The Labor Day holiday is a welcome relief after my hectic first week in the new job. Among other tasks, I’ve used it to update this website, creating a structure of sub-pages to make things more manageable and adding some new material under the ‘teaching’ tab.
As I discuss in the classes page I just made, I’ve designed my courses this semester around themes of digital media and technology: in literature and culture, and in the practices of everyday life. As part of that, students in both my Digital Literacies college writing class and in my general-education literature class (Rage Against the Machine: Literature, Technology, Society) are actively participating in the technological cultures of our own time: they’re blogging and––more unusually––tweeting as part of their grade.
So far we’ve only had one week, and I haven’t yet begun to keep careful notes on everyone’s participation, but it seems to be going wonderfully. My literature students have tweeted insightfully about our reading (Forster’s The Machine Stops, the touchstone text for “Rage Against the Machine”), and my writing students are using their class hashtag not only to comment on the assignments and themes of the class but also just to chat and hang out, which pleases me.
Twitter, especially for my 101 class who are mostly new to college, has also been a useful way for students to let me know what is confusing them about the requirements, and to allow me to respond more informally than sending a class email. So far, because the required Tweeting hasn’t fully kicked in, most of the tweeters are students who were already familiar with Twitter; I hope that their example will inspire the others.
I’ve become very aware of certain limitations Twitter places on uses like the kind I’m making of it. I have had to frequently remind my students that when they click the hashtag link from their course website, they must select “all” rather than the preselected “top” link or they will see only tweets from users that Twitter’s algorithm has decided are worthwhile. Many of them access Twitter on their phones, where there seem to be fewer options for following a hashtag. I have also learned something I did not realize when designing Twitter into the course: when you run a search on Twitter, you never see 100% of tweets containing that string, because not all tweets are indexed. This is quite irritating for a teacher, and means that one of my tasks for Labor Day weekend is to follow all my students and organize them into class lists so I won’t miss their class tweets.
Both of my classes have technologies’ structures and limitations as part of their content, and so I expect to use the failings of Twitter and of proprietary systems more generally as a topic for discussion, especially in my digital literacies class. In many ways, one of my goals for the semester is for the students to critique my decision to use Twitter as one of the class platforms. But as of now, I think the advantages strongly outweigh the disadvantages. The fact that my classes are inhabiting a space that my students were already familiar with, even if just by reputation, has opened up a lot of space to talk about the different ways Twitter operates in different communities, registers, and contexts, while giving at least some of the students a chance to use a skill they never thought would be relevant in a college classroom.