Teaching with Twitter - Part 2 - Brandon Walsh

Teaching With Twitter - Part 2

This post is the second in a series reflecting on my experiments using Twitter in the classroom. Be sure to read the first post that began the discussion.

In my previous post, I described the process by which I went about integrating Twitter into my discussion section, but I offered few reasons for why instructors might want to do so. There are good pedagogical justifications for including social media, and it benefits interested instructors to give the move considered thought before integrating Twitter into course syllabi. I was prepared for students to push back against the idea of moving class conversation to Twitter, so I gave an opening pitch for the class activity containing several rationales for the experiment to my students. I encouraged students to think about Twitter as an exercise that would broaden their audience, allow them to practice digital professionalization, and challenge them to think small in their writing.

In a typical course, students take in a lot of information from a variety of sources, but the primary audience for their ideas is limited to their instructor and fellow students. This trajectory—all input and no output—can leave the activities of the classroom feeling disconnected from the broader scholarly discussion. With Twitter, a student’s audience expands beyond the people in the room to include potential readers around the world. Student comments can be circulated wildly, and I bring in examples of class Twitter activities managed by colleagues at other universities as a way of illustrating this fact. Retweeting student comments that prove particularly insightful can be a good way of underscoring your commitment to this circulation and the quality of their thinking.

The broad scholarly Twitter community is especially useful when discussing writing practices. Academics often tweet about writing, and a retweet towards your class of a professional writer discussing her own revision process can pay great dividends. Such self-reflective comments help students to see that writers of all stages struggle with the same problems, that writing is always a process - even for professionals. Outside tweets can also give your paper comments added traction by reinforcing them with the spontaneous thoughts of outside sources far removed from your own course.

Students are often familiar with anecdotal evidence that employers regularly examine the social media accounts of potential employees, and framing Twitter in terms of this anxiety can further connect the course to the professional world. Students can fear the importance of their digital actions, or they can start managing their digital footprints now in ways that will benefit them in the future. The benefits of creating a professional digital presence have also been well documented: new networks and opportunities can be easily cultivated on Twitter that might be unavailable in real life, and some careers in professional writing and media outreach virtually require strong digital presences. I first came to Twitter in the interests of developing a professional persona, so I used my own experiences as a model for the benefits that can come from doing so. Framed in these terms, the class activity becomes training in a form of professionalization that will become a major part of the rest of students’ lives. By demonstrating intelligent and measured contributions in public for the purposes of the course, students can begin to take control over their digital personae.

Twitter forces students to think small. The character limit on responses helps to moderate the size of student comments, keeping them to a relatively standardized length and preventing the sense that a longer response indicates a deeper engagement with the course materials. The format can also offer ongoing practice for students in developing concise, specific thoughts on objects of study. I encourage students to think about twitter comments as a challenge to write micro-essays. Entire, coherent arguments can be constructed in 140 characters, and they will often be clearer for the obscene demand for concision. 140 characters is a short length even for a thesis statement, and the exercise demands no space be wasted—every word must have its place. The genre of the micro-essay can allow conversations about writing into the course on a regular basis as students consistently produce a variety of these mini-thesis statements over the course of a statement. @twitterfiction can provide a good example of the power that can be achieved by such a small amount of writing.

Stating your pedagogical motives for students up front encourages students to engage with Twitter in terms that align with your objectives for including the activity in the course in the first place. For more advice on creating professional digital presences in the context of a scholarly community, see Ryan Cordell’s wonderful ProfHacker post on Creating and Maintaining a Professional Presence Online.