Groupthink, multitasking, & other issues

Having decided to teach Shakespeare with Twitter this fall, I’ve been thinking about a few issues. If others occur to you, gentle reader, I’d be grateful for your solutions in the comments below.

Groupthink. Jonah Lehrer recently wrote about groupthink overshadowing–skewing–the wisdom of crowds. In sum, when you consult a group of people as individual thinkers, their aggregate response is remarkably close to the truth. But when they can see each other’s responses, there’s a reversion to the mean: “um, what she said.” Particularly when the question is vexing, or seems to have a right-or-wrong answer.

Solution? Don’t ask factual questions, but ask instead for idiosyncratic reactions to an issue or proposition: “Is Iago a sociopath? What evidence supports your response?” “What’s the most interesting word or phrase you’ve read so far, and why?”

Multitasking. First, I mentioned in my introductory post that I will explicitly discourage students from tweeting while reading, or (for that matter) doing anything else while reading. I devote a whole week to the benefits of slow reading, of focusing on one thing at a time.

Second, I really hesitated to try teaching with Twitter after my experience last time: using a live feed to display the stream of student tweets during a class discussion on a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The problem wasn’t the medium, but my mishandling of it; I should have structured the discussion more carefully to avoid the multi-tasking, back-channel, parallel-track muddle I found myself in.

Solution? Keep it outside of class. If I bring it in, I’ll do it in very structured ways: “Here’s a question someone asked that I’d like your reactions to.”


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