Category Archives: Critical Media Literacy

WandaVision: Pastiche, Past, and Present (A Course)

Below I am sharing my MayX (2 credit undergraduate) course I will be offering in about a month.

The course grew out of the following post based on the series WandaVision: Teaching WandaVision: A Textset on Pastiche.

See Also

A Vision of Being Human: “Am I normal?”

EDU 116 – WandaVision: Pastiche, Past, and Present

“The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.” — James Baldwin. The Nation. July 11, 1966.

Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Bias Statement


In my teaching, scholarship, public writing, and life, I am fully committed to racial, gender, and all forms of equity not yet realized throughout the U.S. and world. While academic spaces are often intellectually challenging and even uncomfortable, I will not tolerate in any aspect of this course language, ideas, or behavior/symbolism that are hostile to marginalized/oppressed groups (racism, sexism/misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc.).

Academic freedom for students and professors is tethered to consequences, and is not license. (See Free Speech and Diversity of Thought?

Students uncertain about what language and ideas are not acceptable because they are hostile or offensive are invited to discuss those questions with me privately and are guaranteed those exchanges will be treated confidentially and respectfully. I am eager to share evidence, research, and reading to help anyone better understand goals of equity, anti-racism, and anti-bias (see materials in Box, Race and Racism).

If you witness or experience any form of bias, please report here:

Bias Incident Report

Title IX syllabus statement

Course Overview

Catalogue Description

This MayX will explore reconsidering the past through the present by viewing the 9-episode series WandaVision (and other texts), which incorporates pastiche as a technique to reflect and challenge the sit-com genre. Students will apply critical media literacy strategies to explore pop culture and apply those strategies to understanding public and popular controversies in K-12 education. An active subscription to Disney+ during MayX is required.

Course Topics

Critical media literacy/ K-12 educational controversies


History/teaching history

Pop culture/Marvel Cinematic Universe/sitcoms


Course Texts

Vision: The Complete Collection (graphic novel)

WandaVision (series)

Pleasantville (film)

Sitcom episodes (TBD)

Brief readings (TBD; see schedule)

The 1619 Project

Course Objectives

  • Understanding and application of the concept of “pastiche” in media and pop culture
  • Understanding and application critical media literacy strategies
  • Awareness of educational controversies (for example, Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project)
  • Understanding of the field of history (relationship of past and present) and the teaching of history
  • Understanding of the essential aspects of liberal arts education
  • Reconsideration of race and gender in history and pop culture


  • Read Vision (before class sessions) and submit reflections* per schedule below
  • View WandaVision episodes (before class sessions) and submit reflections* focusing on pastiche technique in each episode
  • Independent Project – critical analysis of one episode of a classic sit-com referenced in WandaVision after series viewing (PP and class presentation)
  • Group Activity – viewing Pleasantville (film) for in-class critical analysis in groups
  • Final Portfolio Submission (all assignments resubmitted in Box folder)

* Written reflections should be submitted per the daily schedule below. Submit each reflection pasted into email (not attached) and include the reflection number (see schedule) in the “subject” line of the email. Due before each class session by schedule.

Schedule (Meeting 9 am -12 pm)

Week 1

May 11

Course Overview and Assignments

Read Vision (before class sessions) and submit reflections per schedule below

View WandaVision episodes (before class sessions) and submit reflections focusing on pastiche technique in each episode

Independent project – critical analysis of one episode of a classic sit-com referenced in WandaVision after series viewing (PP and class presentation)

Group activity – viewing Pleasantville (film) for in-class critical analysis in groups

May 12

Intro – Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); Sitcoms; Pastiche (Postmodern Use of Parody and Pastiche, Nasrullah Mambrol)

Critical Media Literacy – Teachable Moment: Fake News and Critical Media Literacy

Rethinking the past through the present? – Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document

May 13

Intro – Wanda and Vision

Teaching WandaVision: A Textset on Pastiche

Week 2

May 16

Vision 1-3 (reading and reflection DUE before class) discussion

May 17

Vision 4-6 (reading and reflection DUE before class) discussion

May 18

Vision 7-9 (reading and reflection DUE before class) discussion

May 19

Vision 10-12 (reading and reflection DUE before class) discussion

May 20


Week 3

May 23

WandaVision E1 – Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience

WandaVision E2 – Don’t Touch That Dial

(Viewing and reflection DUE before class)

May 24

WandaVision E3 – Now in Color

WandaVision E4 – We Interrupt This Program

WandaVision E5 – On a Very Special Episode…

(Viewing and reflection DUE before class)

May 25

WandaVision E6 – All-New Halloween Spooktacular!

WandaVision E7 – Breaking the Fourth Wall

WandaVision E8 – Previously On

(Viewing and reflection DUE before class)

May 26

WandaVision E9 – The Series Finale

(Viewing and reflection DUE before class)

May 27


Week 4

May 30 Memorial Day Holiday

May 31

Pleasantville (DVD Collection PN1995.9.C55 P63 1999) in-class viewing/discussion

June 1

Last class – final portfolio/exam DUE (submit in Box)

Presentations shared in class


Unpacking Nonsense: Knowledge as Commodity

Make your money with a suit and tie
Make your money with shrewd denial
Make your money expert advice…
You can lie
As long as you mean it

“King of Comedy,” R.E.M.

The school choice debate, reaching back into the twentieth century, tends to be framed around either/or concepts such as the free market (the Invisible Hand) versus public institutions (the Commons). But school choice that pits universal public education against private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling (as well as unschooling) is at its core a debate about the autonomy and humanity of children and teens along with a rarely interrogated idealism about parents and parental choice.

The U.S. has a long history of struggling badly with childhood and exactly when a human is an autonomous adult—from child labor to the garbled array of ages at which teens and young adults are allowed to behave as full adults (15-16 for driving, 18 for voting and joining the military, 21 for alcohol, and dozens of conflicting ages and laws across the country governing sexual autonomy, etc.).

If anyone clings to the foundational commitment to universal public education (often associated with the arguments posed by Thomas Jefferson) as necessary for creating and preserving a democracy, a so-called free people, then we must admit that a public education grounded in knowledge that is critically interrogated must be preserved against the forces of indoctrination.

Education is about asking, What do we know? How do we know it? And who does this knowledge benefit (or leave out)?

This final point is one of the tensions with religious education or church-grounded schools. I have taught in a graduate program that included teachers from a nearby Christian school where every lesson taught had to be linked directly to passages from the Bible.

Regardless of your faith or lack thereof, this is a necessarily distorted education—one that is being presented to children and teens as facts or t/Truth.

I have taught many students at my university, also, who came from religious schooling and noted that they had never been taught evolution (for example) or, when we covered evolution in my foundations course, they explained that their education had presented the scientific concept significantly differently than what we examined.

Whether we call what students learn in school “knowledge” or “content” or “curriculum,” we always must be aware that what students are taught is always chosen by someone for some reason; in other words, there is no politically, ethically, or intellectually neutral “knowledge.”

In fact, every classroom is by its nature of humans interacting with different levels of power a political space.

All of this lies beneath the current attack from conservatives and Republicans on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project (what we teach in U.S. history).

The reasons these attacks on public schooling are relevant to the school choice debate are, as I recently noted, that all alternatives to universal public schooling (private schools, charter schools, homeschooling, and unschooling) benefit from a discredited (and demonized) public education system.

Now one of the natural consequences of the rightwing attack on schooling is waving the “For Sale” sign:

Let me note here that this isn’t parody, but a very real addition to the school choice/homeschooling movement.

Elements of this “anti-woke” version of U.S. history are stunning, although predictable.

First, Anzaldua frames herself as an early career high school history teacher, who “was not just a leftist, but a full-blown socialist, intersectional feminist, and ‘antiracist’.” She adds (seemingly unaware of the irony) that her own anti-woke wokeness can be attributed to one of the most discredited academics of our time, Jordan Peterson.

But more importantly, the course that is being advertised as “fact based history” has several supporting links that perpetuate misinformation—scary uses of red and imagery linking CRT to “communism!” and CRT resources that are simply a list of links to misinformation and more scare tactics.

From “communism” and “socialism” to “CRT” and any use of the term “critical,” conservatives are uniformly misinformed [1], and thus, all of their arguments are invalid since they start with a false premise—the most significant of which is that essentially no one in public education is teaching history/social studies from a CRT lens.

Even in higher education, CRT is rare.

Setting aside that the exact people accusing public education of being politicized by the Left are themselves politicizing the teaching of history, what is wrong with this entry into the market place of ideas for education children and young adults in the U.S.?

How about considering the textbook choice—published in 1888!

Here is a fundamental problem with the long history of debates about the teaching of history in the U.S., a complete misunderstanding about what history is, how history is always biased and evolving.

Conservatives are often some of the loudest about combating the “rewriting of history” (consider the debates about statues and memorials to Confederate generals and the Civil War)—as if there is anything other than the perpetual rewriting of history.

In other words, history is the writing and rewriting of history.

Offering seventh graders a textbook 133 years old is educational malpractice; it is making a conscious decision to deny children (who have no political power and very little intellectual autonomy) the wealth of historical thinking that has occurred in the century-plus.

Consider that in 1888, women could not vote and the U.S. existed under Jim Crow laws of segregation.

So a U.S. history course grounded in a textbook from 1888 can be yours (or your children’s) for a mere $900.

While many (too many) culture war debates in the U.S. are overly simplistic—Us v. Them—a reasonable person can recognize that some aspects of human existence are well suited for the free market while others are not (the military or legal system working for the highest bidder).

This brings us back to the Commons. Tax-funded roads and highway systems are some of the most powerful and important contributions to the free market thriving, for example, and thus, evidence that the free market and the Commons are not in competition, but symbiotic.

But just as essential are public schools, and I would argue, universal healthcare.

As this homeschooling course proves, knowledge can be a commodity—truth determined by the consumer (and even for the consumer).

But knowledge must not be a mere commodity if we value learning and a well-informed citizenry, populated continually by children growing through adolescence into whatever moment we deem them adults.

Counter to the cartoon version of critical educators (as Leftist, Marxist indoctrinators), all aspects of critical education are in fact committed above all else to this: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

Critical educators are invested in helping foster critical students; these are acts of interrogating knowledge, not indoctrinating anyone.

While the attacks from conservatives and Republicans are both an affront to the discipline of history and the founding principles of teaching and learning, this is another example of idealizing parental choice over the autonomy of children, adolescence, and young adults.

I have explained often that I was raised in a home and community that taught me directly and indirectly incredibly harmful “knowledge” as t/Truth (much of it racism, and a great deal of it sexist). I am biased about the value of universal public education because my school and teacher experiences were opportunities for me to discover knowledge and embrace my own intellectual autonomy that was corrupted and even stunted by the choices made by my parents and community.

As a career-long educator, a critical educator, I must tell you when it comes to “anti-woke, pro-American, and fact based history education,” don’t buy it.

[1] Consider that Anzaldua identifies as a “freethinker,” a term that has a meaning I suspect she is completely unaware exists: “freethinking is most closely linked with secularism, atheism, agnosticism, humanism, anti-clericalism, and religious critique.”

Citation and Credibility: Three Lessons

In my three courses this fall, students are now all working on scholarly essays that incorporate high-quality sources (focusing on peer-reviewed journal articles). Since the work lies primarily in the field of education, students are using APA style guides.

Often when teaching students citation, we focus our lessons on (the drudgery of) formatting and idiosyncratic citation structures (APA’s annoying lowercase/upper case peculiarities, for example, in bibliographies) as well as the challenges of finding and evaluating a reasonable amount of valid sources to support the claims of the essay.

Students often struggle with evaluating sources for bias, and honestly, they are not well equipped to recognize flawed or ideologically skewed reports that appear to be in credible journals and are themselves well cited.

Part of the problem has been well documented by Gerald Bracey; citing Paul Krugman, Bracey confronts the rise of think tanks that promote their agendas through the veneer of scholars and scholarly reports. Then, Bracey notes, “[t]he media don’t help much. By convention, they present, at best, ‘balanced’ articles, not critical investigative pieces” (p. xvi). This is what I have labeled “both sides” journalism.

While scholarly writing and citation can often slip into a circus of minutia, one lesson needing greater care is helping students (and anyone making a research-based claim) recognize that their credibility and authority is built on the validity and quality of the sources they incorporate.

Here, I want to present three lessons illuminating that dynamic—all pulled from current issues.

Lesson One: The “Science of Reading”

One of the best examples of the problems with ideological think tank reports and media coverage occurred (again) at Education Week, a major publication covering education that has abandoned “critical investigative pieces” for simply reporting (crossing the Big Foot line) and “‘balanced’ articles.”

Ideological think tanks, as Bracey warned, are well organized and very aggressive, systematically alerting media and providing press releases so detailed that journalists have to do little work (except, of course, evaluating the credibility of the report to begin with).

Media routinely cover that think tanks release reports, and journalists have argued it isn’t their job to determine if those reports are valid or not.

For example, Education Week is so invested in the “science of reading” narrative and movement, that they eagerly present reports from NCTQ because their reports reinforce that narrative—even though, NCTQ itself has been repeatedly criticized for not meeting even the basic guidelines for scientific research.

Sarah Schwartz ignores that NCTQ is not a credible source for making claims about teacher training in reading. But with just a brief Google search, anyone can find that NCTQ has had numerous reports reviewed, finding a disturbing patterns: “Although NCTQ reports have been critiqued for their limited use of research and highly questionable research methodology, this report employs the same approaches as earlier NCTQ reports,” explain Stillman and Schultz in one of the most recent reviews (also concurrent to the report cited in EdWeek).

Students, like journalists, are often not expert in the topics they are addressing, and well-formatted reports can seem credible, but often fail the basic expectations of peer-review (NCTQ releases their reports without peer review and receive media coverage while the discrediting reviews tend to receive no media coverage).

The lesson here for students (and journalists) is that any claim is only as good as the sources used to support that claim.

If the “science of reading” is a valid narrative (and, in fact, it isn’t), citing sources that fail the basic test of being scientific certainly erodes if not discredits the initial claim.

Lesson Two: Gun Violence/Control

Since school shootings are a subset of the larger pattern of mass shootings unique to the U.S., I have been researching gun violence and school safety for many years. These topics have robust research bases that tend to contradict public and media assumptions about both.

I had just recently covered school shootings and safety with my educational foundations course when the highly publicized mass shootings near Atlanta, GA and in Boulder, CO erupted. So I returned to research on gun violence in two classes, having some students challenge what I was sharing. Those comments tend to echo typical pro-gun talking points and the common, but weak, arguments supporting gun ownership found in mainstream media.

Here’s the essential problem with research on school safety and gun violence/control: Gun advocates are ideologically driven and use compelling but false arguments to promote their gun agenda.

In other words, standard arguments for school safety (armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, active shooter drills, etc.) and access to and ownership of guns (Second Amendment) are dramatically different than findings in existing research. Making this dynamic worse is that gun advocates have powerful organizations such as the NRA and even high-profile scholars offering discredited but popular arguments and research.

For example, John Lott is an economist and author of a high-profile pro-gun book; he also publishes research on gun violence that in many ways looks to students, the public, and the media like high-quality research.

Again, simply reporting on Lott’s research or citing that research in academic writing proves to be misguided since his work has been widely discredited once reviewed (see above).

The lesson here for students is that not all published scholarship is credible, and, possibly even more importantly, students need to seek out a body of research, never relying on only one study or the work of one scholar.

Lott is discredited but his work is also a distinct outlier; academic and scholarly writing loses credibility when relying on cherry picking (outlier research) in order to support a claim.

Lesson Three: Identity Politics

Another aspect of academic and scholarly writing grounded in sources is the importance of terminology—using disciplinary or technical terms in valid and accurate ways.

Recently, Barbara Smith took Megan McCain to task for McCain’s misuse of “identity politics”:

As one of three Black women who coined “identity politics,” Smith offers an incredibly important lesson for students because her Twitter thread offers credible sources for her claim, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective and What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics, the latter of which leads us to the seminal text itself, Combahee River Collective Statement.

The lesson for students here is the need to clarify terms in valid ways, including finding the primary source for scholarly language.

In some frustrating ways, citation formats and structures are both tedious and powerful aspects of building a student’s or scholar’s credibility. But a far more important task for students in terms of establishing their credibility is finding bodies of evidence that are verified by the field itself, most often peer reviewed and sitting within the bounds of many similar studies.

Since the space for scholarship and evidence continues to expand, students need to be better equipped for the difficult task of determining when sources are valid and when they are mere ideological distraction.

Unfortunately, as I show above, we have ample evidence around us daily of the great divide among research, the media, and the public—a divide often manipulated by powerful organizations with ideological agendas.

NEW: The ethics of digital literacy: Developing knowledge and skills across grade levels

Thomas, P.L. (2019). The ethical dilemma of satire in an era of fake news and the brave new world of social media. In K.H. Turner (ed.). The ethics of digital literacy: Developing knowledge and skills across grade levels (pp. xx-xx). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

The Ethics of Digital Literacy

Developing Knowledge and Skills Across Grade Levels


The digital era has brought many opportunities – and many challenges – to teachers and students at all levels. Underlying questions about how technologies have changed the ways individuals read, write, and interact are questions about the ethics of participation in a digital world. As users consume and create seemingly infinite content, what are the moral guidelines that must be considered? How do we teach students to be responsible, ethical citizens in a digital world?

This book shares practices across levels, from teaching elementary students to adults, in an effort to explore these questions. It is organized into five sections that address the following aspects of teaching ethics in a digital world: ethical contexts, ethical selves, ethical communities, ethical stances, and ethical practices. 

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Pages: 200 • Trim: 6 x 9

978-1-4758-4675-1 • Hardback • January 2020 • $60.00 • (£39.95)

978-1-4758-4676-8 • Paperback • December 2019 • $30.00 • (£19.95)

978-1-4758-4677-5 • eBook • December 2019 • $28.50 • (£18.95) (coming soon)

Series Preface
Dominic Scibilia

Antero Garcia

Kristen Hawley Turner

Section 1: Ethical Contexts

Chapter 1: Meditation

Nicole Mirra

Chapter 2: Access, Readiness, and the Ethical Imperative of Advocacy

Lauren King and Kristen Hawley Turner

Chapter 3: Seeing Each Other Ethically Online

Derek Burtch and Amanda Gordon

Section Reflection
Kristen Hawley Turner

Section 2: Ethical Selves

Chapter 4: Meditation

Sara B. Kajder

Chapter 5: The Ethical Mandate for Shaping Digital Footprints: Reflections from Teachers

Susan Luft and Paul Tomizawa

Chapter 6: The Ethics of Composing: Identity Performances in Digital Spaces

Brandon Sams and Mike P. Cook

Chapter 7: Creatures of Habit: Self Reflexive Practices as an Ethical Pathway to Digital Literacy

Andrea L. Zellner and Leigh Graves Wolf

Section Reflection

Kristen Hawley Turner

Section 3: Ethical Communities

Chapter 8: Meditation

W. Ian O’Byrne

Chapter 9: Creating Online Communities: Fostering Understanding of Ethics and Digital Citizenship

Jade Feliciano

Chapter 10: Moving Beyond Troll Rhetoric and Facilitating Productive Online Discourse

Priscilla Thomas and Alex Corbitt

Chapter 11: Fostering Cosmopolitan Dispositions through Collaborative Classroom Activities:

Ethical Digital Engagement of K-12 Learners

Aaron R. Gierhart, Sarah Bonner, Anna Smith, and Robyn Seglem

Chapter 12: Online with Intention: Promoting Digital Health and Wellness in the Classroom Lauren Zucker and Nicole Damico

Section Reflection

Kristen Hawley Turner

Section 4: Ethical Stances

Chapter 13: Meditation

Troy Hicks

Chapter 14: Designing for Power, Agency, and Equity in Digital Literacies: New Tools, Same Problems

Katie Henry and Bud Hunt

Chapter 15: Educators discussing ethics, equity, and literacy through collaborative annotation

Jeremiah H. Kalir and Joe Dillon

Chapter 16: “It’s Whatever”: Students’ Digital Literacy Experiences in a Title 1 High School

Lisa Scherff

Section Reflection

Kristen Hawley Turner

Section 5: Ethical Practice

Chapter 17: Meditation

Renee Hobbs

Chapter 18: “Where did I find that?” Helping Students Develop Ethical Practices in Digital Writing

Kristen Hawley Turner

Chapter 19: Beyond quotations: Fostering Original Thinking during Research in the Digital Era

Michelle C. Walker, Monica Sheehan, and Ramona Biondi

Chapter 20: The Ethical Dilemma of Satire in an Era of Fake News and the Brave New World of Social Media

P. L. Thomas

Section Reflection

Kristen Hawley Turner

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

June Carryl, Crystal Lee Brown, and Siovhan Christensen in Mindhunter (2017)
June CarrylCrystal Lee Brown, and Siovhan Christensen in Mindhunter (2017)

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)
Ah-in YooSteven Yeun, and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

NCTE 2018 – Houston, TX

Find all the PowerPoints for the presentations below HERE.

Please consider attending the following sessions if you are attending NCTE 2018 in Houston TX this November:

(C.28) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 9:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m.
Location: 340 AB

Running and Non-Fiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Strecher, M.C., & Thomas, P.L. (Eds.) (2016). Haruki Murakami: Challenging authors. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

(E.24) Navigating the Similarities and Differences of Writing at the Secondary and College Levels

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 12:30 p.m.-1:45 p.m.
Location: 351 D

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Kristen Marakoff, Travelers Rest High School (Travelers Rest, SC)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics

(F.32) Raising Voices through Critical Media Literacy in a Fake News, Post Truth America

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
Location: 340 AB

An Educator’s Primer: Fake News, Post-Truth, and a Critical Free Press

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Goering, C., & Thomas, P.L., eds. (2018). Critical media literacy and fake news in post-truth America. Boston, MA: Brill.

(H.11) Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms

Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Time: 8:00 a.m.-9:15 a.m.
Location: Grand Ballroom B

Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms 

Teachable Moment: Fake News and Critical Media Literacy

The great and urgent paradox of twenty-first century America is trying to discover the truth about fake news, a phenomenon spurred by the 2016 presidential election.

Fortunately, Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler have analyzed how often people viewed fake news to help us understand that elusive truth:

[W]e find that approximately one in four Americans visited a fake news website, but that consumption was disproportionately observed among Trump supporters for whom its largely pro-Trump content was attitude-consistent. However, this pattern of selective exposure was heavily concentrated among a small subset of people — almost six in ten visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of Americans with the most conservative information diets. Finally, we specifically identify Facebook as the most important mechanism facilitating the spread of fake news and show that fact-checking largely failed to selectively reach consumers of fake news.

Since these researchers identified that about 65 million Americans consumed fake news during the study period and that fake news constituted about “2.6% of all the articles Americans read on sites focusing on hard news topics during this period,” everyone interested in facts and truth are justified in considering ways in which we all can combat the negative impact of fake news, not only on our democracy but also on all ways of life in a free society.

This urgency is especially relevant to educators, andGuess, Nyhan, and Reifler’s study speaks directly to the need for teachers at every grade level to incorporate critical media literacy into the education of all students.

To meet that need, co-editor Christian Z. Goering (University of Arkansas) and I have collected a series of essays in Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America because critical media literacy, we argue, may well be the only thing between a free people and their freedom.

CML Goering Thomas cover

In Chapter 1: An Introduction, Chris and I explain:

Turning … to Kellner and Share (2007), we define critical media literacy for the purposes of this volume as “an educational response that expands the notion of media literacy to include different forms of mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies” (p. 59) and “focuses on the ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality” (p. 60). It is the goal of this volume to build the aptitude and skill set of students and their teachers for critical media literacy in hopes for a better tomorrow. (p. 3)

And then, in Chapter 2: An Educator’s Primer, I offer some foundational concepts as well (excerpted next).

Being an educator at any level—K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education—has always been a challenge in the U.S. since formal education in theory is linked to preserving our democracy. Being a critical educator at any level in the U.S. has always been and remains nearly impossible because formal education in practice is more about enculturation and maintaining the status quo than seeking the social equity that remains elusive despite our claimed ideals as a people.

With the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, the media punditry has become obsessed, as has Trump, with fake news and post-truth public discourse. In this volume committed to investigating and interrogating fake news and post-truth discourse in the context of curriculum and instruction grounded in critical media literacy goals, we offer the foundational opportunity for educators to consider and reconsider the nature of truth/Truth, knowledge, and facts both in the teaching/learning dynamic and throughout mainstream media and all sorts of public discourse, notably by and about political discourse.

First, let’s establish the terms and contexts essential to understanding and then teaching critical media literacy:

  • “Fake news” is a technical term (although most public discourse fails to adhere to this technical distinction) that identifies mostly on-line information that is intentionally false and provocative, designed to be click-bait and drive internet traffic and thus revenue.
  • “Satire” is purposefully distorted information that assumes readers/viewers recognize the information is not factual, but intended to make larger points. The Onion, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, The Daily Show, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight are examples of satire packaged in seemingly credible formats, parodies of traditional news media.
  • “Post-truth” is a relatively newer term for the popular and often right-wing embracing of (and misunderstanding) post-modernism’s challenge to the objective nature of truth/Truth. Not to oversimplify, but post-modernism argues that truth/Truth is defined by whoever is in power (not an objective reality), while the contemporary popular and right-leaning political embracing of “post-truth” is more akin to “the truth is whatever I say it is regardless of any evidence or the credibility of evidence.”
  • Mainstream journalism functions under two important and corrupting norms: (1) journalists (just as educators are implored to be) maintain a stance of objectivity and neutrality, an apolitical pose, and thus (2) most mainstream examinations of topics, debates, and events are framed as “both sides” journalism, rendering all positions as equally credible and valid. For example, the mainstream media, as John Oliver has exposed, gives the general public the false notion that climate change has as many scientists for as against the “theory,” a term read by the public as “hypothesis.”

As noted parenthetically above, to embrace teaching critical media literacy (in conjunction with critical pedagogy and critical literacy) is disrupting the traditional norm that educators remain apolitical. This volume’s authors recognize that educators face tremendous hurdles for teaching critical media literacy: eroding job security with the dismantling of unions (and absence historically of unions in many regions of the U.S.), increasing accountability for student test scores on exams that are reductive and demand of students far less in their literacy than critical media literacy (in other words, our efforts to teach critical media literacy can be disregarded with “that isn’t on the test”), and deteriorating teaching and learning conditions such as overcrowded classrooms and more teachers inadequately prepared to teach (such as Teach For America candidates).

None the less, if we genuinely believe in universal public education as a key mechanism for democracy and individual liberty then we educators must be well versed in critical media literacy, and then we must make that central to our classrooms. Throughout this chapter, the intersections of media and education are examined in order to highlight the power and dangers inherent in fake news, post-truth discourse, and traditional calls for educators and journalists to be objective, apolitical.


Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy is not an option. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 59-69.

See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

When Fake Is Real and Real Is Fake: More on Crossing the Bigfoot Line

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Adichie’s “danger of a single story” and the Rise of Post-Truth Trumplandia

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

Why Education: Critical Literacy, Freedom, and Equity