Raequel Roberts

(UM News Service) Of the 1,681 courses taught this fall at the University of Montana, JRNL 102Y definitely grabs attention. Not so much for its catalog title, of course, but for its name: Calling Bullshit.

An online course, Calling Bullshit examines why it’s so easy to spread misinformation and untruths and why it’s so hard to combat it, while exploring what citizens can do to become better consumers and producers of factual information.

“The name is definitely provocative, but the class is not about the cussword,” said course instructor Professor Lee Banville, director of UM’s School of Journalism. “It’s about Information literacy. People need to be both better sharers of information and better consumers of information.”

Because the subject is indeed serious, Banville chose a more appropriately earnest title when he launched the course in 2021. News Literacy, however, generated about as much excitement from students as one might expect.

“We had about 20 students in the class because, let’s face it, the title was boring,” Banville said. “Calling it B.S., we had 40 students this summer and 102 are enrolled this fall.”

The idea for the class – and its unconventional  title – isn’t entirely original. The University of Washington also sponsors a course titled Calling Bullshit, and its instructors, Professor Carl Bergstrom and Associate Professor Jevin West, wrote a book on the subject with the same title. Their emphasis though is on the misuse of data, Banville said, whereas UM’s looks more at how to spot and debunk misinformation in journalism and social media.

Banville talked with both UW professors while formulating his syllabus and uses their book as the course textbook.

“I blended UW’s more science-oriented focus with a journalism-literacy focus to create a new course,” Banville said. “But I kept the name, because ... well, because.”

Political science senior Lauren Van Cleaf finished Calling Bullshit this summer and said the “title sold me.” The curriculum, she added, was surprising rigorous, giving her skills she will use in her career and in life.

“The one big thing we learned is not to inherently trust the media, but also not to be paranoid about the media,” said Van Cleaf, who is considering going to law school after graduation. “You have to analyze what you read. Is the evidence being presented reliable? Are sources being named?”

Britta Sago, another summer graduate of the class, said she’s always been “a little bit subversive” when explaining her decision to enroll in a course with a decidedly unusual title.

“But I like to stay up-to-date on events, and I struggle to identify good reporting and reliable sources,” said Sago, a senior majoring in social work. “We learned in class how to break apart stories and determine if the sources were legitimate.

“Regardless of your political affiliations, this is important,” she added, “particularly with what is happening in our country.”

Freelance writer Bowman Leigh, who earned a master’s in UM’s School of Journalism, will serve an adjunct professor this fall, instructing students enrolled in Calling Bullshit.

She agreed that the rancorous state of current social dialogue makes this class particularly timely, but the ultimate goal is to educate students to become critical thinkers regardless of where the country leans politically from year to year.

“The title may be a little playful,” Leigh said, “but I can’t think of a better skill set to teach our students than to not take things at face value. It’s valuable really for all consumers of news and media.”

In the coming semesters, Banville and Leigh would like to expand the number of students who can take the course, but they want to keep class sizes small enough to foster two-way dialogue that respects other points of view.

People don’t need to be “fixed,” Banville stressed, just because they disagree with you.

“We want there to be more than a one-way conversation in class because the subject itself needs to be more than a one-way conversation,” Banville said. “So, we’re trying to find the Goldilocks between the two.”

He cautions students that recognizing B.S. and calling it out sometimes takes fortitude.

“I have a friend who is a professional fact checker, and we were commiserating recently about her struggles correcting misinformation about tofu shrinking brain tumors,” Banville said. “It’s not easy trying to debunk bad information. It’s a ton of work.”

And that title?

Banville said he wanted a course name that “hit” students upside the head, but even he struggled at times with Calling Bullshit.

“When I was filling out the paperwork to start the course, I kept thinking I can’t believe I am submitting this form, and I even used an asterisk in place of the ‘i’ at first,” he recalled. “I was waiting for someone to push back, and no one did.

“Yeah, the name is provocative,” he said, “but information literacy is incredibly important to society and our democracy.”