Critical Empathy and Collaborative Fact-Engagement in the Trump Age: A Writing Center Approach

Shannon McKeehen

        The Peer Review, Volume 1, Issue 2, Fall 2017

Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” For better or worse, Thompson’s famous remark has aged well: it can serve to teach us a lot about our current political climate and how to proceed as educators. Simply put, the United States, with its new administration, is weird. It is weird to have a reality television host as president, one who appears in Pizza Hut ads and eats his steak with ketchup. It is weird to turn on the news and see spokespeople make up information about a massacre that did not take place. It is weird to see supposedly professional people spread misinformation and share debatable or “alternative” facts to support their claims. The weird have certainly turned pro alright, but how should we address this weirdness? And why is a writing center such a great spot to challenge misinformation and dubious sources, especially now?

Tutors, with their training and ability to share their research tools, are vital in this effort to address with their students how to spot misinformation. The purpose of this article is to give an overview of the problem of misinformation and suggest procedures for tackling it in the writing center, a one-on-one environment where tutors and students can safely bond. Arguably, writing centers afford us more opportunities to engage with students about fact-finding because such environments combine research with alleviating student anxiety about the writing process. Below, I will summarize various strategies to be used by tutors so that students can eventually uncover for themselves whether certain sources will appropriately meet their research needs. The procedures I will outline are drawn from multiple disciplines, including conflict resolution and sociology, to offer a scope beyond writing center studies.

Because dubious sources can be found in many (and sometimes unexpected) places, investigating distorted information from different angles will better prepare us for spotting and combatting “alternative” facts and developing better research literacy. Furthermore, knowing how to employ critical empathy when encountering students who may use “alternative” facts will be important for tutors’ rapport- and trust-building. When tutors can see that critical thinking and critical empathy go hand-in-hand during each session, there is greater potential for students to increase their research literacy and appreciation for their writing center.

“Alternative” Facts Lead to Collaborative Fact-Finding

Before understanding the role writing centers can play in response to our weird circumstances, we must first understand the scope of the “alternative” facts being widely shared and believed. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a study in mid-March of 2017 which analyzes the producers and sharers of actual fake news, misleading statistics, and dubious “research” during the 2016 Election:

A recent Pew survey … finds that 62 per cent of US adults get news from social media. To the extent that fake news is socially costly and … prevalent on social media, this statistic could appear to be cause for concern. We estimate that the average US adult read and remembered [between one and] several fake news articles during the election period, with higher exposure to pro-Trump articles than pro-Clinton articles (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017)

Benkler, Faris, Roberts, and Zuckerman’s (2017) study in Columbia Journalism Review also focused on the right-wing outlet Breitbart, in addition to any sources that quoted Breitbart:

Our … study of over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day shows that right-wing media networks anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. … Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were … a central theme. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation. What we find in our data is a network of mutually-reinforcing hyper-partisan sites that revive what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics,” combining decontextualized truths, repeated falsehoods, and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of the world.

Although the latest studies focus on right-leaning outlets that spread disinformation, they also discuss the danger of left-leaning outlets that try to do the same: the Stanford History Education Group, for instance, states that propaganda-laden news and conspiracy sources can be found across the political spectrum, and that the pervasive and corrosive nature of propaganda reinforces the urgency of research literacy, particularly among young people (Wineburg, McGrew, Breakstone, & Ortega, 2016). And because fake news and other dubious, highly-ideological sources can often present themselves as credible, it is imperative that our students develop the skills to determine fact from fiction and opinion from information.

While promoting fact-finding and fact-checking in a classroom setting is strongly encouraged, even natural, a writing center is a different sort of educational space, where one-on-one conversations may have more of a direct impact, and intrinsic motivation, or the fostering of self-reliance within students, may be more easily achieved (Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2013). Turner (2006) puts into perspective the special role that writing centers have for students during uncertain political times: “Because writing centers easily adapt to the needs of specific populations and institutions, they become a flexible alternative resource, with its distinctive advantages, available whenever writers, at any level of competence, desire the focused attention.”

Additionally, according to Mackiewicz and Thompson (2013), “tutors can give understanding and sympathy, [and they] can notice or attend to students’ accomplishments or conditions … Tutors can convey that they and the students are cooperators.” Because consultations prioritize cooperation and proceeding on a fact-finding mission together, the anxiety about whether a student’s research is “wrong” can be alleviated more easily through peer-to-peer rapport-building. When a student discovers that they have used inaccurate statistics in their writing, they may feel blindsided. Writing center administrators can train their tutors to use various troubleshooting strategies while cooperating with students, and because writing centers serve all students in ways that can be more intimate than those found in a classroom, tutors have a special opportunity to facilitate fact-finding missions, even those with controversial beginnings.

If tutors can emphasize empathy and understanding in all of their sessions, students who discover that their sources are not credible will be more likely to listen and be open-minded about the direction of their research. Some realizations during the learning process can feel overwhelming for students, but if tutors act as collaborators and demonstrate compassion and camaraderie, students will feel more at ease. Writing center administrators often train their tutors to use nondirective methods when showing students how to cite information, find more resources related to their topics, and so on; compassionately encouraging students to double-check their statistics and other facts is an additional, yet connected, step that tutors can take as research-literate, professional peers.

Preparing Our Tutors for Compassionate Fact-Finding

When I was assistant director of the Writing Commons at Kent State University, I used to tell some of the tutors that the writing center is a resource full of resources—an inception-style discourse community. Students from all backgrounds and beliefs come to a writing center for help; we offer that help through encouragement and the occasional heart-to-heart. Writing center tutors have access to helpful resources about which other students may be unaware, making them resources themselves, much like librarians and other academic professionals.

In addition, according to Lindsay Neville (2007), “tutors are trusted,” because as peers, they prioritize empathy and regard in their interactions: “The issues that students bring will … have an impact on a tutor’s ability to influence the effectiveness of the help that [tutors] offer. Students [feel it is] appropriate to discuss a wide range of issues with personal tutors.” Neville (2007) reiterates the fact that “tutors [are] expected to provide support in … academic, emotive, and personal development arenas.” In sum, writing center administrators easily recognize that tutors are more than just tutors. They are coaches, counselors, librarians, informal advisers, and mentors.

This multidimensional position affords tutors the chance to address fake news and other problems that arise in a professional yet friendly one-on-one encounter. Writing centers pride themselves on going beyond “proofreading,” and our current political climate insists on our ability to reinforce rigor in research, fact-finding, and fact-engaging. Because students from first-year college composition classes still statistically make up a large percentage of those using a writing center’s services (MacArthur, et al, 2015; Gray, 2016), guiding such students early in their development of research and resource-gathering skills is crucial.

I am not advocating for the strict policing of sources and information shared. Writing center administrators and tutors exist to provide tools for students, not to decide in a directive manner which ideological perspectives are worth a student’s support. Ultimately, any political perspective can be guilty of spreading propaganda; any political source could potentially run the risk of being absent of facts. Further, instructing students to avoid certain sites “at all costs,” without showing them the reasons why certain sites or articles contain misinformation and how to uncover said misinformation, defeats a writing center’s purpose in facilitating cooperative and transparent fact-engagement. It is my goal to summarize various strategies to be used by tutors so that students can eventually reveal for themselves whether certain sources will address their research needs

Strategies for Fact-Finding and Fact-Engaging

One teacher’s methods of uncovering a fake source may prove useful in a writing center context. Scott Bedley teaches fifth grade in Irvine, California, and while fifth graders and college students do not have much in common, Bedley’s (2017) tactics can be applied in any education setting, with any group of students. He writes:

I started asking my students to examine seven different elements of an article. If the information checks out on each of these points, it has a high likelihood of being accurate. Still, passing the test is not a guarantee that it’s fact.

  1. Copyright: I always ask students to check the bottom of the webpage to see if the information has been submitted for ownership.
  2. Verification with multiple sources: Students must double check the information on a few different web pages. Like in a trial, the more corroborating witnesses, the more likely the truth will be discovered.
  3. Credibility of source: I tell them to check if the source has been recently created. Sources that have been around for a while can show reliability over time and be tested by hindsight, whereas recently created sources don’t carry much of a track record.
  4. Date published: I always ask them to check how recently the page was updated to see how current the information is and whether anything has changed.
  5. Author’s expertise and background with the subject: Students should check if the author is someone who has dedicated time and effort to learning this subject. For example, a university professor typically has increased credibility versus a hobbyist.
  6. Does it match your prior knowledge: I ask them if the information matches up with what they have learned before.
  7. Does it seem realistic: I tell students to use their common sense. Does something seem authentic or probable?

Of course, even Bedley admits that this method isn’t fool-proof. Websites can falsify copyright dates, for example. They can also be written by someone with higher degrees but who, upon investigation, is not a credible source.

Take Dr. Jason Reza Jorjani, who received his philosophy degree from Stony Brook University. He presents his beliefs as research, and according to some of his colleagues, he is a charismatic person. However, just because he has a PhD does not necessarily mean that he is a credible and reliable source of information. For instance, Dr. Jorjani believes in eugenics and the superiority of the white race; he supports the founder of the new alt-right movement, Richard Spencer (Frim & Fluss, 2017). Some student writers may be tempted to think that quoting Dr. Jorjani in their paper about race may be wise given his credentials, but I always advise students to look up authors of texts after they have found a source that they like.

I believe that writing center tutors can be trained to ask similar questions when they have a gut feeling about a source they encounter in a student’s paper: who is the author; what does a simple cursory Google search reveal about the author; what research is this person famous for; what does this person’s research and philosophies argue and why, and so on. Once a tutor and student are able to answer these questions together in a session, the student will gradually be able to determine whether an author of a source is reliable, credible, and meets their rhetorical and/or research needs.

To automatically assume that an intellectual and academic is a reliable source of information can prove to be a mistake. Ultimately, all ideologies have their intellectual poster children, but not all of them are trustworthy or ethical. For instance, in many of our English classes, we still read Martin Heidegger and Ezra Pound. However. it is acceptable to tell students that they do not have to completely buy the ideologies of Heidegger and Pound just because the poets believed them and because we consider them to be intellectuals. Their ethos in one area does not lend itself to ethos in all areas. Once a student understands that the author of their source may be using their opinion instead of facts, they may realize that although their source seems persuasive on the surface, digging a little deeper reveals a bias that is likely not rooted in fact.

The tutor may decide to perform a discourse analysis together with the student once they have a conversation about whether a cited source is overly bias. According to discourse analyst Barbara Johnstone (2008), creating a text involves negotiating potential meanings based on context, culture, and ideology. Therefore, a lot can be uncovered when a tutor helps a student deconstruct a single paragraph of a source; its ideology will become transparent upon analysis. They may ask the student to read it out loud, sentence by sentence, and go over each one’s motivation and meaning, asking for the purpose and perspective of each line.

Close readings of a source, even if it is just a small section, can reveal to a student its usefulness to a project and teach them how to pick and choose resources more carefully in the future. For instance, once a student understands how to perform this close reading of a chosen source, they and the tutor may observe that a particular hyper-partisan source uses passive voice when discussing a controversial matter, such as violence.

Imagine that the following quote is cited in the student’s paper: “A suspect was shot and killed by gunfire on January 18, 2014.” Discussing with the student that all writing is intentional, and asking the student to discuss in their own words what the use of passive voice potentially means in a text; could result in their ability to expose that text’s bias and opinion in regards to the violence committed. In the above example, the student may ask, who shot whom, and why? The answer may reveal a bias within the source that the student was not privy to before.

Even employing strategies from the area of conflict resolution may help our tutors. Tasha Souza (2015) from Humboldt State University advises those who encounter conflict in educational settings to use the Four F Framework: Facts, Findings, Feelings, and Future. A tutor may ask the following questions during a consultation about research and sources: what factual evidence did you find to support your argument; how did you find that evidence, and what other findings did you come across; how do you feel about the evidence you found; what implications does this evidence have on the future of X situation? By answering these questions, a student is able to articulate their research process, and as a result, a tutor may be able to measure a student’s research literacy and help with its development if needed.

Critical Empathy: The Do’s and Don’ts

In addition, tutors who phrase their questions in a patient, compassionate way prioritize using empathy with their students. Thus, empathy is channeled in order to continue building emotional rapport with the student by focusing on the ideas shared, rather than the character of whom is sharing the ideas. It is common—and incredibly easy—to resort to calling someone’s character into question if we discover that they are sharing misinformation or even conspiracy theories. A student who uses the writing center is likely already feeling anxious about sharing their writing, let alone whether a tutor will find fault with it. That said, tutors asking a lot of questions of their students’ writing and sources can on occasion feel awkward. Because tutors’ relationships with the students they serve can be fragile, knowing how to prioritize critical empathy in addition to critical thinking becomes central to their interactions.

Critical empathy means to engage with others reflectively and judiciously, while understanding that their ideas and beliefs should be treated with wisdom and care. However, while critical empathy can and should embrace nuance, it is important to note that, like its sibling critical thinking, it should not be divorced from reasonable and measured critique. According to Eric Leake (2016),

To teach empathy as a disposition is to teach prosocial habits of mind that are rooted in our work with texts but with the potential to extend beyond [educational settings]. It is to teach writing in ways that develop more empathetic practices and tendencies in how we understand and respond to one another.

That is to say, critical empathy in practice is a reciprocal exchange, and when a tutor demonstrates critical empathy, they are demonstrating a kind regard for their student. And the student, feeling reassured by the tutor’s kindness, is likely to open up and engage with the tutor beyond the confines of the session.

If tutors treat their sessions like conversations with people they care about, a discursive shift takes place: while the focus of the session will still be the student text, the interaction becomes more about the students’ well-being and the idea that their learning matters. Additionally, the tutor is now open to learning from the student and the student’s text. Indeed, this interaction becomes less about “correcting” what happens to be “wrong” and more about mutually comprehending the text, understanding its purposes and whether said purposes match the student’s intentions.

For example, if a student comes into the writing center with a paper that is citing George Will (a conservative political columnist who has won the Pulitzer Prize), that is much different from that same student citing Alex Jones (a conservative radio show host and conspiracy theorist). Even though these sources are appear politically right-leaning, to treat them the same would be intellectually dishonest given the ethos and credibility of each. A tutor must be able to have a conversation with a student first about their intentions when using these sources, and second about their knowledge of the sources.

Critical empathy recognizes that the conversation about George Will’s ideological perspective and writing would be much different from the conversation about Alex Jones and his ideological perspective and writing. A writing center tutor may face a dilemma when noticing the use of such sources, which rely heavily on opinion, given Will’s and Jones’ respective histories, but if they are trained with critical empathy in mind, then the consultation will (hopefully) go smoothly.

The student in the consultation is vulnerable, and according to Mackiewicz and Thompson (2013), “by building a caring emotional environment, tutors can decrease students’ anxiety.” A student is not going to respond well and retain a tutor’s advice if the student feels increasingly “attacked.” A tutor should continuously reinforce that they are on a fact-finding mission together with the student, that they are a team, and that the tutor cares about the student’s success, which involves caring about the student’s research and resource-gathering skills. According to Ellen Cushman (1996), “empowering people in part enables them to achieve a goal by providing resources for them. … Empowerment also happens when we facilitate people’s oral and literate language as well as lend our status for their achievement.” In a tutoring situation, tutors are “lending their status” as professional, educated peers and mentors to those they serve.

Sharing their knowledge with a tutee should be done with the students’ educational and emotional well-being in mind, while fostering and encouraging their empowerment; consider that “how we empower students to take an active role in their writing process has to do … with our basic social and political assumptions about the student’s right to be writing in the academy” (Okawa, Fox, Chang, Windsor, Chavez, & Hayes, 2010). That is to say, their vulnerability is multifaceted: they are would-be professionals, and often they are novices when it comes to writing and research. By reinforcing critical empathy with them, we are showing them that we value their trust in us, that we consider their education worth fighting for, and that we as tutors have a lot to learn from this interaction as well. Their right to an education is itself deeply political, and writing centers have a vested interest in the health of that right.


In sum, during a tutoring session, using constructive criticism while also being empathetic is vital and involves continuous check-ins. To be clear, stating that a piece of information is wrong is not the same as judging the informant’s intentions and character. Thus, being direct about what is uncovered about the source and the information it contains does not have to mince words or treat student-writing with “kid gloves.” It focuses our attention on the information itself. Writing center administrators should not shy away from training their tutors to use direct language when giving feedback about student-writing and dubious claims supported by poor sources. According to Okawa, et al (2010),

Both tutors and students come to each tutoring session with experience and expectations that are culturally based. As a trainer, the director needs to encourage writing tutors to develop an understanding of and respect for this situation. To develop such sensitivities, tutors must engage in various forms of critical reflection or inquiry that may include an exploration of their own assumptions, values, and world views.

That is to say, self-reflection is part of critical empathy: understanding the scope of our own cultural biases and how it affects our interactions with others is the first step toward becoming successful tutors and educators. Tutors will serve students who are LGBTQ, but they will also serve conservative former soldiers, and everyone in between; tutors themselves maydefine their own identities any number of ways, and such identities will likely shape the interactions they have with their students. Those who work in a writing center need to be direct and reflective about their practices and motives, for the benefit of each student they serve.

Ellen Cushman’s (1996) “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change” candidly shares scenarios and outlines strategies for researchers in rhetoric to use when dealing with vulnerable research participants. The tools she describes—recognizing “civic purpose” in academic settings, asserting social change in small everyday interactions, promoting “scholarly activism,” etc.—can also be used by writing center administrators and writing center tutors who are interested in creating and maintaining a writing center space that is both welcoming and challenging of important ideas. We can help our students not only in our discussions of valid versus invalid sources, but in our daily interactions, during which we can proactively demonstrate that we care about their fact-finding, fact-engaging skills as they refine their research abilities. Tutors are safe to consult about sensitive research topics; their status as professionals does not negate their status as peers, and hopefully the latter position will help in the fostering of critical empathy and critical thinking.

As we enter a new discursive era with Donald Trump, it will be crucial for administrators and tutors alike to develop critical empathy in our social practice. How we shape Cushman’s (1996) “civic purpose” in the writing center goes beyond discussions of safe spaces; understanding that the writing center space is for everyone and purposefully using it as a fact-finding, fact-engaging space will reinforce its status as an educational environment in which social change can occur, strengthening college writing’s relationship with research in particular. If we use a combination of strategies to interrogate the sources our students find, we , as a community, are able to discover and discuss what makes sources credible and useful. So, while the weird have turned pro, we have always been pros at being a resource full of resources, and we can use those resources for good.

About the Author

Shannon McKeehen is a writer, teacher, and graduate student at Kent State University. She has been working for, and writing about, writing centers for over ten years. Her research interests include peer response, literacy studies, and creative writing pedagogy. She lives in Kent, Ohio, with her small cat and large books.


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