Evaluating books, primary documents, photographs, movies, websites, songs    
Who made it? How? For what purpose?

When members of learning expeditions have their research question and begin examining texts and other cultural artifacts, it is important that they continue asking questions not just about the topic they are studying but about the cultural artifacts themselves. Who made them? For what purposes? What assumptions did the creators make? How true are the implicit and explicit claims that are made.

As we examine various cultural artifacts--books, primary documents, photographs, videos-- we should continue to ask questions.

Principle: All cultural artifacts are constructed by someone. It’s easy to think of a newspaper clipping as something natural and to accept its message uncritically. But the more we know about how it was constructed, and by whom, and for what purpose, the more we know how to think about it. The same is true for books, television programs, songs, and movies.

Questions: Who created this cultural artifact?
What other people were involved?
What are the various parts that make up the whole?
Is anything missing?

Principle: Every communication medium has its own rules. Newspapers signal a story is important by using large headlines. Movies make a scene feel scary by using dissonance, atonality, and percussive notes to jar the nervous system. A moving camera conveys disorientation or excitement. A cluster of footnotes establishes an air of authority. The more we learn the syntax, grammar and metaphorical systems of the communication medium we are examining, the more we can enjoy them (as well as defend ourselves from manipulation).

Questions: What techniques are used to communicate emotions as well as facts?
What techniques from the arts (visual arts, dance, music, theater) are used.
What emotion does the artifact arouse? How?
What makes the artifact seem to be “real” rather than a work of fiction or imagination?

Principle: Most cultural artifacts are created for some purpose, which means there is some audience the creator intends to influence. Thinking about various audiences and how they interpret various messages can further our understanding.

Questions: How well did this message fit with your view of the world?
What other interpretations are possible or likely?
Who was the intended audience?
What can you learn from how other people interpret this message?

Principle: All messages have embedded assumptions and values.

Questions: What is the cultural context of the creator?
What judgments are made or assumed?
What political or economic views are communicated in the message?
What ideas or values are being “sold.”
What type of person is the recipient of the message invited to admire?
What kinds consequences of conduct are implied, stated, or depicted?

Principle: There is no necessary relationship between who created a cultural artifact and how true it is. Though it is often useful to think about the purposes for which an artifact was created, it is sometimes important not to stop there. Otherwise, critical thought tends to wither away, and people simply take sides based on their perceptions of which group the artifact supports or opposes. Since truth-seeking rather than side-taking is the main point of critical thinking, people who want to think more clearly will also evaluate the accuracy, precision, and truthfulness of cultural artifacts.

What principles are being asserted, either implicitly or explictly.
What evidence is provided in support of those principles?
What reasons are provided or suggested for believing those principles are true?
Is the evidence sufficient for the claims that are made?
Are the reasons logical?

Note: This worksheet heavily revises the five key questions proposed by the Center for Media Literacy. The rationale for this revision is provided in Thinking critically about critical thinking

2004 Michael L Umphrey | Permalink