This semester I am attempting two very different experiments in my classes, though both aim to foster greater student engagement with course material. One experiment — which I will write more about later — involves developing a role-playing scenario modeled on Reacting to the Past to teach the intellectual and political conflicts of the Reformation in 16th century European Christianity. The other is to require students in my Core course, Theology of Work, to tweet about their reading and writing between classes.
What possessed me?
A couple of experiences coalesced at the right time to make the Twitter experiment seem appealing. First, I had an exchange via Twitter with a couple of bloggers who are, like me, interested in how to make theological sense of work. By the end of the conversation, I had gained a new way to think about the issue, and I realized that this was exactly the kind of conversation I wanted my students to be able to have by the end of the course. Past experience had told me that they could do it, but I hadn’t really given them the opportunity.
Around the same time, one of the reference librarians at King’s told me that the Association of College & Research Libraries was about to approve a new Framework for Information Literacy, which would emphasize using information in the process of inquiry within a community of inquiry, with the aim of creating new knowledge. This framework helped me to imagine my course as a node within the wider conversation about theology and work and my students as producers of knowledge that others in that conversation could benefit from.
Twitter seemed like a simple way to realize both of these insights. With Twitter, it is absurdly easy to locate, listen in on, and contribute to conversations occurring on any topic. If I required my students to tweet about their reading assignments between classes, then I could use those 140-character essays as springboards for in-class discussion. This could save time in class, as so many of the basic points of the reading would already be on the table. Additionally, students could engage with others who care about the issues we address in class.
Successes: Bringing experts to students
The preliminary results have been good. Especially taken as a whole, the students’ between-class tweets do zero in on the major issues I would want them to pick up from the reading. I don’t need to begin class by asking, “So, what did you find in the reading?” It’s all there, already Storified. Once class begins, it’s projected on the screen.
In terms of engagement with wider conversation, we had a big win on the first night of class, when David Graeber, anthropologist at the London School of Economics, wrote back to students who had mentioned him in their Tweets about an essay he wrote on “bullshit jobs.” Graeber’s comments really helped clear up a misconception we’d had about the essay. When I was a college student, an exchange like this would have been impossible. It would be as if I made a comment about a John Rawls essay, and then five minutes later, the phone rang, and Rawls was on the line wanting to speak with me.
We also used Skype to bring a great writer on religion and economics, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, into class to speak with the students about how she has used various electronic platforms, including Twitter, to generate and communicate her ideas. We spoke as well about how intellectual authority is constructed (a key element in the ACRL Framework). Liz began her writing career at the end of her college career; at first, she wrote out of her expertise on living in Boston during the Marathon bombing and its aftermath. An expert doesn’t have to be a 50-year old with multiple degrees. By the end of the course, my students should begin to think of themselves as experts who are “developing their own authoritative voices” on the course topic.
Since then, the class hashtag has gotten some notice from other bloggers and academics.
Is #C269S15 a class? You all are discussing some really interesting stuff!
— Patheos Faith&Work (@PatheosFthWork) January 30, 2015
— John Budd (@JohnWBudd) February 12, 2015
And other authorities have helped us understand more about their areas of expertise because we’re tweeting about things they know about.
Cautions: No one is used to this
While we have had some interactions with people outside our classroom, we can stand to have a lot more. Students are used to hearing their professors tell them to put their phones away when they study. They are not used to thinking of social media as academic tools. Similarly, we tell students all the time that they cannot seek outside help on their assignments, so it may seem strange for them to hear me encourage them to reach out to living, breathing experts and expect a response. This week’s assignment is meant to address that; students must use Twitter to link to and comment on a blog, mentioning the author’s Twitter handle.
There also has not been much student-to-student interaction on Twitter. I need to do more to make that happen. When I reply to a student’s tweet, usually by asking a question their tweet prompts, they nearly always reply back. I may try mentioning more than one student in my replies, thereby potentially starting conversation among a few students who had different ideas. It can take hard work to get students to speak to each other (and not just to me) in the classroom; it’s no easier to make that happen online.
Do you have ideas about how to help students form intellectual communities within and beyond the classroom? If so, please say so in the comments.