Clickbait as Critical Pedagogy: Muslim Vikings and the Scholarly News Cycle

[Author: Rachel Miller, PhD, is an assistant professor of art history at California State University, Sacramento. She teaches lower-division surveys of global art and upper-division courses on ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art. Her research is focused on the global dissemination of visual representations of Catholic saints in the early modern era.]

In 2009, Jorge Cham, the creator of the academia-themed comic Piled Higher and Deeperpublished his take on the “science news cycle.” The comic shows how a researcher’s carefully worded conclusion, full of caveats and qualifications, becomes increasingly sensationalized as it passes from his university’s public relations office, to mainstream news sources, to blogs and the local evening news. The cycle ends with the beleaguered researcher hearing a distorted version of his own study being echoed back to him by his tin-foil-hat-wearing grandmother. In the decade since Cham’s comic was first published, the conversation about misleading media has only intensified, while also becoming an area of concern for historians of premodern art who are increasingly finding their subject at the forefront of culture wars and ideological debates. 

             When teaching an upper-division course on medieval art, I was inspired by the controversy engendered by a 2017 Uppsala University press release to facilitate an in-class discussion focused on what I called “the scholarly news cycle,” taking my cue from the title of Cham’s comic. The lessons that could be drawn from this press release struck me as being especially useful for students. I thought students could learn a lot about how scholarship gets disseminated and the role of peer review, while also having a discussion about the importance of accurate and careful research on the cross-cultural interactions and long-distance migrations of people that characterized the Middle Ages. Such research can successfully refute the erroneous idea, advanced by white supremacists, that medieval Europe was a “paradise” for white racial purity. This scholarly news cycle could also allow us to study how people have imagined and appropriated the Middle Ages, which David Perry has recently noted “[pays] enormous dividends for the understanding of both history and the present day.”[1]

            When I first included this activity in my medieval art class, it yielded promising results, with students engaged in lively discussion. I was observed by Amber Ward, my Art Education colleague, during that class session and she provided valuable feedback on this activity. After further conversation with my colleague Mya Dosch (the author of last week’s post on using clickbait to teach Aztec sacrifice and art), I created a structured worksheet or “think sheet” that will help students move through the various tasks of the assignment more easily and allow them to process complex information before sharing it with the class as a whole. 

            After putting students in small groups, I passed out print-outs of the Uppsala University press releaseannouncing researcher Annika Larsson’s discovery of the word “Allah” embroidered on Viking funerary clothing and a BBC article that summarized those same findings. I prompted students to work in groups to compare and contrast the press release with the BBC article, asking them to note how the author of the BBC article interpreted Larsson’s findings and if he had consulted any additional sources in his reporting. Here, I made sure to point out to students that when evaluating how well a news outlet has reported on scholarly research, often the most effective thing to do is to compare the news article to the researcher’s peer-reviewed article or book. However, in this case, the Uppsala University press release had come out before Larsson’s research had been peer reviewed. This will become important later on in the activity. 

After having the groups share their thoughts with the entire class, I highlighted a few specific quotes from Larsson in the BBC article, asking students if they thought these conclusions were logical, based upon the inscription that Larsson said she found and other information in the readings: 

“The possibility that some of those in the graves were Muslim cannot be completely ruled out…”

“However, it is more likely these findings show that Viking age burial customs were influenced by Islamic ideas such as eternal life in paradise after death.”

 I then instructed students to imagine that they ran an incredibly popular art history blog and they wanted to summarize Larsson’s findings for their readers. What headline would they write for their blog post? Students especially enjoyed this portion of the assignment, some of them coming up with headlines filled with groan-worthy puns that caused us all to laugh. The groups wrote their headlines on the whiteboard and we voted on which were the most responsible in their reporting of Larsson’s research and which would probably generate the most clicks. 

Next, I told students that this story had subsequently gone viral and was summarized in a variety of news outlets and blogs. I put a collection of these headlines on the screen, asking students to reflect on them in groups and then we rated them together as a class:

Students noted that the most common assertion in the headlines was that the textile inscription proved that some, or even all, Vikings were Muslim. We pointed out that the subtitle from The Guardian, “University researchers’ ‘staggering’ claim appears to contradict theories that Islamic objects in Viking graves are result of plunder,” is especially troubling since the BBC article does not rule out the theory that the textile could have been a trade object or spoil of war and Larsson’s explanation of this point in the press release was not particularly convincing.

            I then introduced students to Stephennie Mulder’s sixty-tweet rebuttal to Larsson’s research, which was later incorporated into a Hyperallergic post. I used select screenshots of her tweets to explain additional problems with Larsson’s research, including the fact that the Square Kufic script identified by Larsson wasn’t widely used for another five hundred years after the date of the textile and that Larsson’s reading of the word “Allah” involved some creative extrapolation and interpretation of the pattern found on the silk cloth. I then had students discuss the following question in groups: “By debunking the ‘Allah’ inscription, is Mulder saying that there is no evidence for cross-cultural interaction between Vikings and the Islamic world? Browsing through Mulder’s tweet thread, what evidence does she supply to support or refute this idea?” Students then shared their responses to these questions with the class and we noted that much of this might have been avoided if Larsson’s university had waited until her work had been peer reviewed, perhaps by experts of Islamic art like Mulder, and revised before publishing a press release. This gave us an opportunity to talk about Twitter as a platform that, on one hand, has done incredible damage to the public discourse, but has also allowed scholars like Mulder to correct the historical record when it becomes a topic in the news. 

            Finally, I showed a slide of the “scholarly news cycle” as it relates to this textile, including the last stage where Mulder’s rebuttal was picked up by right-wing blogs that gleefully used her argument to proclaim that the idea of  Muslim Vikings was ridiculous: 

We discussed how this new round of headlines also misses the point, ignoring evidence presented by Mulder in the same Twitter thread that definitively demonstrates long-term, rich, sustained contact between Vikings and the Islamic world. 

I concluded the activity by asking students why this all mattered. Their answers revolved around their awareness that Vikings are regularly appropriated by white supremacists as a symbol of their “racially pure” European heritage. Students noted how important it is to be able to find and evaluate sources that address the multicultural aspects of the medieval world and arrive at accurate information that can be used to combat erroneous views of this time period. To quote David Perry once again, students left this class session with an awareness that “[we] are in an era of weaponized nostalgia, in which constructed pasts that may or may not bear much relationship to what scholars actually know about those pasts can shape the fate of nations.”[2]Ultimately, activities like this and Mya’s can give students the tools they need to dismantle these constructed pasts and help them acquire the information literacy skills necessary to disrupt the scholarly news cycle and see through the clickbait.

[1] David Perry, “Introduction,” in Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 8. 

[2] Perry, “Introduction,” 11. 

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