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!):
it’s moments like these i know for sure that my business is not self-imposed. #TheBusyTrap #2essays #3midterms #ENGL1102R19
— Vera (@vera_d123) October 5, 2016
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?
September makes me both nostalgic and thrilled. It never fails: whatever my working conditions, when Labour Day weekend rolls around I feel a tug at my memory. My heart starts racing just a little bit. I make more lists that I do in the summer.
My first memory of going to school is hazy. I remember lunchtime which, for me, meant opening an orange plastic lunchbox with the Muppets on the front. The edge of the decal was worn because the lunchbox was a hand-me-down from my babysitter’s older children. I remember the sound of the front snaps and the smell of my sandwich. I remember my thermos filled with water or juice. I remember being excited on the days I got a juice box.
I remember the first day of grade six more clearly because it was the first day in a new school in a new country. My mom drove me. I was nervous. I wore purple overalls because they were my favourite and they made me feel brave and cool. Until this year I had never had a long commute to school. I’d either walked or taken the city school bus.
Yesterday, I texted my mom and asked her if she remembered dropping me off at university for the first time. She did. Of course she did. We had driven nearly twenty hours from Ontario back to North Carolina. We’d made the geographic shift from the cool mornings of August in Halliburton County to the oppressive humidity of Chapel Hill where walking through the early morning air feels a bit more like swimming slowly than anything I’ve ever experienced (except swimming slowly). I remember the yellow painted concrete of my dormitory walls, the surprise at how small the room was and how close my new roommate’s (a stranger) bed was to my own. And I remember struggling with the campus map trying to find my 8:30am Philosophy class.
I remember the first day of graduate school–how excited and nervous I felt to be in Montreal. How fancy everyone looked to me, how polished, how prepared. How unlike me. I remember the first day of my PhD, walking for a full hour around campus confused by the sign for the Art Building and not thinking to look in the Social Sciences tower for my orientation room.
I remember the first day of not starting classes. Or rather, I remember the first day of being the instructor fresh out of graduate school and trying very hard to sound as professional and in-charge as I wanted to feel. I remember driving between the campuses where I taught and thinking, after the first week of introductory lectures and syllabus questions, that perhaps teaching four new classes was going to be too much.
I remember my first “real” job–the excitement of an office with my name on the door, a schedule of department meetings (I know, I am one of those people who loves department meetings…), and a fresh agenda waiting to be filled with lists. I remember my second “real” job. I remember the years, most recently, of going back to sessional work, and how, despite the difficulty of shifting into underpaid labour, I still felt excited at the start of a new year. The first day of school matters, for so many reasons.
This year, as I sit at my new desk having just completed my new hour-long commute, I find myself so eager to take this moment and reflect on what it means to be able to begin a new year on campus. Sure, I am obviously nostalgic. My memories are grounded in my own experiences and affects. And I am also aware–so aware–of the ways in which university and college campuses and classrooms are challenging, restricted, and often inaccessible spaces for so many.
As we begin the new year let’s take a moment to think of our own first days. As we ready ourselves and our classrooms or offices or cubicles or cars or library spots for the labour of teaching and learning in vastly different material conditions let’s try to see one another’s work and support it. Let’s imagine that in spite of inequities (among students, among teachers, among academic workers) we can in our own ways contribute to making the project of higher learning more equitable, more just, and more exciting.
Happy September, dear Readers. Take care of yourselves as we begin.
Some friends were asking around on Facebook last week: what sorts of ice breakers do you use on the first day of class? Ice breakers, of course, are those get-to-know-you exercises that classroom leaders, workshop coordinators, event runners and others in charge of large groups of strangers employ to, well, thaw the polite distance that keeps strangers isolated from each other, even when they’re sitting right next to one another.
Ice breakers not only help students relax a little, and get to know each other’s names, but also break up the terrible tedium of The Reading of The Syllabus and the Laying Out of All the Rules and the Sorting Out if You Are Registered that is most of the business of the first class. The first class never really seems to reflect what the other 23 meetings are going to be like: there’s a lot more lecturing and reading along, and no one laughs at my jokes, hardly, and everyone seems nervous and bored at the same time.
My ice breakers vary depending on several factors: smaller classes or larger classes, survey course versus specialized seminar, undergrads versus grads, etc. Sometimes I put students in pairs, get them to introduce themselves to each other, then make pairs of pairs where students now introduce each other to each other. Sometimes I go around the room, asking students to tell me what program they’re in, and what their research interests for the course are. Sometimes I ask each student to just say their name, and one weird thing about themselves that I probably won’t forget, and then I try to see how many names I can get right at the end. Sometimes I do show-of-hand polls like, “How many of you were born in this city?” and “How many of you speak another language at home?” and “How many of you are left-handed?” and other silly questions and then we laugh at our commonalities and our differences.
Often, the ice breakers are for my benefit. I’m really, really terrible at learning people’s names. Like, really terrible. Once, when my husband and I had been dating for over a month and I was deep in the honeymoon stage of infatuation, he came unexpectedly to my postdoc office to take me out for lunch. “Hey!” he said, leaning in the door, “I came to surprise you with lunch!” You know how I responded? “Oh! Hi … dude!” Because I forgot his name, being deeply engrossed in some fact-checking.
Anyhow, the ice breaker I use with my first year Digital Lives class is one of those ones that’s mostly for me. On the first day I assign them the following homework: “Use the email utility of the courseware management system, and write me 200 words of who you are, where you’re from, and why you’re here. Attach a photo of yourself, with your name somewhere visible.” This is a great exercise, because it immediately ensures that everyone can access the course website, and their university email. It is also great for learning names, because what I do is take all the photos, and make a screen saver slideshow out of them: it’s like names-and-faces flashcards for me, and it really really helps me learn their names.
But you know what else is great? It helps me connect with my students as human beings. The students I meet in emails are nothing like those scared / bored / nervous / skeptical poker-faced lumps that often populate the first-day-of-class classroom. They’re funny, accomplished, unique, cosmopolitan, pedantic, curious, naive, serious, driven, aimless people. They come from all over the world, including the neighbourhood where I live. They have cats, and friends, and weird hobbies. They take wild selfies. They screen grab their imgur posts. They create fake Instagram accounts to make me laugh.
I answer every email with a little tidbit of my own, a kind of reciprocal humanity. I will share some of their stories in class, in the aggregate, to help them get to know each other. But for a couple of days, my inbox is a marvel of little Hello World statements and pictures, 40 new people–young people!–that I am privileged to get to know.
Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Marcia Chatelain–who is an incredible speaker– give a talk on teaching in the age of #BlackLivesMatter. Dr. Chatelain, who is the brains behind #FergusonSyllabus, spoke to the audience about how she used Twitter to develop a national and international teach-in. Our role in the university is to assess what is going on in the world, make it accessible, and mobilize discussions in communities, she told the audience. Creating the #FergusonSyllabus was a practical and politically engaged call to discuss the events of the shooting of Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Dr. Chatelain challenged colleagues to talk about the events–and the systemic inequity and racism that made them possible–in their classrooms on the first day of school.
A few weeks ago, in my digital world at least, there was a flurry of activity around the issue of online ‘student-shaming,’ specifically in response to the new Dear Student column on Vitae. The Dear Student column presents hypothetical situations involving students making unreasonable requests of professors, with a slate of profs providing satirical email responses to the situations, such as missing textbooks, late enrollment, or family emergencies the day before the final exam. Jesse Stommel, an assistant prof at U of Wisconsin-Madison, objected to this column, and in a much-shared broadside, withdrew from his new post as columnist for Vitae. The internet responded, and various scholars chimed in: Dorothy Kim, responding to comments on Stommel’s post, scrawled an epic twitter manifesto in support of Stommel about treating our students as humans and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Kelly Baker (of Vitae) storifyed a number of her twitter conversations and concludes, ultimately, that there are strong material reasons for ranting against students, but we should be pairing these rants with success stories: “instead of shaming students, we should publicly celebrate those who have inspired us,” @joshua_r_eyler writes on Twitter. Others have argued that we should rant up, not down. One rebuttal points out that Dear Student is largely satirical and gives voice to a diverse ensemble of writers and respondents, including many women of color.
I like the Vitae. They’ve reposted one of my H&E blogs, they are geared toward young scholars like me, and they seem engaged with #alt-ac and #CAF issues. Not many involved in this debate have recognized that Stacey Patton, the Vitae reporter who began the series, is herself a woman of color with a PhD in History; she does not currently hold a tenure-track job. ((She runs a website, Spare the Kids, whose stated mission is “to provide Black parents, families, and communities with a full range of alternatives to corporal punishment.” So we could say that she seems…cool?)) The attack has been leveled, strangely, at Vitae rather than engaging with Patton herself.
Of course, I echo others; we shouldn’t student-shame. But let’s take a moment and think about why many of us do it, even though we shouldn’t. I’d wager that many of the worst culprits are actually those who are just starting out in the profession, who are having a hard time starting out in the profession, whose working conditions are precarious, who are underpaid, who are underrecognized, who worry about their own ability to manage a classroom and occasionally project that worry onto students. Sometimes I do it because I’m constantly plagued with imposter syndrome, because I search for validation through the distinction between my students and myself, because I am comforted with the thought that I am, in fact, smarter than them, and have the authority to stand in front of the classroom. I love my students, and am known as a very caring, devoted professor. But sometimes I, too, fall prey to the temptation to scoff at a sweeping “Since the beginning of time” opening to an essay, or carp about students who feel comfortable enough to accost me about a mediocre grade the moment I hand back the papers, without even pausing to read, let alone digest, my comments. It is worth noting, though this comment may be for another post, that the hierarchy is not always clear in large, corporatized universities; when students come from rich, privileged families and educators are not granted basic working rights and benefits–is complaining about students always “ranting down”?
So, with all this in mind, how should we talk about students online? I recommend the following guidelines.
- Let’s not shame students for succumbing to the immense pressure put upon them to succeed, to work hard to get better grades, to go into debt in the name of education, to fit in to a society that is still largely dominated by rich, white, cisgender men. Let’s stop calling our students “kids.” It’s infantalizing, in the most literal sense, and perhaps reflects a larger attitude of superiority and inattention to our students’ complexity, adulthood, diversity.
- Instead, let’s think of our students as allies. I blogged a couple weeks ago about undergraduate student support for the graduate strikes as one of the most inspiring things to come out of the collective bargaining movements, in both New York and Toronto. Undergraduate students–those we sometimes refer to as ‘kids’–fight for us. They fought for the unioners at NYU, and the unioners won; undergraduates have thus had a direct impact on the material conditions of grad students at NYU, present and future. It’s worth taking a few moments and contemplating this fact.
- Let’s not screenshot or copy sections of our students’ papers online, even the good ones. It’s condescending, and disrespectful of our students’ rights to privacy. How would you, as a scholar, feel if you discovered that some of your unpublished work was posted somewhere without your consent? Joke about it with friends, perhaps–and marvel at the great papers too.
- Relatedly, while celebrating rather than shaming students is a great idea, be careful–let’s not [humble-]brag about how great our students are online. At least not too much. You’re often not reeeeally praising the student; you’re praising yourself (especially when done within the privacy of facebook, when the student must remain unnamed and ignorant to your praise). In general, feel comfortable and confident celebrating your successes on social media (see: H&E’s Boast Post column!), but be aware of others, and practice moderation.
- Instead, let’s share teaching strategies online, the things we do with students. Talking about what activities you’re trying, what material you’re using, how your pedagogy is shifting, and soliciting advice: these are all appropriate uses of social media.
- Let’s ask our students for their permission if we want to celebrate their achievements online. My class website has a page for “Excellent Student Writing” where I post A papers with the authors’ consent, using the papers both reward and model for others.
- Let’s treat students as humans.
- But let’s be honest with ourselves, too, about the realities of our working conditions, about the hardships of higher education, for educators as well as students. Let’s recognize our need for outlets and validation, and perhaps for productive anger, for brainstorming possible solutions to the problems of higher education.
Other suggestions? How should we be talking about our students online?
On Thursday last week I sat in my office all day and waited for my first-year students to pick up their graded papers. As they filtered in and then out my door, a few of them paused, smiled, and thanked me for the semester.
One of my colleagues, in a workshop for new graduate student teachers, suggested an in class exercise that I’d never heard of. Get your students to draw a picture of their ideal reader, he said, then get them to draw a speech bubble on that reader: ask them what the reader is saying to them about their writing.
Students have so much trouble imagining a real writer, particularly in an academic context where producing an essay often feels like a performance in showing the teacher you read the right number of books and journal articles, and hit the right word count, and used X number of transition words, and underlined your thesis statement. This exercise concretizes the idea of a real reader, and asks students, as well, to think about what they want that reader to come away with after.
I tried it with my first years. They’re writing a short research paper, a persuasive essay where they have to craft an argument for a particular interpretation of one aspect of our contemporary digital lives–I’ve got papers for and against online dating, social media, video game aesthetics, normative sexism and racism online, and more. So far they’ve written a proposal that briefly described their topic and articulated a provisional thesis they were interested in arguing. Then they produced annotated bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Then they wrote a draft of the introductory paragraph of the paper. This week they’ll do a draft editing workshop on a first draft of the full paper. Next week they hand it in.
At the very first, though, when I handed out the Research Paper assignment, I had them do this exercise with the reader and the speech bubble.
The results astonished me. In among the hilariously poorly-drawn stick figure renditions of readers (most of them imagined me as the reader; only one imagined PacMan) and the comic descriptions of writing awards bestowed, most students imagined two kinds of feedback. First, a strong majority asked for substantive feedback on both mechanics and structure. Second, and this was surprising, nearly half of them imagined me saying something along the lines of this:
“I never thought of that before, but you’ve convinced me!”
My students were actually focused on persuading me. On generating new, surprising knowledge. Somehow they’ve actually got the idea that their writing matters, generally, and that it matters to me, particularly, and that they can use their words to meaningfully interact with culture, ideas, and interpretation.
Right now I’m just so grateful to get this little sign that somehow, somewhere, this group of students has had some kind of little spark lit. I’m grateful my colleague taught me this exercise. Yesterday I graded 35 quizzes and 36 intro paragraphs and got to work on 20 SSHRC Departmental Appraisal Letters and assorted other ranking tasks. This was just the reminder I need that there is a purpose beyond just a rank or a grade or a credential. That my teaching, sometimes, matters and makes a difference. That my students can surprise me, that they’re trying and they care.
Have you had any nice surprises lately? Something to help us get through these last few weeks of term?
|Honestly, my students this term are the BEST|