Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Tweeting the Classroom

Students have more to say than we realize. And we do them a disservice when we don't give them an opportunity to contribute their wit, critiques, and independent inquiries to the course.

That's what using Twitter as a teaching tool does for me. Of course, classroom time allows for critical and creative discussion, and I design many exercises that encourage the voicing of student opinions and perspectives. But invariably, some voices become heard over others, and some quieter students relax under the comfortable knowledge that other, more confident, and louder students will speak up if they don't. For the two sections of Composition & Rhetoric that I'm teaching this term, each student must tweet four times per week. I state on my syllabus that "tweets may be creative, inquisitive, analogical, humorous, playful, critical, and/or informative," offering suggestions for questions that could be asked or YouTube links that could be given (you can view my full syllabus on academia.edu. I must confess my indebtedness to Megan Cook of Colby College for her generosity in sharing her syllabi, upon which some of my Twitter guidelines are based). Tweeting makes extra-sense for this class because we spend our first month discussing the communicative advantages of social media, so in a very real way we're performing what we're theorizing. In case some of you are wondering how on earth I keep track of everyone's individual tweets, I don't--I require that they keep a personal log of their required 4/week, which they will submit at the end of the term. It's pass-fail.

Even though I don't monitor and record every tweet, I do follow along using columns on Tweetdeck, "liking" posts, responding to particularly thoughtful or provocative points, and often integrating the content and material of the tweets into classroom discussions. It's a perfect enactment of the decentered classroom that I describe in my Teaching Philosophy Statement: students learn to exercise their own voices and actively contribute to the evolving dialogue of the course as it unfolds.

Last week, for example, I had assigned the second of three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History podcast dealing with higher education, on the relationship between dining facilities and financial aid for low-income students at Vassar and Bowdoin Colleges (both elite liberal arts schools on the East Coast). Leading up to the class, I could identify a few problems with his narrative but in general found it convincingly and effectively told, offering some important commentary on the amenities war currently inflating university budgets at the expense of better funding for students' education and faculty salaries. The night before, one of my students posted an article in Inside Higher Ed that essentially blows apart the logic of Gladwell's approach, showing that the correlation between enhanced dining services and low-income students is not as direct as Gladwell indicates, and outlining the lopsided nature of his investigations. In class, then, we were able to establish the admirable qualities of the podcast and then I pulled out the article the student had tweeted as a contrasting critique. This made for an effective classroom discussion of the pros and cons of Gladwell's storytelling approach, and it was almost entirely student-driven. Twitter thereby serves both to keep students engaged outside of class, and can also repopulate classroom discussion.

I am of course not the only one who has used Twitter in (but more properly outside of) the classroom. Others within my field of medieval literature set the social media platform to various creative uses. Reading through these posts, I realize I am still very much a Twitter novice. Just as a sample: Kisha Tracy (@kosho22) has created a great video account of her experience, complete with student feedback; Sjoerd Levelt (@Slevelt) had students write out tweets as different characters of The Iliad, and Laura Varnam (@lauravarnam) did something similar for Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. A number of scholars have translated medieval texts into tweets, beginning with Elaine Treharne's translation of Beowulf.  Twitter offers ample opportunities to reveal the continued relevance of centuries-old texts in the present, help students feel more confident articulating their own perspectives, and counter the condescension that, in my opinion, is rampant toward undergraduates amongst professors and instructors (the sense that they can't comprehend complex issues, that quietness is a reflection of ignorance, that the teacher naturally has a better grasp of course material).

Students, as Tracy's video shows, are inspired and further motivated when reading their peers' tweets, producing an enhanced and more cohesive learning community. In my class, inside jokes have formed, such as a photo of ice cream my student posted with the tag #relatable, which makes an ironic play on our in-class discussion about "relatability" as a distinctively modern and generally narcissistic phenomenon that encourages passive thinking. Twitter also aids memory retention and helps students become more active thinkers and readers; even something as simple as posting a line from an article that resonates with you involves critical processes of selection and amplification.

Admittedly, my students' tweets do not always contribute productively to classroom content. I had to give a gentle reminder in class the other day that posts like "I'm so excited for my presentation tomorrow!" or "off to the museum to complete my assignment!" don't really count toward the required four, even as they might be fine posts on their own. There is a difference between normative social media use and classroom use, and we are learning to distinguish between these different rhetorical situations while also discussing the meaning of rhetorical situations in-class. I also need to find ways to encourage students to respond to each other more, as I'm not always sure they're reviewing the course hashtag. Finally, it's a little bit personally stifling to have my own Twitter account so exposed amongst my classes. But after a bad experience last year with a tweet gone awry, I decided that it's better to embrace the openness of social media and accept the fact that students read what I post, though this inevitably means fewer angry political rants or off-handed comments about my own work-related exhaustion. Since I'm on the job market, though, maybe this increased self-censure is necessary.

Sometimes students' off-handed banter does express a sophisticated understanding of issues we discuss in class, such as this tweet (reproduced with permission; thanks Vera!):

Vera refers to a NYT article we read, "The Busy Trap," that argues against rampant busyness* in modern society, basically suggesting that we should all be hermits in the woods rather than privileging productivity and industry over relationships or creative downtime. While I love the core argument here that we need to set aside time and space for activities that don't build into some productivist superstructure, we all agreed as a class that being overworked is not necessarily self-imposed, and there are unavoidable limitations to setting aside time for self-care. In other words, Kreider's argument is essentially privileged, and students at a place like Fordham face very different challenges and pressures. This builds into my broader sense that we need to be compassionate toward and receptive to our students, and open to hearing their grievances and perspectives. I truly believe, and see all the time, that students at Fordham are beset with anxiety and a pervasive pressure to succeed, mostly because the cost of attending Fordham hovers around $65 000/year (uhh......you heard that right, Canada.). And so, yes, students (and their parents) want to make their tuition dollars "worth it" in the form of future gainful employment employment. In her tweet, Vera's hashtags give further context for her case against Kreider, and voice her personal frustration with her heavy college workload while responding in an intelligent way to course content. In this sense, Twitter can also encourage students to engage with course material on a personal level, integrating the messages of readings into their everyday life.

I guess what I'm saying is--I still really like Twitter! It helps me get to know my students better and generally enhances our classroom experience by generating continuities and cohesions. I hope to expand its use in my future literature courses as well.

And what about you, readers? How has Twitter worked/not worked for you in your courses?


  1. we are still struggling with whether we can require students to use social media like Twitter (or Facebook, or Google Docs) when they store the students personal information in the States, where Canadian privacy laws do not apply. Has your institution solved this problem? or do you provide an alternative for students who refuse to use Twitter for this reason?

  2. Hi canlitprof! So, this is a good point--I'm not entirely aware of Canadian privacy laws and how they do or don't prevent social media use in the classroom. I'm teaching at Fordham University in New York (a Canadian transplant). I'm afraid people are much less concerned about privacy down here, perhaps to our detriment :/.


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