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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Twittering Tutor

Friday, October 16, 2009

One of the pleasures of university life is the three months in summer when students depart, and rather than having to swim against a tide of preparation and marking, one actually gets to tread water, reflecting on what has gone before, and planning new strategies. For module conveners and heads of department, such planning usually means revising reading lists, syllabi, lectures, and exam papers in the wake of a burden of student feedback forms and external examiners' reports. But not being elevated to the position of a full-time academic, in my humble role as a part-time tutor, I get to reflect more modestly on my own teaching experience, and plan subtle but perhaps more exciting changes to my own teaching methods.

Over the summer, then, one plan I have implemented has been to build myself a personal website to showcase my research and CV and, rather less vainly, to support my teaching through technologies that are not offered by the university's central virtual learning environment. For example, having moved to an online calendar, I post my free/busy information so students can check when they can meet me if they need an appointment. I also offer anonymous teaching feedback questionnaires. However, the most exciting element of the website is my new Twitter account.

Long one of the Twitterati under the not-so-pseudonymic alibrown18, this coming academic year, I will be using another Twitter account purely in support of teaching (I will not give it out here, precisely because it is designed for my students, not the use of you, Joe Public). In this blog post, I explain my rationale behind using Twitter, and anticipate some of the problems and potential benefits as a technological aid to traditional teaching and email contact methods.


One thing that surprises me as a teacher is how few emails I get asking intellectual-type questions, where a student is struggling to comprehend material and wants some help, or where a student is carrying out their own research for essays and would like some pointers. There are far fewer than one might have expect given that they have so little contact time with me over the year. Of course, just about once a minute I receive an email along the lines of "my printer has broken, can I have another month to write my essay?" but it is rare for a student to ask me something less practical, and more discursive. Whilst this might suggest that I am unapproachable, or that I give off the whiff of "I'm too busy doing research, now leave me alone," I would prefer to think that I give the impression to students that they are welcome to ask me any questions they would like, to discuss essays or other concerns. Why, then, do so few approach me with questions that indicate fresh engagement or problems with their course content?

One clue might lie in the style of the relatively few discursive emails that I do receive. We live in a culture in which, so we are told, students would write essays via text speak and emoticons if they could get away with it. Given this, I am always surprised that when I receive a email from a student, they are most often carefully-crafted, literate, and considered. Students are usually apologetic for having "bothered" me, even if the question being asked was worthy and interesting. Coupling this with the fact that I receive fewer dialectical emails than might be expected, my suspicion is that students are put off from asking intellectual questions for fear of sounding stupid. They do not want to seem to be asking that question that might be deemed too simple, and hence too much of a bother to a busy tutor. Thus students may get so bogged down in worrying about how they can express their question, that few of them actually do so, not being prepared to write through a careful email expressing their thoughts.

As a very different form of electronic exchange, with a 140 character limit the very nature of Twitter defies extended talk. It is, however, potentially very useful for precisely the reason that intrinsically no question or comment a student poses there can be a deep one, though it may nevertheless point towards hidden complexities and undercurrents of thought in the student's mind. The additional level of informality might encourage more hesitant, or less articulate, students to use this medium instead of email. I can at this stage imagine messages like, "Help. I really want 2 write about science in Conrad's Secret Agent. What should I read?" or "Is the passage in Pride and Prejudice on p.49 free indirect discourse?"

Naturally, such questions would require an extended, probably emailed, reply. But the important issue here is about opening a channel of communication between student and tutor, encouraging the student that the tutor is approachable and open to an exchange of ideas, thoughts, and recommendations.

A second motivation for using Twitter lies in the efficient way it can be used to share contemporary media stories, web links, or one's current reading. My thoughts on this benefit were sparked when in the middle of the last academic year I read Elaine Showalter's article in The Guardian review, showcasing her new book, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. At the time, I was teaching an American fiction course, and it struck me as apt that Showalter had touched a nerve about the masculine bias in American literature. Almost certainly, some of my students will have picked up on the article, or on one of her radio and web features around the time. Yet most may not have done.

Using a quick, informal tweet to direct students to the article would have made clear that this was neither essential reading, nor necessarily my view on the state of American literature, but that it might be of interest nonetheless. Based on my serendipitous research experiences of happening upon books in Oxfam or articles in the London Review of Books that sent my writing off into new and fertile fields, I firmly believe that research in the arts is as much about luck and the unexpected discovery than the predictable approach through the established reading list. Because of its brevity, tweets containing links or recommendations have the sense of happenstance about them. For example, I could only have posted: "Article by Showalter on which women writers are important in American Lit. http://bit.ly/H9fC4" It is then up to the student to read and decide for themselves what their opinion on this new criticism is.

On that note, a more ephemeral epistemological possibility might be raised through the use of microblogging teaching aids. Literature departments have come a long way since Arnold, Leavis, Eliot and their like populated their "great tradition" with dead, white, European males. Whilst many bemoan the postmodern, postcolonial, postfeminist relativism that was - and still is - the reaction to this tradition, there is no doubt that today, English studies is in perpetual flux. The "canon," such as it is, shifts with the cultural climate and the intellectual tide. Just as Showalter's A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing shook up the notion of the male tradition by perceiving a female line of literary inheritance, a new work by a major critic like Showalter will get noticed, will shift the boundaries of the discipline, will break the silo of "American Literature."

Yet in spite of the undermining of the tradition, even the best lecture courses can be slow to turn with the tide, perhaps introducing one or two different books a year, and certainly not rewriting material to reflect issues currently in the news, blogosphere, or literary media. The lecture course, doing its job of teaching efficiently and reliably week by week, has its place. Indeed, arguably the key merit of literary studies is its comparative stability. By discussing a common body of the best texts of a culture or time, a literature course sends a community of readers, who become workers, thinkers, and leaders, out into the world with a common humanistic framework derived from those books. But the lecture course that is the bedrock of such an idealistic (perhaps, today, slightly naive) ambition does not necessarily impart to students the sense of their subject today as dynamic, with long-cherished authors up for critical grabs, with new authors just waiting to be explored.

Now I would not suggest that Twitter, for all of its powerful Streisand effects on the media, is by itself capable of carrying a new culture into English studies. Nor indeed would such a revolution be a good thing. The whole beauty of posting subject news to Twitter is that its informal nature means that any links or reading suggested there will not fundamentally contradict central reading lists carefully constructed by module conveners. It will be clear that these reading lists and lectures are the core of course content. Yet any contemporary tweets may also inspire students' independent learning, encourage them to explore the less well-known books on course lists, and invest in them the sense of literary studies as a discursive game, rather than a one-way process where they suck well worn information out of eminent academics. What I would hope using Twitter will do as a teaching aid is to convey in students the sense of their subject as being alive in wider critical and lay society, so that individually students feel free to imagine new ways of approaching established texts. Additionally, if I use it to post my own reading as I prepare for teaching, this might convey the excitement of independent research in a way that could enthuse students.

Why Twitter?

Twitter is, of course, just one of many web tools that might help to support learning. Why, then, is it potentially better than any alternative platform or content sharing facility?

As I have already said, Twitter's 140 character limit is ideal for encouraging students to open communication spontaneously, rather than worrying about contacting a tutor to ask a potentially (to them) silly question. It also makes it easy for me to share links to articles or books, without feeling that I have to write a long email or blog post justifying my suggestion, and without implying that my suggestions are certainly better than those on reading lists.

Besides brevity, another benefit of Twitter is its simplicity. I can easily use a browser plugin (such as Echofon) or my mobile phone to post links or responses to students, without having to log-in to any university email or content management system.

Further, students can also follow my Twitter feed passively. I have in the past considered using Facebook as a teaching support, because it is ubiquitous among the student community and has straightforward facilities for discussions, such as the wall and message boards; it also has an events system which could be used to remind students of deadlines or meetings. However, feedback from my students on their tutorial questionnaires strongly suggested that students would see my use of Facebook as a breach of private walls. Firstly, students use Facebook to escape work, not to do it. Secondly, in order to create a teaching group, I would first need to befriend students and vice versa, meaning that we might be tempted to snoop on each other's profiles.

Twitter, however, requires no such exchange of personal details in order to allow a feed to be followed. Indeed, anxious students can actually "block" me from following them, whilst still being able to see me. I can also use Twitter's API to post tweets to my static teaching website (and one would hope that existing virtual learning platforms, such as the dreaded Blackboard, will make use of this architecture in future) so students can check there even if they are not signed-up members of Twitter. Tweets can also be followed as individual RSS feeds corresponding to a hash tag. So, for example, I can assign #drama to one module, #modernism to another, and students can follow only those feeds relevant to their subject. That Twitter is by nature a public medium also means that other students not directly taught by me can pick up on my feeds, helping to offer "parity of provision" between students taught by different tutors.

Finally, the use of the "retweet" convention would allow students to use my Twitter feed to share their own discoveries with their peers, without those students having to log on to a discussion board or compose a justificatory email. Such retweets could also be anonymised, if students fear being tagged as the class "geek," whilst they can be moderated more easily than a discussion board, if I feel the content is unsuitable or irrelevant. Indeed, such moderation, which would require me to contact the student explaining why I have not passed their suggestion on, might also draw out that the student is not engaged with the course reading in the best possible way.

The Test

Of course, all the above are hypotheses conceived in the dreamy days of the summer vacation. It may well be that students do not use Twitter to contact me with sparks of doubt or questions. It may be that few make use of my feeds on current subject news. It may also be that my university comes down on me for daring to use a technology that does not come under its official virtual learning environment, and for doing something that goes beyond the normal expectation of a tutor.

But I feel that, being early in my career, and not having the burden of a full-time academic job and associated admin and research, if I do not try these things now, I may never; or, rather, if it does work, I will be able (quite selfishly) to promote my technological innovation as an aspect to my CV, rather than something expected of a university tutor as will increasingly be the case over the next decade. At the moment, Twitter is surfing the wave of the Web 2.0 era, the hottest new technology since, well, Facebook last year. It would seem a real missed opportunity not to test how microblogging can work as a teaching tool.

The final question, though, because it is so cutting edge, is what the test of its success can be. Despite the mass of publicity, not everyone is familiar with Twitter, and despite being tech-savvy, students might think my use of the medium is a bit alien and strange. Perhaps they will not use it just because it is not yet prominent in their consciousnesses, the way Facebook is, and I would be wrong to be deflated if uptake is slow. A key problem of testing how my Twitter posts are used is that, whilst being open so that students can follow feeds in a number of ways without having to "befriend" me, this makes it impossible to apply metrics. How do I know whether my students are following me, or just random strangers? How do I know how many students without Twitter accounts are visiting my static website and actually reading the feeds there? How do I know how many have subscribed to the RSS feeds with a reader?

Further, if students do not use it to contact me with their questions, or to share their reading with their peers, does this suggest something intrinsic to many students (that they do not really want to actively engage with their learning and the intellectual potential of their subject, but simply want to pass the course), or does it suggest that this technology too has failed to unlock their discursive sides? If a few students do actively use it to chase up my reading suggestions or to ask questions, will my efforts taken to reach these few have been worthwhile, or are those the same students who would have excelled as learners anyway?

There is, at this stage, only one thing to do. In a couple of days, I have my first meetings with my students, when I will introduce my new website, and direct them to my Twitter stream. I will, quite shamelessly, get their feedback and thoughts. And hope that I will also, in a year's time, be posting here that it has been a resounding success. Wtch this spc. x.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:12 am


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