November 3, 2023

PhD student focuses education research on misinformation, media literacy and AI, drawing from experiences as schoolteacher, journalist

pt-lathrop Ben Lathrop is a third-year Purdue doctoral student in the College of Education’s English Education program in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. (Purdue University photo/Phillip Fiorini) Download image

Purdue doctoral student Benjamin Lathrop is helping frame the conversation surrounding disinformation and misinformation while publishing about teacher-focused research and tools on critical media literacy. He’s also examining another hot topic of the day: artificial intelligence and the ethical and practical questions surrounding generative AI technologies such as Open­AI’s ChatGPT.

While just in his third year as a Purdue doctoral student in the English Education program in Purdue’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Lathrop, a National Board Certified teacher, also draws on his years of experience as a high school teacher, journalist and parent.

“I suppose what I am focused on is ‘cutting edge’ in the sense that a lot of it is new and rapidly evolving because of changing technology, the explosion of social media and large language models such as AI,” says Lathrop, a Dean’s Doctoral Fellow in the College of Education. 

“It’s going to be a huge issue — misinformation — with the political climate now. I don’t know if I could honestly say that I’ve stumbled upon something that no one else has thought of. But a lot of people are really interested in this topic now for the same reason as I am. And hopefully I’m doing something relevant that will be useful to teachers.” 

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Lathrop recently co-wrote a piece about the tendency of ChatGPT to produce academic citations of fictitious studies with colleague and advisor Tara Star Johnson, an associate professor of English education and associate dean of learning in the College of Education. Titled “Researchers Beware: ChatGPT is a Bull****er,” the article was published in August 2023 by the peer-reviewed journal English Education.

Lathrop also recently co-authored “Honoring Rural Pasts, Presents and Futures,” an article accepted for publication in the blog “Writers Who Care.” Another English Education article, “Theory and Practice in Action as Teacher and Teacher Educator,” was published in 2022. His first academic publication, “From Engagement to Empathy: Performance in the ELA Classroom,” appeared in English Journal in January 2021.

Lathrop’s first publication of original empirical research, co-authored with Christy Wessel Powell, associate professor of language and literacy, was titled “We Shall Take Their Children Away and Rear Them to the Fatherland”: A Discourse Analysis of a ‘Parent Advocacy’ Group” and appeared in the Journal of Language and Literacy Education in 2022.

“It’s more typical for grad students to present at a couple of conferences per year and/or present as part of a faculty advisor’s or research team’s work,” Johnson says. “Almost all of Ben’s scholarship is solo-authored.” 

While teaching in Minnesota, Lathrop successfully completed the lengthy National Board Certification process. He was then named a National Board Fellow and participated in a project in Virginia with four other fellows, including Juliana Urtubey of Las Vegas, who was named National Teacher of the Year in 2021 by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“I was able to get to know her (Urtubey) before she was honored, so that was a great experience. That opportunity [to become a National Board certified teacher] also was a really transformative experience for me as a teacher. It revitalized my teaching and opened a number of doors for me,” he says.

Specifically, Lathrop says, he started working with other teachers — “as a teacher leader” — to advance his interest in mentoring younger teachers and conducting research directly applicable to those at the high school level. As he continues his PhD work, Lathrop supervises four to eight student-teachers each semester in the College of Education.

“The (National Board Certification process) got me interested in teaching from a different perspective and maybe thinking that I have something to give to the profession of high school teaching, which is what I really always envisioned myself doing,” he says.

In a roundabout way, that experience in interacting with classroom teachers and colleagues with National Board Certification process also got him thinking about a PhD pursuit through Purdue. As a high school teacher, he also was familiar with the Big Ten university from its popular Purdue Online Writing Laboratory, which offers global support through online reference materials and general writing advice.

As a life and career change appeared imminent, he connected with a cousin who was completing his undergraduate studies in engineering at Purdue and got a tour and firsthand testimonial about life as a Boilermaker. 

So after 18 years of living and teaching English and journalism in Minneapolis-St. Paul, in 2021, he moved his family and three cats to Attica, Indiana, where they live in what he describes as a drafty three-story historic home built in 1889.

On a research topic that’s personal to Lathrop, he also presented in July 2022 at the English Language Arts Teacher Educators (ELATE) summer conference in Louisville. Titled “A Homeplace for Healing: Integrating Trauma-Informed Instruction into the Student Teaching Experience,” his presentation stemmed from a large, mixed-method study on trauma-informed instruction with student-teachers during his first year in the doctoral program. The report, which Purdue language and literacy assistant professor Ofelia Castro Schepers co-authored, is currently under review with the journal School Mental Health.

“There are teacher preparation programs (that include trauma-informed instruction), but they aren’t fully integrated like I think they should be,” Lathrop says. “I was working with some student-teachers, and I encouraged them to reflect on how they work and to come up with strategies for a workshop at beginning of the semester.

“I wanted to find out about what might work for training preservice teachers and trauma-informed instruction,” which, he says, focuses on helping teachers be more aware of trauma that students may have undergone. “It can change your approach to classroom management and instruction for all students.”

Lathrop has become a leader in helping Johnson manage the English Education undergraduate program, and has taught or co-taught five of the six English methods classes while assisting new instructors. Plus, he has served on committees for faculty searches. “He has been an invaluable part of our state and national accreditation processes,” Johnson says.

Publishing is in Lathrop’s DNA. Starting as a journalist in the newspaper business after graduating from Grove City College in 2000, he often saw his writing and reporting published daily and several times weekly. During his two years as a journalist, he published more than 100 articles.

To a PhD student and academic researcher, publication is far different than that for a daily journalist. But the experience has paved the way for where Lathrop is today — pursuing his doctorate and tackling tough research topics for education and educators. His years teaching in a high school classroom also have given him a unique perspective on helping teachers develop timely and impactful curricula for their students.

“I feel incredibly supported here, and I feel really lucky. It’s a  fantastic research assistantship that supports me in pursuing my research interests and working under my advisor’s supervision,” Lathrop says. “Professor Johnson has been very, very supportive of whatever I want to do.”

Writer: Phillip Fiorini,

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