Critical Twitter Pedagogy

As a new semester starts, I watch as my Twitter list fills up with retweets using writing-related class hashtags. For the most part, I enjoy it. I like to see how other instructors use Twitter in/beyond the classroom, and I particularly like to see students getting excited about engaging with course content. Plus, I am also guilty of shamelessly retweeting my students’ tweets because I’m just so dang glad they’re interested.

I don’t use Twitter in every class. The only one where I’ve justified requiring it was in a civic writing course. I wanted students’ to use Twitter because it’s a space where civic discourse is produced and circulated in real-time, and I asked them to follow accounts that were relevant to their (civic) interests:

We will use Twitter as a medium to post artifacts relevant to our readings and class discussions and for you to follow interesting accounts that discuss civic issues. You will need a public Twitter account.

I also really like Twitter as an alternative medium for participation. I’m always interested in thinking about how to frame (& assess) participation in ways other than in-class, real-time, verbal discussion. Note taking is one of my favorite alternatives. For the semester I used Twitter, I was super interested in seeing how most of the students tweeted every once in a while, but for two students in particular it became a way to raise really interesting ideas/questions, to process ideas, and to make connections to other things (articles, stories, events) they encountered outside of class.

There’s a trickiness to Twitter, though. In some ways, it’s a similar dilemma to using blogs in class. We want students to blog about course material so that they engage in public writing and write for an audience, but without a ton of support for that, blogging in class really usually just means blogging for others in the class (particularly when students are required to respond to each other’s posts). Particularly once you start grappling with the concerns of whether or not to force students to write publicly, sometimes blogging merely means asking students to write responses through the university-supported learning management system.

So part of the struggle is getting students’ to engage with a genre/medium in the way it was intended (vs. creating a simulacrum). That is, how do you incorporate blogging in a way that is meaningful and that teaches students how to produce and sustain a blog that has reach to audiences beyond the class? How do you get students to use Twitter to engage with new audiences and ideas (rather than just recycling class discussion)?

For me, the solution involves positioning these activities as valuable writing assignments (with outcomes, specific learning goals, evaluative criteria) rather than as add-ons that students do in addition to everything else. That way, there’s room to develop this writing, be critical of it, and reflect on it. The other tricky issue (which I mentioned re:blogging) is facilitating and engaging in critical, reflective discourse in these very public spaces. As I admitted, I am the proud teacher who likes to RT things, and I’ve noticed that others do that, too. Sometimes, I think the things we RT are really interesting, but I think we also do it to encourage engagement and participation regardless of whether or not the content is critical. That is, sometimes I get the feeling that we encourage statements that we wouldn’t ordinarily encourage in class.

Why? Maybe we’re excited that students are participating and want to encourage them to continue. (But then, it’s worth having a conversation about the difference between participation and engagement).

Or maybe we give folks the benefit of the doubt because it’s incredibly difficult to be both critically reflective and succinct in the 140-word space that Twitter grants you. (But then, it’s necessary to discuss the genre constraints and affordances of a new writing medium).

Or maybe we’re not familiar or are uncomfortable navigating the public space of Twitter. If a student says something in class that’s questionable, often other students will chime in, ask questions. Or maybe I’ll step in and ask questions or ask the student to reflect on that perspective. But I see less of that in the public space of Twitter. I see more caution and less of the critical, reflective discourse that we encourage in the f2f classroom. That must be the public dimension at play to some degree, right? Perhaps a fear of public shaming, an uncertainty of how to redirect conversations that usually have at least the safety net of the classroom walls. If someone misspeaks (or says something questionable, offensive, or just plain inaccurate) in class, the four walls of the classroom (and the way we have structured that space) often create a “safe space” for students to work through these ideas. How do you create a safe space for critical, self-reflexive discourse on Twitter? 

We need to carefully consider not only how to get students excited about Twitter (and engaging with other public genres and media) but also how to encourage critical, reflective discourse in those spaces. I’ve written about this with memes, but we need to think carefully, too, about what messages we send when we RT. There’s a danger of the RT function (similar to Facebook’s “like” function) that enables people to merely consume, endorse, and further circulate content rather than actively engage and contest it.

Like others who use Twitter in the classroom and write/reflect about it (check out Natascha Chtena’s Gradhacker post “7 Things I learned from Teaching with Twitter” or Tiffany Grobelski’s HASTAC post “Teaching with Twitter—Please Check Your Baggage at the Door”), I don’t think there’s one right way we should be using it in the classroom. For this kind of writing activity to be meaningful, though, we need to have the discussions about genre, audience, and constructing/developing/supporting arguments that we have about other types of writing. Like most things, using Twitter should be contextual to particular classes (& outcomes) and to particular students’ needs, and that’s a conversation worth having & revisiting with each new class.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s