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English 205: The Twitter Assignment

Using twitter in English 205 will help me listen to your reactions to the course material, to make my teaching more responsive to your questions. My goal is to encourage you each to ask questions about Shakespeare, questions that will identify “trending topics” (as twitter calls them) in the class at large. I want to help each of you move toward higher-level questions by the end of the course: questions that show not merely how much you know, but how well you think. With time, are you moving from understanding to analyzing, and from analyzing to evaluating? Do you read between the lines, make connections between passages, convey more than one layer of information?

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Listening with Twitter


On Day 1 of a course, after I’ve given students essential information like my office hours and how to pronounce my name, I ask about their prior knowledge of the subject. In my introduction to Shakespeare, for instance, I ask which of his plays they read in high school, which they’ve seen in performance, and if they have a favourite (and why).  And I ask what students hope to get out of the course, beyond fulfilling a requirement.

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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.”

 

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.