Friday, December 2, 2022

The Sonnet at Salford: A Case Study in the Spread of Falsehood

How does misinformation germinate in today’s charged political climate, and how does it grow? A controversy that blew up in May of 2022 over the teaching of sonnets at the University of Salford in Britain provides an interesting case study. Here is some of what Rex Murphy (a columnist for Canada’s National Post newspaper) had to say on the topic as the manufactured controversy spread around the world:
Within the strict and limited form of the literary sonnet may be found some of the most exquisite and artistic creations of the poetic mind. They are the exhalations of literary genius. … To take these triumphs of the creative poetic mind out of consideration, and to lay on them the brand that they are “products of white western culture” and as such need to be “decolonized” (whatever that murk of a verb can possibly mean) is to commit a sacrilege against poetry and art. But such are elements in the idiot days we live in, that there is a university—at least that’s what it’s called, but names mean nothing in many cases—Salford, in England, where Shakespeare flourished and where Milton birthed his imperishable genius, which is doing just that.
Murphy’s 21 May column bears a combative headline (“How ridiculous is it for universities to sideline sonnets? Let me count the ways,”—and the subheading is even more ideologically charged: “In its wokeness, Salford University is pushing young minds away from some of the greatest artistic expressions the world has to offer.”

Murphy was one of several commentators who deplored this supposed “sacrilege against poetry and art.” The problem with these commentators’ claims? They were deploring something that had not in fact occurred.

What had in fact happened? Those in charge of a single course at the University of Salford—a second-year course in creative writing entitled Writing Poetry in the Twenty-First Century, not a survey of English literature—had decided to place less emphasis on the sonnet. Yes, this single course had indeed noted that such forms “tend to be the products of white western culture” (as they surely do indeed tend to be). But the sonnet had not been banished—not even from this one course. Previously, students enrolled in the course had been required to compose sonnets as part of both of the course’s two assessments (the work on the basis of which they were graded). After the change in the curriculum, they would still be required to compose sonnets (as well as sestinas and tankas), and one of the two assessments would still require students to submit both a sonnet and a tanka for assessment (with students having the option of submitting a third poem in a form of their own design). As Scott Thurston of the English and Creative Writing Department made clear, the only difference was that there would be slightly less emphasis in the assessments on the sonnet and especially on the sestina—though even in the case of the sestina students would still be required to compose in that form as part of their exercises. This was merely, then, a slight change in the way students would be assessed when it came to calculating grades for a single Creative Writing course. Far from taking the sonnet “out of consideration” across the entire university, Salford had not even banished it from this single creative-writing course.

How is it possible that such a thorough distortion of the facts could become so widespread? Part of the problem can be attributed to news media headlines, which are often written by a headline writer, not by the author or editor of each article. The first piece on the matter seems to be have been a 14 May 2022 report in the Daily Telegraph (often described as among the more respectable of Britain’s right-wing newspapers). The Telegraph piece was wrong or misleading in several respects, but it was far less misleading than the headline it was given: “University Sidelines Sonnets as ‘Products of White Western Culture.’”

Similarly, the article that followed a few days later in the Daily Mail (often described as among the less respectable of Britain’s right-wing newspapers) was correct—if misleadingly incomplete—when it quoted “Dr Scott Thurston, leader of the creative writing course at Salford,” as having said that “students would still be required to undertake exercises in composing sonnets.” You wouldn’t guess any of that from the Daily Mail headline, which blared out a more extreme story: “University of Salford Cancels Sonnets from Writing Course because they are Products of White Western Culture.”

When Google picked up the Daily Mail headline, it adopted it in an edited form. What you see first with respect to that Daily Mail article if you Google “Scott Thurston course – Salford” (as of 30 November 2022) is not the full headline but rather this shortened version: “University Cancels Sonnets over Concerns They Are “Products of White Western Culture.” The omission in the Google version of the phrase “from Writing Course” clearly suggests that the policy change was university-wide. Presumably the Google headline is more likely to have been crafted by Google software than by any human headline writer employed by Alphabet Inc.; either way, the result is pernicious.

But neither the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail headline writers nor the Google headline software should shoulder the bulk of the blame. The most egregious acts of irresponsibility here are surely those of writers such as Murphy themselves. Could it be that the writers who followed up on the original Telegraph piece with their own articles deploring the University of Salford’s supposed change of policy did not actually read much more than the headline? Such carelessness is surely within the realm of possibility; many people have plausibly suggested that there’s more and more skimming and less and less actual reading in today’s digital world.

It’s hard not to conclude, though, that ideology often dovetails with carelessness in such cases. Take, for example, the coverage accorded the incident by Maggie Kelly in an online publication called The College Fix—a publication that appears to be very largely dedicated to the fight against “political correctness.” Kelly begins her article with a sentence that references the Telegraph report and that, though somewhat misleading, is at least limited in its claims: “The University of Salford, a public university in Greater Manchester, England, removed sonnets and other “pre-established literary forms” from a creative writing course assessment, The Telegraph has reported.” Again, the headline above goes much further: “University drops sonnets because they are ‘products of white western culture.’” Could The College Fix be a publication large enough to have a staffer dedicated to headline writing? It hardly seems likely. Kelly is identified not only as the author of the article but as the “assistant editor” of the publication, which leads one to believe that at the very least she would have had to approve the publication of such a grievously untruthful headline. Evidently The College Fix is so concerned with attacking alleged political correctness that they can’t be bothered with the old-fashioned sort of correctness—the sort that regards it as important to get one’s facts right.

How difficult might it be for anyone who is interested in this matter to establish the facts? As is often the case with such outbreaks of disinformation, getting at the truth of the matter simply by Googling is not that easy. It’s far, far easier to find the misinformation repeated* than it is to find at least partial information about the second year Creative Writing module where it is posted on the University of Salford’s English and Creative Writing website. Even if you have the patience to go four or five pages down when you’re googling “Salford – sonnet controversy,” you’re not likely to find online the information that gives the lie to the screaming headlines of the right-wing publications.

Fortunately, the Internet isn't the only source of information. The University of Salford is a public institution, Scott Thurston’s email address is easy to find, and, as I discovered myself, Dr. Thurston responds politely and helpfully to inquiries. But it's surely something of a grim commentary on the state of the media today that it can be almost impossible to access anything like the full truth about certain news items without going directly to the source.

*The following were among the sites that were spreading the false information as of 30 November 2022: the Best American Poetry blog; the Classical website; the Redstate news website; the headline website; flipboard; the European; MSN (the Microcoft news portal); and Res ipsa loquitur (the blog of Jonathan Turley).

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