“How Twitter Saved my Literature Class: A Case Study with Discussion”
Andy Jones, University of California, Davis
Originally published: Jones, A. “How Twitter Saved my Literature Class: A Case Study with Discussion.” (2011). Teaching Arts and Science with the New Social Media. A collection edited by Charles Wankel. United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 91-106.
More than anything else, what distinguishes a great class from an adequate class is the attitude of the participants. As Shakespeare (1623) reminds us in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” When an instructor’s course objectives are clear, when a professor brings enthusiasm to lectures and to class discussions, and when he or she sets high expectations for all of the class’s participants, then learning can take place. But primarily it is the participants’ reaction to these necessary elements of a class that can make that class truly successful. As teachers, we treasure students who are curious, enthusiastic, optimistic about the next class meeting, and reflective about course content after the proverbial bell has wrung. We can inspire such students to pursue a lifelong intellectual relationship with the content of our courses, and perhaps also inspire enthusiasm about the importance of learning itself. When we identify and adopt the methods and tools to sustain that motivation and enthusiasm, we make the learning experience richer and more satisfying for our students and for ourselves.
In order for such a course to exist, in order for this transformational learning to take place, the instructor and students together must face down an array of obstacles and distractions. Many of our students are overworked, committed to taking too many units, and tempted by a great number of electronic, networked and video-based distractions. Some students resent having to take our class if it is a requirement, while others may question its relevance if it is an elective. For these and many other reasons, some students bring to class an attitude of borderline complacency, a hope that “just enough” work in the class will be sufficient to allow them to pass, or even do well. The lecture format of the larger classes we teach may contribute to this attitude; in many large enrollment classes students slouch in their seats comfortably, almost languidly, as they might do on the couch at home, and expect to be entertained or at least informed. We oblige them with our preformulated lectures and our slide shows, hoping that they will stay awake, and that some of the students in the front rows may ask or answer questions at the end of the lecture. Many of us leave such a class confident that teaching has taken place, if not always learning. Often we settle for the mode of teaching that was used with us, rather than considering to the modes of learning that appeal to our students. I will suggest that a professor can fruitfully adopt the ubiquitous micro-blogging tool Twitter as a means to inspire students to achieve a course’s learning objectives, and to eagerly anticipate and enjoy the classroom experience.
Perhaps recent research in industrial psychology could help us understand what motivates our students. In 2009, in his book Drive, Daniel Pink posits three primary motivations of all employees: the need for autonomy, the search for mastery, and the quest for a shared purpose. If we apply Pink’s theories to the classroom for a moment, we can see why a typical lecture-dependent course may quickly sap the attention, motivation, and drive of our students. Before encountering Daniel Pink, I learned similar lessons from conversations with UC Davis professor emeritus Dick Walters (personal communication, 1997). Walters argues that the most successful university classes are student centered, activity driven, and informed by frequent and casual instances of instructor feedback. And indeed recent research into best practices of teaching the 21st-century learner confirms Walters’ thinking in the field of college instruction, emphasizing that the classroom leader should focus on the facilitation of learning, rather than on lecturing. Consider especially the work of Marc Prensky, coiner of the term “digital native,” and his 2010 book, Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning. Reflecting on these principles, we might admit that a lecture-format course would satisfy neither Pink nor Walters nor Prensky, for such a course is typically instructor centered, it depends upon silent note-taking by students, and it often neither requires nor rewards input from the participants. In the context of Pink’s thoughts about motivation, we might say that the lecture-style class places all the autonomy with the single lecturer, gives students no opportunities to practice intellectual tasks in the classroom, and forsakes casual feedback in the name of coverage. How, then, might we shift the format and function of a large-enrollment class, and its activities, so that it allows students to participate more actively in their own learning process?
I had this question in mind as I was preparing for a short fiction class for 30 undergraduates that I taught during the summer of 2009 at the University of California, Davis. This intense six-week review of mostly 20th-century American, British, and continental short stories required significant reading, fast-paced analysis of the stories, and multiple writing assignments. I surmised from my students’ bleary eyes and crossed arms on the first day of class that they were unenthused about the 8 a.m. start time, skeptical that I could hold their attention for the full two hours of our class meetings, and concerned that the syllabus was too ambitious. When on the second day of class some students said that they hoped I would “tell them what that last story means,” I explained to the class that my goal was to provide students the tools and approaches to make independent and meaningful discoveries about the stories we would read; even if a particular story had “a meaning,” it wouldn’t be my job to present that meaning to them. As we were talking about approaches to literary analysis, I became increasingly convinced that the lecture approach students were expecting would not provide them adequate opportunities to participate in class. I also knew that, in order for the class to succeed, in order for our class meetings and class discussions to be meaningful and engaging for all the participants, I would need to motivate my students to complete and digest the readings before we met three times a week at 8 a.m.
In effect, I decided to run my literature class like the student-centered writing classes that I teach in computer classrooms. To this end, I learned my students’ names on the first day of class, gave mini reflection-essay pop quizzes in the first five minutes of our meetings, and called on students to share their interpretations and ideas about assigned texts. We also completed impromptu in-class writing assignments, divided into groups when wrestling with different elements – characterization, themes, the function of plot choices, etc. – and responded to interactive PowerPoint presentations that functioned more like quiz shows than backdrops of lectures my students might be accustomed to in other disciplines. But my greatest ally in this summer class was an unexpected one: Twitter. By inviting students to discuss class texts outside the classroom, by requiring students to show evidence of their having taken responsibility for their own learning as college students, and by incentivizing absolute readiness for participation in class discussions, I found that Twitter could save my English class.
My thinking about how best to use Twitter was informed by a teaching technique that I borrowed from a mentor of mine, Professor emeritus Jon Wagner of the School of Education at UC Davis. Wagner requires students enrolled in some of his large enrollment classes submit daily responses to assigned readings. Rather than creating study questions for each assigned text, Wagner requires only that students submit a single one-page document that include salient quotations from the text, one or more questions about difficult concepts or obscure passages, and one or more comments about a crucial or central topic or concern raised by the previous night’s reading (personal communication, 2007). These documents are called QQCs, standing in this instance for Quotation, Question, and Comment. The best of these comments function as the equivalent of thesis statements: interesting and debatable assertions that require supporting evidence from the text. By collecting these QQCs, and offering commentary on students’ thinking, the instructor can provide necessary feedback on a student’s understanding of concepts encountered in the assigned texts as well as answer questions posed directly to the instructor.
The QQC approach helps to ensure that students complete the reading for class and gives the instructor a sense of students’ discoveries and misconceptions; however, a number of concerns remain: first, at least in a summer class, the course moves so quickly that timing alone makes the instructor’s comments decreasingly relevant and perhaps decreasingly helpful. General concepts can be illuminated by an instructor’s comments, but generally an instructor will find it challenging to offer responses that are both substantive and still current. The second concern is that faculty cannot provide feedback in time to improve classroom discussion, the class activity that determines the success of a class. Students who dutifully complete their QQCs would come to class better prepared to speak, but they would not arrive with the benefits of having those ideas subjected to peer or instructor review. The time-delayed insights are revealed only to the instructor, and his insights sharpen student thinking only on stories that had already been discussed. I decided for my summer literature class that it was time for a new tactic, a new tool to make the daily assignments of the submission of QQCs more interactive, social, and immediate. For our fast-moving summer class, I told students, they would be using Twitter as a means of submitting and sharing their QQCs.
I first encountered Twitter as a journalist. Having hosted a humanities computing public affairs radio show since 2000 (called “Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour”), I knew about the importance of Twitter from a social networking and business standpoint. In 2007 Time Magazine had written that Twitter was “on its way to becoming the next killer app” (Hamilton), and the New York Times said that Twitter was “one of the fastest growing phenomena on the internet” (Pontin, 2007). Twitter’s growth has been sustained over the last few years, as evidenced by the 1100% year-over-year growth from the beginning to the end of 2008. 75 million people visited Twitter.com in January of 2010, and all those twitterers sent about 1.2 billion tweets, each 140 characters or less, and most of them read by fans and followers (Schonfeld, 2010). During the summer that I taught the short fiction class, huge numbers of Iranian dissidents had used Twitter to circumvent state run media and their government’s attempts at censorship to communicate with each other and with the world. The evening news ran “illegal” YouTube footage of millions of protesters marching through the streets of Iran, and newscasters and other journalists began describing the unrest as a “Twitter revolution” (Morozov, 2009). I was covering the Twitter phenomenon and the use of Twitter by Iranian dissidents on my radio show, so I was sold on the idea that this new social networking interface was becoming increasingly important, as well as adaptable. If millions of dissidents could hatch complex protest strategies using Twitter, I thought, then my students and I should be able to use the same tool to discuss Edgar Allan Poe and Anton Chekhov. I hoped that I had discovered a way to make QQCs more relevant and helpful, and that we could use this trendy tool to share our thoughts, paperlessly, with everyone in the class.
While I was optimistic that with Twitter I could address my timeliness and relevance concerns with the QQC assignment, I hadn’t anticipated my students’ initial objections. Student pushback was immediate, and actually rooted in impressions they had formed from media representations. Few of them had Twitter accounts, and many of them originally thought of Twitter as picayune, specious and faddish – a needless means to update friends on meal choices, or a way for Hollywood celebrities to blather about their whims to vapid fans. How could students represent or quote a meaningful or substantive portion of a literary text using only 140 characters? How could that same character limit allows students to respond to each other’s questions? What thesis statement could be that short and still make a meaningful assertion? These were all valid concerns, and many of them were debated in class. And the debate was fruitful, for as we talked I realized that my students were learning important lessons about communication, clear thinking, and clear writing. Having taught writing classes for 20 years, I was comfortable leading debates about the tools, processes, and strategies for writing clear and substantive prose, but in the literature classes I teach I usually leave far less time for this focus on process. I enjoyed hearing my students’ comments about rhetorical strategies, the paths to successful writing, for I knew such discussions would help them deepen and clarify their thinking, and submit stronger essays about assigned stories.
As this was the first time that I taught with Twitter in a college class, I had a number of misconceptions about possible uses of the tool that my students helped me address and resolve. At first I thought that Twitter would function merely as a place to share among the students the QQCs that otherwise they would share only with me. I imagined that all the students could benefit from the opportunity to review each other’s insights, each other’s favorite quotations, and each other’s questions about the text. In class some students would reflect on another student’s submitted QQCs, but they also began registering complaints with Twitter. When Twitter was used only to list my students’ QQCs, that is, their questions, quotations, and comments, interest in reading the other students’ tweets sank. But when certain enterprising students responded to each other’s questions, and many conversations broke out, students became deeply engaged, and ended up writing much more than was required about the stories we read. This practice by the students corroborates many lessons that we know about learning, such as the need to inspire intrinsic motivation for students to take on assigned tasks and projects (Malone & Lepper, 1987). In their discussion of an organismic (or active and volitional) motivational theory, Deci and Ryan (1985) assert that “The active-organism view treats stimuli not as causes of behavior, but as affordances and opportunities that the organism can utilize in satisfying its needs.” From my perspective as a teacher, I should have recognized that Twitter should not have been used merely as a means of enforcing preparation through the recording of QQCs. Twitter gave me another chance to focus on learning rather than teaching, and I almost missed the opportunity. Discussions with students helped me realize that this social impetus to read, to ask questions, to hear them answered, and in short to socialize while engaging with sometimes difficult texts, would appeal to my students and drive them to make discoveries that I might not have anticipated. I listened and learned, and the class policy sheet on the desired function for Twitter evolved alongside our understanding of the texts.
On the second day after we discussed this more social and casual approach to Twitter as a learning and collaboration tool, I noticed some visible improvements in the classroom. One was that attendance increased. We would sometimes go three or four classes without a single student missing class. On occasion, students would write me emails apologizing in advance, and profusely, for having to miss one of the lectures because of a family trip, a medical appointment, or a funeral. As teachers, we are used to hearing such excuses, if students bother to make excuses at all for missing a lecture. There’s an old joke among writing teachers that we sometimes feel guilty for assigning research papers because of how such assignments seems to threaten the health and well-being of our students’ grandparents. As all my students managed to attend most of the lectures, I remember remarking to a colleague that assigning Twitter work, by contrast, actually improved the health of my students’ grandparents, and that its use might be recommended if only for this reason.
Another of Twitter’s profound effects was not only the consistent number of the students in the class, but also the improved quality of our discussions. As teachers, we have often faced long and awkward silences after asking open-ended questions about a topic that might have come up in the day’s reading. I learn the names of all my students on the first day of class, not only to make my students feel valued and comfortable, but also to make them feel uncomfortable: that is, to be able to call on them by name in class, and thereby require their participation and their contributions to the class discussion. In this class, I rarely had to put students on the spot. A few classes after encouraging a more casual and conversational style using Twitter, I found myself feeling more like orchestra leader Leonard Bernstein than like Ferris Bueller’s high school history teacher Ben Stein, for I would ask a question about a story that we had read the night before and see at least a dozen hands go up (Hughes, 1986). Impressed and almost overwhelmed, I used my own hand gestures to recognize, welcome, and celebrate the many raised hands. Students felt not only like they had an opportunity to speak, but also a compulsion to speak. At times I would even have to list the names of students on the board so that we could remember in which order their comments, questions, objections, and clarifications would be heard. All of us could tell that something magical was going on, and I could hardly keep from smiling.
As my students continued to read assigned texts more and more closely, I discovered why the class discussions were so productive and elicited such thoughtful responses from the participants. Tweeting together about assigned texts the night before a class discussion, students would ask each other clarifying questions about the basics: questions about plot points, and questions that sought explanations of the differences between key characters. My discussion of the Hemingway (1927) story “Hills like White Elephants,”for example, did not have to begin with the standard question, “What are these two characters talking about?” Everyone who had read the tweets from the night before knew that the two characters were discussing an abortion; in fact, they could see all the tweeted evidence that supported that conclusion. We could stipulate this fact and move one to deeper analyses of the story. The class conversations benefited from the many voices heard, with students responding to each other, rather than engaging in a series of dialogues with me. With the support and investment of my students, we could take on more interesting challenges, and focus on higher order thinking tasks.
In his taxonomy of thinking tasks, Benjamin Bloom (1956) argued, among other things, that while it was often appropriate for middle school and even high school students to focus on the recall and comprehension, by the time students came to college, they should be focusing on thinking tasks such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Indeed, as a teacher, I have often considered what strategies would help move my students away from memorization and recall, and move them towards a more holistic practice of advanced critical and creative thinking. Twitter helped me dramatically with this endeavor, for students would, among themselves, review the basics of assigned stories, with some students leading some of their peers to a basic understanding of assigned text hours before the class met with me. As a result, in my class students eagerly presented insights that reflected a deepened and mature understanding of the short stories they read, and I rarely had to take time to clarify the plot of the story that some students might have read hurriedly, or not at all. Because of the extra research and discussion that my students were completing via Twitter, my undergraduates came to my class prepared with the sort of reflective wisdom that one would be pleased to see from advanced English Majors sitting around the table of a senior seminar.
Whereas I appreciated that students were using Twitter in class conversations to create these somewhat interesting assertions that might make up a thesis statement for a submitted essay, students understandably were mostly excited about the social opportunities and rewards of talking about literature outside of class. Starting about midway through the summer session, I would sometimes find almost half the class in their seats already talking with each other as I arrived, each of them with our class anthology already open, rather than working through crossword puzzles or thumbing through email on their cell phones. Because of Twitter, and because of the group collaborative presentation assignments, those minutes before class resembled smiling reunions, with students alluding to each other’s tweets, as well as the jokes, the asides, and the plans for study groups. Once class discussion began, the peer pressure moved towards the direction of contribution rather than silence. Students sometimes complain that professors in a large lecture classes will welcome questions from their smartest or most talkative half-dozen students while the rest of the class sits watching the conversation, sometimes hoping that it ends soon so that the professor can return to the business of covering content. I have heard from students in office hours that sometimes the silent majority even resents the talkative minority, and wishes that these garrulous “A” students would succumb to peer pressure and pipe down. In my class, that dynamic was reversed. Students who chose not to speak felt left out. Students who missed the Twitter conversations of the night before might feel as if they had missed a great pizza party, or at least a TV show that all their friends had watched without them. I enjoyed calling on many students that summer, but I found myself pressuring fewer silent Bartlebys (Melville, 1856) than ever before.
Sometimes in class we would take a break from all of the deep textual analysis to have a meta-conversation about the class, and these discussions helped students better understand how it is they learn, what motivates them to learn. I would ask a number of questions, and delight in their answers:
Why does Twitter work better than Facebook for the sort of social media-assisted, outside class work that we do in this course?
Facebook offers too many distractions. Using Twitter and the specific hash tag for this class (in our case, #ucdf), we can form our own interpretive and mutually supportive community without having to worry about looking like dorks in front of our Facebook friends.
To what extent does the use of Twitter improve your writing, even though you have only 140 characters to work with?
Well, we have to be so careful and precise with the words we choose.
Why must you make every word count?
So we can do a better job sharing assertions with our friends. Plus we appreciate all the practice writing thesis statements, and hearing the arguments of our peers.
When do you have your most fruitful discussions on Twitter?
Between 11 PM and 2 AM.
Why during that time?
Because that’s when we do our work, and we like being able to share our discoveries as soon as we make them.
Why do we have so many confident speakers in this class?
Because we have rehearsed our thoughts at home with our friends.
What makes a tweet valuable?
A valuable tweet is clear, insightful, assertive, and obviously succinct.
What quotations should I ask you about on the midterm?
Those we have discussed in class, and those we have most discussed on Twitter.
Could you name all (30 of) the students in our class if I asked you to?
Have you made any friends in this class?
I know more people in this class than I do from the rest of the classes I’ve taken a UC Davis, put together.
I loved this approach to teaching a literature course, and I feel using Twitter judiciously could enliven any class that depends upon, or would benefit from, class discussions. Recent research into academic uses of Twitter suggests that this new communication medium is helping many faculty engage with their students (Posetti, 2009; Wesch, 2008; Young, 2009), and reach classroom goals. From my perspective, I noted at the end of my summer experiment that all my students became more autonomous learners; all of them improved their ability to analyze texts, and share insights verbally and in written form; and all of them saw how the extra work they chose to do with their peers improved their grades and heightened their commitment to our course objectives. I also felt that the class validated the multiply-mediated way in which Millennials live and learn, but without sacrificing the sort of deep and sustained thinking that was necessary for students to excel in the class. Our students are ubiquitously-connected, and wise use of Twitter can help a faculty member harness the opportunities provided by this reality, rather than lament or try to ask students to suspend those connections while doing academic work.
When teaching with Twitter, faculty can adopt a number of strategies to augment the class discussions and assignments without hijacking them. I will list here six approaches that I tried in 2009, and then four more that I will try the next time I am teaching a large enrollment course that would benefit from more student interaction, reflection, and engagement.
1) Establish a Twitter account just for your teaching. One can establish as many Twitter accounts as one has email addresses (free Gmail accounts can help with this). I use an account just for my teaching (andyatucdavis) that is separate from the personal Twitter handle that I have used for a couple of years (andyojones) to stay connected with the social and professional communities that are important to me. Students are also encouraged to create dedicated class personae to tweet from (though they can include mention of their personal Twitter account on their class Twitter account bio, in case people want to find out more about them). This way, class participants can follow their peers without having to worry about reading through irrelevant tweets.
2) Choose a hash tag that works for your class or subject area. For my class, I chose #ucdf (even though that was later discovered to be the acronym of the United Cheer and Dance Foundation). Using a hash tag made it easy for anyone who wished to follow the class conversations about great fiction to do so. Conduct a bit of hash tag research to ensure that a current academic or professional conference isn’t using your same hash tag; otherwise both your students and the conference-goers could become confused. See “HOW TO: Get the Most Out of Twitter #Hashtags” (Parr, 2009) at http://mashable.com/2009/05/17/twitter-hashtags/.
3) Set clear expectations of how you expect your students to use Twitter. Discuss the number and quality of tweets that you would like to see, as well as some options of rhetorical approaches of their tweets. At first I asked students to tweet quotations, questions, and comments. After we realized that the QQC approach was too formulaic for readable tweets, I encouraged students to offer at least three valuable tweets before each class meeting, one of which must be a response to a statement or a question presented by a classmate. This approach encouraged the sort of positive peer pressure that made students so eager to share in class. See “Fourteen Types of Tweets” (Comm, 2009) for an excellent review of the varieties of tweet categories and functions.
4) Reread the class Twitter stream as part of your final preparations for class. Note areas of student enthusiasm and confusion. Demystify what deserves demystification, but also lead the class in a discussion of what students feel to be the crux of a text. If you can, allude to Twitterers by name to involve them in the conversation and to validate their out-of-class work.
5) Validate and reward substantive and helpful Twitter participation. Suggest ways that students can present the quality and quantity of Twitter participation at the end of the term in the form of a portfolio. Recognize the importance of class participation and preparation by rewarding those who sustain the spirit of enthusiasm and critical inquiry in your class. Make your policies clear beforehand so students know at the beginning how you expect them to invest in your class.
6) Tweet multiple media. My class appreciated my tweeted links to pictures of Rome at the time of Daisy Miller (James, 1878), and Oxford, Mississippi at the time of “A Rose for Emily” (Faulkner, 1930). Challenge students to direct their peers to relevant images, audio, and video that might help them understand the settings and context of assigned texts. The Web site http://www.tvider.com, for example, makes it easy to share video and other media with Twitter followers.
Examples of more ambitious uses of Twitter as a teaching and learning tool.
1) Set up a RSS feed of class tweets on the course Web page. I saw productive use of this strategy at the Computers and Writing Conference in 2009. Conference participants were encouraged to respond to and ask questions about the presentations they were observing, and all the participants could watch the instant reporting in real time. Having such a Twitter stream on the course Web page allows all class participants to check in on the most recent posts that include the shared hash tags.
2) Share your work as a faculty member with your students. Students look up to faculty not only for what they communicate in the classroom, but also for how they conduct research, solve problems, and consider the intellectual challenges of preparing for class. That said, these processes are largely hidden from our students, and thus they represent a missed opportunity for students to learn about the multiple layers of focus and commitment required to do the work we do. Generally speaking, students who see evidence of a professor’s commitment to the class reward that faculty member with stronger course evaluations, and with their own increased focus upon course objectives. If you want to point students towards what books you are reading, or what news story that you are following, use a URL shortener such as http://www.bit.ly or http://www.ow.ly. They will allow you to fit long links within your 140-character tweets.
3) Use a time-delay application to front-load your tweeted wisdom. If you are teaching a class where students would benefit from a series of lessons or nuggets of wisdom that you would like to upload once a week and have them be tweeted on a schedule that you determine, consider one of the many simple tools that allow one to give the illusion of your Twitter industry. For instance, as a writing teacher, I would love to augment my literature class with a half-hour critical thinking or writing lesson once a week, but we wouldn’t usually have time. Instead I could upload pre-tweeted links to relevant handouts from online writing labs (the OWLs at Dartmouth and UNC Chapel Hill are two of my favorites), and watch as they are tweeted at predetermined intervals over the course of the week (or the semester). This approach would help students recognize their writing deficits, and address them in a systematic fashion with the online help of expert resources. See the “General Writing Resources” (2008), and “5 Time-Saving Twitter Tools for Managing Your Friends and Tweets” (Guajardo, 2009).
4) Consider using Twitter as a personal response system (aka “clickers”). Most of your students currently carry cell phones that allow them to tweet. In large classes, faculty could invite students to tweet responses to a polling question during lecture, and then ask a student or TA to monitor the responses. In the coming years, more of our students will be bringing to class tablet computers to which assigned texts have been uploaded. These same networked computers will provide student multiple opportunities to interact with faculty in real time using a variety of media, including instant messages and Twitter. See “10 Personal Response Systems Teaching Strategies” (Wetzel, 2009).
I hope this narrative of discovery and these resources are helpful to you. The British biologist and mathematician Jacob Bronowski (1973) once said “We are all afraid for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.” My hope for my classes and for yours is that the right mix of strategies and teaching tools will help our students find the practice and then the confidence to engage meaningfully with our lectures, our class activities, and our class discussions, and thus develop the effective communication skills and higher-order thinking skills to commit to a lifetime of curiosity and independent learning.
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