Teaching Shakespeare with Twitter

So it’s official, now: I’m teaching with Twitter in my English 205 (Shakespeare) course this fall.

How? By requiring all students to submit questions that the reading material provokes in them, after they’re finished reading a text. I’m explicitly not encouraging multi-tasking, or tweeting while reading; on the contrary, I underscore the benefits of solitude, of focus, of (as Milton put it) “the quiet and still air of delightful studies.”

Rather, I’ll ask students to post questions to their Twitter accounts, and add the hashtag #engl205. That way, I can isolate their tweets about course material from others. (Students can make their accounts private, as long as they tell me so I can follow them.) And I’ll post my own prompts, like “Why would Cymbeline in Act 5 react so coldly to his queen’s death?”

Why? Because research into how students learn shows that they approach material with preconceptions: like Shakespeare is an immortal genius; or Cymbeline is a bad play; or early modern is ‘old’ and impenetrable English (Hwaet! just compare it to Anglo-Saxon).

There’s a compelling argument that Twitter creates a “social sixth sense,” a kind of proprioception–or knowledge of where your limbs are, without looking. If I have a sense of those preconceptions, where those limbs are, our class discussions will be more responsive and flexible than if I asked for volunteers or a show of hands.

We all read in isolation, and then gather to talk about what we’ve read. But the most empathetic teacher can’t sense what all of his or her students are thinking about the material. When they put some thoughts into 140 characters, students are going to feel bound by those constraints — but they’re also going to say something succinct, direct, unvarnished.

In Cymbeline, one of the lost princes addresses this (sort of ): “our cage | We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird, | And sing our bondage freely” (3.3.42f).

In essence, I’m taking a social tool and trying to make it an intellectual one. Ideally, it’ll be a qualitative version of the clicker systems for in-class multiple-choice tests my colleagues in the sciences like to use — only outside of the classroom. In reality, it will be messier and reveal things I’d never anticipated reacting to. Watch this space.


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