Clickbait as Critical Pedagogy: Teaching Information Literacy and Aztec Sacrifice

Author: Mya Dosch, Assistant Professor of Art of the Americas at California State University, Sacramento. Please comment below, through the AHTR facebook group, or email with thoughts, questions, or suggestions– I would love to hear from AHTR Weekly readers on how they teach information literacy, as I think about how to adapt this basic format to evaluating more academic, less sensational sources.

This activity grew from two realizations in the wake of the 2016 election: first, that information literacy—the ability to find and weigh various sources—is one of the most important skills that we can teach our students in “the era of fake news.”  Second, I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. I often taught students to analyze their sources with one-time, “one-size-fits-all” activities that I could use in any of my classes, or through demonstrations that required little student engagement. Even worse, I often found myself steering students away from internet resources altogether through blanket bans on “Googled sources,” instead of teaching them to evaluate the online content that they consume every day. 

Furthermore, faculty—myself included—often outsource lessons on finding and evaluating sources to instructional librarians. While I greatly appreciate these colleagues’ work and expertise, I worry about the message that this sends to students. When information literacy is only taught by librarians and not reinforced in classroom instruction, it suggests that the skill is not important enough to warrant the primary instructor’s time, and not integral to the course content.

Conversations with my colleague Dr. Rachel Miller encouraged me to teach information literacy not as a tedious necessity or an afterthought. In an activity that she will outline in an AHTR blog post next week, Rachel had students in her Medieval art class trace the “scholarly news cycle.” They analyzed the way that an academic press release suggesting a Viking-Age textile may feature Kufic script transformed into clickbait articles with headlines such as “Were some Vikings Muslim?”  Through this, she made information literacy a central part of the course pedagogy.

Drawing from this model, I developed the following activity for my “Death and Dying in Mexican Art” course. Inspired, in part, by an AHTR blog post, I taught the course using the principles of Team-Based Learning (TBL), a flipped-classroom model in which students spend much of their in-class time grappling with substantial disciplinary problems and coming to a consensus as a team.   

The activity was part of a lesson on a fraught topic: Mexica (Aztec) sacrifice in art. I was hesitant to teach sacrifice, as discussions often fall into colonial narratives about barbarity—and find parallels in current xenophobic rhetoric about Mexican immigration. It seemed vital, however, in a class on Death in Mexico, to confront this topic head-on. Additionally, students were genuinely curious about whether “what they had heard about sacrifice was true.”

Before the class, students read historian Inga Clendinnen’s “The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society.” She describes sacrifice as both a spectacular sociopolitical tool and a somber religious ritual intended to maintain agricultural cycles. It is a vivid, yet nuanced, account of the ceremony of sacrifice. At the beginning of class, per Team-Based Learning principles, students took a quiz individually, and then completed the same quiz questions again as a team to ensure that they had understood the basic concepts from the article. I reviewed any concepts with which teams struggled. Then, students applied their knowledge from the scholarly reading to a clickbait article for a popular audience. I presented each team with an excerpt from the online “listicle” entitled “10 Horrors of Aztec Human Sacrifice.”  Using this worksheet, each team first selected three specific parts of the clickbait article that seemed particularly sensational to them. For example, one team noted, “the language is… leading [readers] to have a negative opinion: butchers, dismember…” Another said, “calling them ‘butchers’ makes it seem like there was no symbolism behind the sacrifices, that they were just killing to kill instead of to maintain a balance.” After they compiled responses in their teams, we discussed their reactions as a class. I then brought in several quotes from other authors who commented on violence in Mexico, some of whom we had discussed earlier in the semester. We compared clickbait to both the writings of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and 21st-century xenophobic discourses about the US-Mexico border. We discussed how essayists could employ sensationalized visions of indigenous rituals as “evidence” to justify colonial and neocolonial acts. I also asked students to take out their phones and research the credentials of the two authors we had read, which lead to a conversation on expertise, and how to determine the reliability of a given source.

The second team activity asked students to “decolonize sacrifice.” Each team had to come up with three edits to the language and illustrations of the clickbait essay based on their knowledge of Mexica beliefs, and then share them with the class. In the future, I plan to end this activity with a “gallery walk,” in which each team posts their edits around the classroom and students circulate to read other teams’ responses, adding post-it notes with feedback on answers they find particularly insightful.  

The next class session, I presented students with a mini-lecture on four artworks that had to do with Mexica sacrifice: a Tzompantli (skull rack) at the Templo Mayor, the Tizoc Stone, the Frontispiece of the Codex Mendoza, and a sculpture of Xipe Totec wearing a flayed skin. Then, each team had to imagine that they were prepping to teach an undergraduate class on the Mexica. I asked them to select which one of these artworks they would use to introduce their class to the core Mexica beliefs on sacrifice, and justify why this artwork was the most appropriate. This activity followed the principles for Team Based Learning activities: each group works on the same problem, and the problem is a substantial conundrum in the field and which does not have a clear solution, though students are required to make a singular choice and justify it. Teams disagreed heartily, and in the process, they made nuanced arguments for their chosen artwork, modeling the work of art historians and curators. 

A follow-up writing assignment could ask students to take what they had learned during the in-class team activities and write their own brief listicle on Mexica sacrifice. Their essays would need to be accessible to a broad audience, but also true to our knowledge of Mexica beliefs.

The clickbait activity generated impassioned discussion, unlike any workshop on information literacy I had conducted in the past. Many students were livid about the sensationalized essay, and clamored to connect it to racist discourses that they heard in their daily lives. I also felt energized: teaching information literacy became an engaging conversation instead of a chore. 

Mya Dosch is Assistant Professor of Art of the Americas at California State University, Sacramento, where she teaches courses on Latin American art, race and representation, and public art across the Americas.  Please comment below or email with thoughts, questions, or suggestions– I would love to hear from AHTR Weekly readers on how they teach information literacy, as I think about how to adapt this basic format to evaluating more academic, less sensational sources.

One response to “Clickbait as Critical Pedagogy: Teaching Information Literacy and Aztec Sacrifice”

  1. K. Christensen says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I have very young children and I have thought often about how to teach them to be skeptics on the internet. This is a great guide that can be applied almost any subject. What a phenomenal job you are doing!

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