Hitchhikers vanish mysteriously in Africa, Elvis is alive and working at a gas station on Route 66, and the US actually faked its Moon landing in 1969. How can urban legends, conspiracy theories, and downright hoaxes such as these become the centerpiece for a course in writing, research, and critical thinking?
Intrepid instructors Doug Bradley (on the right) and Chris Dean of the UCSB Writing Program embrace this challenge in their new classroom text, Terra Incognita: Researching the Weird (Kendall Hunt, 2012). With their own longstanding interests in the strange and grotesque lurking in the background, Bradley and Dean started collaborating five years ago on a new means of engaging students in a serious critical thinking and research process. It’s a “metacognitive” journey, they maintain, that enlists students in “thought experiments” in order to explore intriguing if uncomfortable claims made across the Internet, in newspaper and television accounts, and by word of mouth.
Along with chapters on logical fallacies, on researching and thinking one’s way toward the truth of things, and on writing with clarity and informed perspectives, Terra Incognita includes essays ranging from William James’ reflections on our “will to believe” beyond the reach of reason and evidence, to Robert Goldberg’s examination of the UFO claims centered on Roswell, New Mexico, to Malcolm Gladwell’s critique of our dangerous propensity for making “snap decisions” on complex social and political issues.
Throughout Terra Incognita Bradley and Dean keep their focus on the critical thinking processes that inform writing of genuine value—to both the writers and their readers. The book is full of fun in its many bizarre yet enticing accounts of weird claims and demonstrates at the same time that our jumping to conclusions, indulging in vague generalities, and failing to seek credible evidence hold serious consequences for our personal lives and for our contributions to a democratic society. Americans proclaim the right of everyone to his or her own opinions; Terra Incognita provides myriad tools for testing, and possibly reshaping, our treasured ideas and convictions.