Academic Skills, history, Research, teaching

The “Crap Detection” Assignment, or “If you can’t create a nice title, then don’t create one at all.”

"Why Watson, I think we've definitely happened upon some dubious claims, or as you Cockney types might say, some 'crap,' here"

I’ve invoked the above aphorism given that I have no real clever way to phrase the title of this post about crap detection without it sounding lewd. So, rather than risk offending the delicate sensibilities of my readers, I thought I’d avoid the issue altogether and simply get to the post.

After having heard Howard Rheingold‘s talk about “crap detection” at this summer’s ISTE Conference, I though it’d be a great idea around which I could create a research-oriented assignment. Well, after having mulled it over for a number of months, I’ve decided to launch into the task and set my Junior U.S. History class on the task of detecting crap.

In particular, we’re looking at the founding principles of the United States and trying to assess what the most significant factors and ideologies were in driving the establishment of the independent nation.  As a launching pad for this assignment, I had the students read about Glenn Beck’s rally a few weeks back and closely interrogate the article for the presence of historical claims and reasoning about the country’s founding. The took particular delight in reading about the woman who asserted that Jesus wouldn’t have supported the stimulus package, bank bailouts, or welfare. (While one could probably actually make a case that Jesus was pretty into helping the poor, that issue isn’t really germane here, so we’ll leave it for another day.)

After having dissected the article and practiced generating historical questions that it brought up, I distributed and explained the “crap detection” assignment that we’d spend the week working on and preparing to present. I thought that my assignment might be of some interest to others, so I’m including it below. If you’d like the original Google Doc of the assignment, click here to get it.


Mini-Research Project: Critical Content Evaluation or “Crap Detection”

The goal of this assignment is to help us further develop our skills of critical content analysis, or, as author and professor Howard Rheingold calls it, “crap detection.” Given the multiplicity of resources immediately available via the Internet for research, it is vital that we’re able to sort through, know how to approach and dissect, and then know how to properly use the material that we find via Google, Wikipedia, and the like.

As a way to help us prepare and engage in meaningful background research and vetting for our upcoming position paper on the founding principles of the United States (details forthcoming on that assignment), we’ll be spending this week selecting varied sources, critically interrogating them, preparing presentations on them for our peers, and then presenting our findings at the end of the week.

  1. Select a website or online source dealing with the values that fueled and informed the Founding Fathers of the United States. Consider looking for sources that deal with the role of religion, politics, political autonomy, and other beliefs that drove the push for independence and the crafting of the Constitution (e.g. focus on the years 1763-1791).
    DUE: Tuesday, Sept. 21  — must post URL and name of website to Edmodo before class on Tuesday. Only one student per website/source. Therefore, you must consult and look at what your peers have already selected so that you avoid overlap. Any redundant sources will yield a late penalty on this portion of the assignment.
  2. Critically assess and analyze the website. Focus on the following elements:
    – Content (what does it say? what is the argument?)
    – Author and/or sponsoring institution (who backs this project? what can you learn about them? do they have a particular agenda? is the author someone noteworthy or renowned in the field?) Consider using to get info about the owner of the URL.
    – Purpose (why does this website exist? what was the point of publishing this information online? how does the author of this source think the information will be used? what occasion or historical event prompted the creation of this website?)
    – Audience (who do you think is going to use this website? does the website’s purpose enable it to effectively reach its intended audience?)
    – Perspective/Point of View (how does the author and sponsoring institution shape the nature of what is being said? what tone words or phrases does the author use that reflect his or her perspective?)
    – Sources and References (what sources does the author cite? what are the nature of those sources? You might have to do some additional digging about the authors that get cited. For books and articles consider using WorldCat to find out how prolific certain authors are.)
    – Reactions (one of the great things about online sources and websites is that they’re far more interactive than static text. This fact means that you can discover what others are saying about certain websites and learn about whether or not a broad audience finds this material useful, legitimate, and so on. Do some digging to find out what others are saying and try to assess whether that discourse lends or undercuts the credibility of the source.)
  3. Prepare a presentation about your findings and analysis.
    – Your presentation can be either a PPT or a handout (be sure to make enough copies for everyone). If you make a PPT, I encourage you to use Google Docs, as that will allow you to embed your presentation directly into Edmodo.
    – Your presentation talk should NOT exceed five minutes. - In the course of your five minutes, work to address the elements discussed in #2 above. Remember, one of the major goals of this assignment is for it to be useful for your peers as we work toward writing our position papers; therefore, your ability to assess the value of worthwhile versus useless evidence and sources will help everyone hone in on material that will help them build their cases most effectively in this culminating assignment. Work to fluidly and organically blend together your discussion of those various elements listed above — in other words, don’t treat your presentation like a checklist, but instead strive to establish natural transitions from one section to the next. DUE: Thursday, Sept. 23 — presentations will take place on Thursday and Friday and the order of those presentations will be determined by “The Popsicle Sticks of Truth and Justice.” However, everyone must be prepared to present on Thursday.

Learning Standards:
The presentations will be evaluated on the following standards. Each of these standards will be evaluated on a 1-5 scale (5=Outstanding, 4=Good, 3= Competent, 2=Approaching Competency, and 1=Unacceptable).

  • Use an online search engine (e.g. to find appropriate scholarly resources that address the question above.
  • The presentation displays an awareness of the historical argument being made by the source and whether the source is primary, secondary, or tertirary.
  • The presentation interrogates historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created.
  • The presentation tests the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness.
  • The presentation detects and evaluates bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.
  • The presentation reflects an effective organization and presentation of information in written and visual form (e.g. PPT or handout).
  • The presentation is audible, coherent, well-organized, and confidently delivered.


Ultimately my hope is that by engaging in this assignment earlier in the school year, students will feel well-equipped to tackle future research assignments, as they’ll know how to systematically assess a source for its credibility and use value.

Any suggestions or comments about similar assignments or approaches to encourage critical content literacy are encouraged.


13 thoughts on “The “Crap Detection” Assignment, or “If you can’t create a nice title, then don’t create one at all.”

  1. This sounds like a great assignment! I did something similar with an American history class with the Reconstruction and the Constitution, challenging students to assess whether specific Reconstruction policies were either constitutional. There was some great debate!

    Beck and the Tea Party came up on my blog for Constitution Day. I find the whole Tea Party phenomenon rather interesting in an academic sense, because it is based not so much in on our nation’s history, but on the symbolism of the nation’s founding–the meaning of the founding. The history is irrelevant. It reminds me of a discussion I once had with a theologian about St. Augustine of Hippo (and many other discussions that have come up throughout history regarding religious tradition and doctrine). One’s interpretation of Augustine’s theology, today, is relevant to modern theological dialogue, but it is not typically reflective of Augustine historically. So, it doesn’t necessarily make modern Augustine thought crap, but it is frequently not reflective of the times and events that shaped Augustine’s thought–it IS NOT, in other words, history.

    Of course, part of the problem behind the Tea Party movement is actually rooted in academia I think. There has been a movement away from big events and big names–which has been essential in widening the view of our culture’s history–that has in some instances lead to a complete neglect of big events and big names. Therefore, there is an academic gap in an area for which there exists a great deal of consumer demand and it is being filled primarily by amateur historians, journalists and social commentators. It seems to me, from the outside of American history, that a balance has been lacking between important discussions of the “other”, for example, and the major events of our country’s founding (which for so long overshadowed everything else to the point of hero worship) in the last few decades. (This is not an entirely original idea! I heard John M. Murrin of Princeton discuss this in a colloquium at my university–“Self-Immolation: The Historiography of the Coming of the American Revolution.”)

    I would be very interested in your take on all this!

  2. Western Dave says:

    There are tons of academic histories about the founders, it’s a bit of a cult. Historiann covered this recently at her place.

    • Western Dave,
      My understanding was that genuine academic histories written about the founders/founding were currently out of vogue.
      Murrin was more precisely saying that college courses on Revolutionary America are increasingly difficult to find in American history departments, so perhaps my impression is based on his speech and my observations about which books on American history seem to be popular.
      My area of research is not American history, so I am not as familiar with the literature. I will check out Historiann’s post–thanks for the tip!

  3. Thanks for taking the time to write this up. FYI, here are the activities I did with my students last year before doing a similar activity:

    Exercise One:
    1) In pairs, have students find an article on Wikipedia about a topic they know well (their school, hometown, someone in their family, something or someone thy had just read about)
    2) Have students identify any statements they strongly doubt
    3) Explain footnotes and hyperlinks, and have students investigate sources used for these doubted claims.  Evaluate the evidence for the claims.
    4) Ask students to identify anything important that is missing from the article.  Discuss how what is omitted is just as important as what is present.
    5) Wrap up questions: What statements to you find controversial?  How does the article address the controversy?  Are the sources cited reliable, and what makes them so?

    Exercise Two:
    Have students compare first sentences from multiple textbook chapters on the same chapter (Columbus is the example here).  Have students identify the point of view and omissions of each sentence. Discuss the biases and point of view of the author that leads to these decisions.

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  5. Erika says:

    As an Information Literacy librarian, I help faculty develop this kind of assignment every day. Very good! It seems like the only part missing is helping them build search skills to find legitimate scholarly sources in replacement of the crap. (I always point out that only about 10% of scholarly journals are open access – according to Ulrich’s – so they’ll have to go to the library.)

    I may have missed this part, or it may be a separate unit, of course. Bravo for teaching critical anaylysis of online information. That’s a vital job & life skill.

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  11. Ryan says:

    I’m not familiar with Rheingold and this is the first time I’ve encountered the term “crap detection”, and I think that “critical content analysis” should be thrown out in favor of the former. Thinking of my own high school education (not that long ago, but long enough), there was no questioning of the validity of sources or the information they provided. I would have loved learning a technique called “crap detection” in high school. Of course I understand the need to keep the other name, but I’ll definitely have to incorporate “crap detection” as much as possible. Thank you for the engaging teacher slang equivalent.

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