Form vs. Content

Jamaican SimpsonsA lot of people, including most college students, have only a very limited awareness of how their minds can be manipulated by the style in which information is presented. Here’s a simple exercise on the subject involving two YouTube videos that show the insertion of a nasogastric (NG) tube — not the most pleasant experience, but you’ll see what I’m getting at in a moment.

Pose an innocuous-sounding question to your students like “Is it ethical to feed people with an NG tube?” and divide the class in half. At home, half the students watch this video of a young girl demonstrating how to insert the tube. The other half watches this video of Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def. When class reconvenes, engage the students in a discussion about the question, preferably without the students immediately referencing specifics about either video. In other words, students’ argumentation should initially be limited to statements like “This technique is unethical because . . .” Students’ responses will most likely be a function of whichever video they have watched — either use of the NG tube is unremarkable and sometimes necessary, or it’s torture.

Some of you may have already seen or heard internet chatter about the Yasiin Bey video, which was designed to send a very deliberate message about treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.  He clearly experiences physical and mental distress during the procedure, which some students may find disturbing, so it’s probably best to make watching the videos optional. But showing both videos in class after discussion, as part of debriefing, can help demonstrate to students that the way in which information is packaged often alters how it is interpreted.