Michelle Catalano, NSA, & Googling: Hidden Assumptions

I love using contemporary examples to teach my students the art of good research and argumentation.

A few days ago Michelle Catalano (freelance writer) detailed an experience she had with a group of policemen she thought were part of a joint terrorism task force. She suggests that they arrived at her house because her family had been on their computer searching for the words “pressure cooker, and backpack.”

She goes on to write the story which she has since updated and clarified.

For the purposes of my teaching activity I will cut and past only those sections revealed on the first day. Her story is titled “Pressure cookers, Backpacks and Quinoa Oh My!”

In the story she provides a series of details that read like a really good conspiracy novel.

excerpt: “What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.”

She ends the story with.

“Mostly I felt a great sense of anxiety. This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do.

All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online. I’m scared. And not of the right things.”

It is well-written and fun to read….and gorgeously but accidentally misleading. Perfect for teaching. 

Step 1:Take the text from the start all the way to the last line quoted above and provide it in a handout.

Step 2:Give your students about 10 minutes to read and discuss in small groups, asking anyone who has read this story before to hold their tongue.

And then…..

Step 3:Ask them to map her argument and the facts supporting it, leaving the website URL prominent. Ask them to raise questions regarding the story if they have any.

Step 4:Then, provide them with a follow-up story done with all the information.

Step 5:Now open the room to discussion about what the connections are between this exercise and writing for college.

Benefits of the Exercise:These real world examples can provide additional motivation for students to think deeply about: 1. the need to provide arguments and counter arguments; 2. to reveal all the information for and against a thesis; 3. to be perfectly clear about what the stated thesis/argument is.

The Power of the Real Versus Fiction:
In keeping the example linked to real events in the world it can also teach students that the art of skeptical and detailed inquiry isn’t just for scholars. It is the key to being a discerning reader.