and examples of follow-up exercises to incorporate the approach in later modules

My approach to teaching epistemology is a work in progress, adapted to my California community college student population. I am increasingly convinced that teaching students to confidently evaluate the veracity of political information is one of our most important tasks as political science professors, and I am eager to collaborate with others in improving pedagogical resources for doing so.

Sources Cited: Lisa Wedeen, Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria, University of Chicago Press, 2019.


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Epistemology Module Resource 1: Canvas Pages

Canvas Page One: Introduction

In a democracy, the people (meaning you) tell the government what to do.

But how do you, the people, decide? And how do you, the people, even know what's going on?

Democratic governance presumes that everyday citizens have enough information to make decent decisions about who should govern them and what policies they should pursue. But where does that information come from? How can we know it's correct?

In fancy language, "how you know what you know" is called epistemology.  If you've ever had a debate with anyone about a political issue, you know how important epistemology is. It's kind of the debate before the debate--the way of establishing ground rules.

Epistemology is also important in any academic course where the presumption is that someone has some sort of knowledge that they are imparting to you. You may (and should) be asking yourself as you read the textbook and listen to my lectures: How do the textbook authors know that? How does my professor know that?

In this Module, we will focus on the way we come to know and believe things that are relevant to the political choices we make. The Module focuses on the following three key ideas:

  • In a democracy, government actions are shaped by citizens’ political opinions; political opinions are a product of both perspectives, which are personal, and facts, which are universal.
  • Democratic governance requires recognizing diverse perspectives; we must be reflective about how our own experiences and identities shape our perspectives and we must be genuinely curious about others.
  • Democratic governance requires a shared system for separating fact from fiction; while more difficult in the digital age, there are reliable strategies for identifying truth.
Canvas Page Two: Tasks and Objectives

You will complete the following tasks during this Module:

  1. REFLECTION: Write a 2-minute essay reflecting on the following question: Where do you find most of your information about government and politics? How do you know whether this information is true?
  2. READING: Read [textbook sections on political socialization, media literacy]
  3. LECTURE: Watch, and take notes on, my lecture “Epistemology: How We Know What We Know” (for in-person classes, lectures are live).
  4. VIDEOS: Watch, and take notes on, the three Crash Course videos: Navigating Digital Information, The Facts about Fact Checking, and Intro to Lateral Reading. Finally watch, and take notes on, the 5-minute video on Why Our Brains Like Fake News.
  5. REAL WORLD: Read about and reflect on the processes of political socialization that have shaped your perspectives. Watch the video on encounters with police and consider how your own experiences with--or within--law enforcement are part of your process of political socialization.
  6. ASSIGNMENT/DISCUSSION: Complete the Epistemology Assignment/ Discussion: Checking the Facts about COVID.
  7. QUIZ: Take the Epistemology Module Quiz

By the end of this Module you will be able to:

  • Recognize the importance of citizen information gathering and decision making processes for democracy
  • Identify the identities and unique processes of "political socialization" that have influenced your political perspectives
  • Separate fact from fiction when evaluating information from online sources (or at least be better at it)
Canvas Page Three: Reflecting on Perspectives

One "ingredient" that goes into our political opinions is our "perspectives." By perspectives I mean the beliefs, values, experiences, and identities that shape the way you view the world.

Perspectives are formed over time. The term "political socialization" is used to refer to the process by which our views relevant to politics develop. As discussed in the book and in lecture, your process of political socialization is shaped by the family you grew up in and the education you received, among other factors. Take a moment to think about the ways these different factors influenced your view of government and politics. Are your perspectives radically different from your parents? What do you remember learning about American government from elementary school?

Direct encounters with government are also part of the process of political socialization. Government is present every day in all of our lives in myriad ways, but that presence is different for different people. If you live in a rural area, or run a small business, or work for minimum wage, or receive a taxpayer subsidized education from a community college, you will have a unique experience of government. We tend to extrapolate from our inefficient trip to the DMV, or our interaction with a smart state building inspector, or our fabulous public-school education what "government" is as a whole.

While individual, these experiences also vary systematically for different groups. LGBTQ individuals have had to wait for government to decide if they can get married. My undocumented students worry about being deported. Research has documented how people of color are treated unequally within the criminal justice system.

Overall, learning to be reflective about our own processes of political socialization and genuinely curious about how they may differ from those of others is critical for making democracy work.

Take a moment here to watch at least the first five minutes of this video in which writer and comedian Amber Ruffin tells about her encounters with police as a black woman. 

As you watch, think about the following questions:

  1. What did your parents or other trusted adults tell you about the police when you were growing up? What, if anything, did you learn about police in school? What did you think or feel about police officers as a kid?
  2. Have you ever had a direct encounter with the police? How did it go? Did it shape how you feel or think about the police? Did you find Ruffin's stories surprising? Did they resonate with your own experiences?
  3. Are you in law enforcement, or do you personally know anyone in law enforcement? If so, how do stories you may have heard about police line up with the reality you know?
  4. Overall, how do you think your encounters with--or within--law enforcement shape your overall view of government and politics? How do these experiences factor into your ongoing process of political socialization?
Canvas Page Four: Identifying Facts

As discussed in lecture, and in the previous page, perspectives are personal: we all have our own values, beliefs, identities, and experiences that shape our political opinions. It's okay that these are different, and part of democracy is learning to listen well enough to work around these differences.

Not so with facts. Facts cannot be personal.

Imagine you are trying to make a simple decision with a group of people--you are each pitching in $5 and you are going to order a pizza to share. What pizza to pick? Challenging enough when people have different preferences.

Now imagine everyone in the group also has different menus with information that does not align. You suggest pepperoni, but someone else claims that is not on the menu. A friend says all pizzas automatically come with cheese, but someone else says it's an extra $5. One person claims a large is only 8 slices, so better order two for the group. Someone else says a large is actually twice that size.

Collective decision making--which is the core of democratic governance--requires a shared set of facts to rely on. A world in which two people with opposing information can both be right is a world that is ungovernable. And yet, on any given political issue, you can often find two people with not only competing viewpoints but also competing facts. So how to determine who is correct?

Most of us gather most of our information on the internet. Unfortunately, the internet is a cesspool of inaccurate information with some truth mixed in. As democratic participants, we need strong tools for separating fact from fiction.

Stanford University has developed a Civic Online Reasoning Program to help students develop the skills needed to evaluate digital information. Take a moment to explore the site and click on anything that you find interesting. Then watch this 13-minute Crash Course video to learn why identifying factual information is challenging in our digital age.

While you watch the video, think about the following questions:

  1. What are some of the current challenges when it comes to acquiring reliable information? How does today's information landscape different from that of the past?
  2. What are some of the pitfalls when it comes to evaluating online information? In the study discussed in the video, what were some of the things that students did which led them to believe misinformation?
  3. According to the study, which group does the best job separating fact from fiction on the internet?
Canvas Page Five: Fact Checking Like a Pro

We are going to focus on two strategies for identifying facts. The first is relying on professional fact checking websites. Professional fact checking is an increasingly important job in an era in which information is so easily generated and spread. Watch this video to learn how professional fact checkers work and why they can be trusted.

As you watch, take notes on these questions:

  1. What are the three questions that fact checkers ask themselves as they assess the validity of a claim? How do they go about answering those questions?
  2. How can you evaluate the evidence that someone presents to back up a claim?
  3. What is the difference between being cynical and skeptical? Why is skepticism helpful, while cynicism can be harmful to democracy?
  4. When should you fact-check a claim?

There are a few things to keep in mind when we consider political fact checking. First, we should hold our public officials to higher standards than random internet bloggers. Chumps will always spread lies on the internet. We should not expect the people who decide how our tax dollars are spent, when and where our military is deployed, or what laws govern our society to do the same. We also need to keep in mind the impact of the information being shared. Some lies are more dangerous than others.

Canvas Page Six: Lateral Reading

The second strategy for evaluating online information is to pursue what is called "Lateral Reading."

Lateral reading involves opening new tabs in your browser to see what others have to say about the thing you plan to read. You do this BEFORE you start scrolling down (vertical reading). Every time you come across something you think you might like to read, you act like a private investigator whose job is to learn everything about the person or organization that posted the information. Only after you've learned about them to you decide whether to read it.

If you've ever seen The Wizard of Oz, it's as if Dorothy looked behind the curtain BEFORE deciding whether to do the bidding of the self-proclaimed Wizard.  If someone wants to tell you something about politics, you need to first determine: Am I talking to a wise and learned wizard? Or someone pretending to be a wizard?

Watch this Crash Course video on how to practice lateral reading.

As you watch the video, take notes on the following questions:

  1. What exactly is lateral reading? Why is it important? How do you do it?
  2. In the video, what two examples were presented of cases in which lateral reading was important? What were the political issues at stake? What was the name of the websites that required additional investigation? Who ultimately created the content for these websites?
  3. When doing lateral reading, what other tabs should you be opening in your browser? What are some resources you can use to learn more about the webpage you ultimately intend to read?
Canvas Page 7: Why Knowing the Facts Isn’t Enough

Great, so you're set. You understand the challenges of separating fact from fiction online, you know where to go to get help from professional fact checkers, and you have developed lateral reading skills to evaluate where information is coming from. You are now immune from the misinformation and disinformation out there on the internet!


Not so fast. Actually, when it comes down to evaluating information, it's not only about having the skills to identify facts--it's also about having the desire to seek facts and use them when forming our opinions. And there are some glitches in our brain when it comes to doing that, because, as it turns out, we LIKE untruths.

Could this be so? Why? And what can we do about it? Check out this PBS video on why our brains love fake news.

As you watch the video, try to answer the following questions:

  1. How much attention does real news get as compared to real news? How often do people fall for fake news?
  2. What is cognitive bias? Why don't facts change our minds? What is confirmation bias? How does it shape how we interpret facts?
  3. What are the two different areas of our brain discussed in the video? What do these two different parts of the brain do? What part is activated when we're engaging in confirmation bias?
  4. What is "identity protective cognition?" Why does it feel socially dangerous to adopt new beliefs? What might happen when you adopt ideas that are contrary to your "tribe"?
  5. What are the three steps for addressing confirmation bias?

Epistemology Module Resource 2: Writing Assignment/Discussion Prompt

COVID-19 has now taken almost a million American lives. Government has played a crucial role in collecting information about the virus, in developing a vaccine to protect against it, and in distributing that vaccine to the US population. But these efforts have been hampered by the spread of misinformation and disinformation about COVID and the vaccine.

Fact-checkers can help people understand what is true and not true about the coronavirus. Learning how to access fact-checking websites is useful for evaluating how your government is handling this health pandemic and for making informed decisions about your own actions.

Follow these instructions:

  1. Go to the Politifact website and click on the Menu icon on the upper left-hand side. Under "Issues" find the page for Coronavirus. Go to this page.
  2. Choose ONE statement that has been rated Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire. Copy and paste this statement. Make sure to put the statement in quotation marks(if you don't remember to put the statement in quotes, the automatic plagiarism checker on Canvas will think you're plagiarizing).
  3. Read the Politifact analysis of the statement (you can find the analysis by clicking on the statement). Write in your own wordsat least 2-3 complete, well-proofread sentences summarizing whyPolitifact fact checkers deemed the statement to be untrue. What, according to the fact checkers, is untrue about the statement? What did the statement get wrong?
  4. Then write in your own wordsat least 2-3 complete, well-proofread sentences summarizing howthe fact checkers determined that the statement was untrue and what you think about that process. What evidence did fact checkers rely on to determine that the statement is untrue? How did they find that evidence, and how did they know it was valid? Do you think that was a good way to evaluate the claim? Are there other ways fact checkers could have convincingly determined whether the claim was true or false?
  5. Think about the video clip you watched in this Module on "Why Our Brains Like Fake News." Why, according to that video, are people influenced by false information? What does the neuroscience shared in that video tell us about why people believe fake news? Now think about your own process of political socialization and the social groups that are your current “tribe.” What aspects of your political socialization might have shaped your perspectives when it comes to COVID? What do the people in your “tribe” think about COVID and the vaccine? Reflect in 2-3 complete, grammatically correct sentence on how your perspectives might influence your interpretation of facts. Do you think you could have been fooled by false statements about COVID-19?

Respond to at least TWO colleagues. In at least 2-3 complete, well-proofread sentences, you should comment on things in your colleagues' posts and answer these questions. Remember to be encouraging in your replies and to address each other by name.

[NOTE: For in-person classes, I pair students up for this discussion.]

  1. Did you choose the same or different false statements about COVID? If different, were they alike in any way? Is there a trend to the kind of misinformation that has circulated about COVID?
  2. How did the fact checking processes (which you described in question 3 in your original post/assignment) compare? Did fact checkers use the same methods? Did you both agree that the methods were sufficient? Did you have any ideas for better ways to evaluate the validity of the claims?

Epistemology Module Resource 3: In-Person Activities and Follow-Up Exercises

Political Socialization Deep Listening Activity:

Students do a “3-minute essay” reflecting on the factors/experiences throughout their lives that have most shaped their political views. Were you raised in a religious community? Were you brought to the US from another country as a child? Students pair up for a deep listening exercise where each student talks for 3 minutes uninterrupted about their process of political socialization, then switches and listens to the other student for 3 minutes. There are many deep listening texts to be found online with guidelines to share beforehand with students (e.g. Give visual and verbal cues that you are listening, only ask clarifying questions, etc.) Also advise students that they should only share what they feel comfortable with others knowing.

This exercise can serve as a foundation for facilitating controversial discussions as the semester progresses, teaching students to talk from a personal place when sharing opinions: Rather than asserting “Abortion is murder,” say, “I was raised to believe that abortion is murder….” or “I have had experiences in my life that have made me feel that abortion is murder…” Other students are guided to respond with curious, non-judgmental clarifying questions.

“Two Truths and a Lie” Retweeting Activity

Students write down three claims about something that happened in the past – two of which are true, one of which is false. I tend to have students write claims about things that happened to them. Students pair up and each student comes up with a fact-checking plan for determining whether they would “retweet” the information shared. How would you investigate this claim? At what point would you be satisfied that the claim was true? In the end, students guess which statement is true. As a class discussion, categorize the kinds of fact-checking processes that generate credibility: original documents, official reports, multiple eye-witness accounts, etc. Compare this to professional fact-checking methods used by Politifact, etc.

Incorporating Epistemological Approach in Later Modules

US Founding and Constitution Module: Students read from the New York Times 1619 Project and the Politico article entitled “I Fact Checked the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.” Students conduct lateral reading comparing the sources (Who is writing this material? Who is publishing this material?) and compare the factual assertions shared in both readings (What claims are being made? Where is their convergence or divergence in claims?) They then reflect on what credible information they can glean from these readings that might influence their political opinions.

Legislative Branch Module: Students identify their representatives in Congress and, from their representative’s home page, find the page with recent press releases. Students choose a press release that interests them and identify any factual claims asserted by the representative. Students then evaluate the veracity of the claim using either fact-checking websites (Politifact, Snopes, etc) or independent methods of evaluating information (lateral reading, seeking original documents, etc.)

Interest Groups Module: Students choose two interest groups with opposing views on a controversial topic (e.g. NARAL Pro-Choice America and the National Right to Life Committee) and look at the organizations’ “Facts” pages. They first distinguish between statements that are “perspectives” (assertions of value or belief) and facts. They then create plans for how they would evaluate facts asserted on either side of the issue. What would be the criteria for establishing a claim to be true or false? What resources would you rely on for adjudicating these claims?

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