Twitter for Academia

David Parry bio photo By David Parry


I must admit that when I first heard about Twitter I thought it represented the apex of what concerns me about internet technology: solipsism and sound-bite communication. While I obviously spend a great deal of time online and thinking about the potential of these new networked digital communication structures, I also worry about the way that they too easily lead to increasingly short space and time for conversation, cutting off nuance and conversation, and what is often worse how these conversations often reduce to self-centered statements. When I first heard about Twitter I thought, this was the example par excellence of these fears, so for many months I did not investigate it at all. Then I read an article by Clive Thompson at Wired. Clive’s article convinced me that perhaps it was worth giving Twitter a try. At this point I have to say, I am so glad that I did. Although I am still beginning to wrap my head around all of its varied uses—I think for the most part Twitter users themselves are still figuring this out—I have been using it for over six months now and come up with some academic uses.

Rather than cover what Twitter is or how to use it (see this video as well), I thought I would explain how I use it, specifically for academic related uses, and teaching. (For those who want the quick definition of Twitter, it allows you to broadcast and receive messages from your computer or cell phone of 140 characters in length, all those who “subscribe” to your broadcast can see your message, called a “tweet,” and you receive messages from all those to whom you subscribe. The key point to remember here is this can get sent to your phone, making it highly mobile.)

Ways to use Twitter in Academia:

Some of these ideas are general, and some are specifically from a Twittering assignment I did for a class last semester. When I first added it to the syllabus I had no idea what to expect. It was just sort of an experiment that I had planned for the end of the semester (all of the students signed up for twitter and followed each other). After using it I have to say it was one of the better things I did with that class, for reasons I will explain below.

  • Class Chatter: The first thing I noticed when the class started using Twitter was how conversations continued inside and outside of class. Most of these conversations were not directly related to class material, but many were tangentially related. Because the students had the shared classroom experience when something came up outside of class that reminded them of material from class time it often got twittered. This served as a reinforcement/connection between the material and the “real world.”
  • Classroom Community: Once students started twittering I think they developed a sense of each other as people beyond the classroom space, rather than just students they saw twice a week for an hour and a half. This carried with it a range of benefits, from more productive classroom conversations (people were more willing to talk, and more respectful of others), and also helped me to understand what type of students they were. I learned a great deal about students lives, where they work, that one of them had Thanksgiving dinner with 50+ people. Now this type of supplementary material might not be attractive to all educators, I can definitely say that changed the classroom dynamics for the better. I think this is connected to what Clive Thompson calls the sixth sense of Twitter. Having the Sixth Sense can really help the classroom.
  • Get a Sense of the World: You can have students look at the Public Timeline of Twitter. This is the place where all public messages get posted. The “noise” ratio here is pretty high, but one gets a sense of how varied are the things people are doing around the globe. Just a quick look at the timeline shows a range of languages, although English is still the predominate one. Additionally the public timeline serves as a sort of quick measure of what people are paying attention to. During large sporting events (World Series, or NFL Playoffs, Twitter) has a large number of messages from people watching these events. New Years was particularly interesting as people around the world wished “Happy New Year” via Twitter, far before the New Year actually got to me in Dallas, TX.
  • Track a Word: Through Twitter you can “track” a word. This will subscribe you to any post which contains said word. So, for example a student could be interested in how a particular word is used. They can track the word, and see the varied phrases in which people use it. Or, you can track an event, a proper name (I track Derrida for example), a movie title, a store name see how many people a day tweet that they are at or on their way to a Starbucks. (To do this send the message “track Starbucks” to Twitter, rather than posting the update “track Starbucks” you will now receive all messages with the word “Starbucks.”)
  • Track a Conference: Before going to MLA (the big language and literature conference held between Christmas and New Years) I started “tracking” MLA. This means anytime that someone tweeted using the word MLA I got a notice. This way I discovered several other people who were at the MLA using Twitter. (Now I also got a bunch of college students complaining about MLA citation format as well.)
  • Instant Feedback: Because Twitter is always on, and gets pushed to your cell phone if you set it up this way, it is a good way to get instant feedback. I was prepping for a lecture and wanted to know if students shared a particular movie reference, I asked via Twitter and got instant responses. Students can also use this when doing their classwork, trying to understand the material. Tweet: “I don’t understand what this reading has to do with New Media? any ideas?” Other students then respond. (This actually happened recently in a class of mine.)
  • Follow a Professional: Students can follow someone else who is on Twitter, who interests them. For example if they are thinking about journalism they should follow NewMediaJim who works for NBC and Tweets about being on Airforce One, covering the Middle East etc. This is a rare inside, “real-time” view into journalism. He is followed by over 2,500 people at this point. Howard Rheingold also uses Twitter in his social journalism class.
  • Follow a Famous Person: Many celebrities are on Twitter, and you can also follow politicians. Obama. Edwards.
  • Grammar: Surprisingly Twitter is actually good for teaching grammar. Why? Because of its short form those who tweet often abbreviate and abuse grammar rules, developing their own unique “twitter rules.” This helps to demonstrate, both how all communication needs rules/structure and how important something like a comma or a period can be. (Some Tweets become really ambiguous because of their lack of punctuation.)
  • Rule Based Writing: Related to the above is the idea that when you change the rules (context) around any written communication you necessarily change the content of such an utterance. Rules rather than hindering communication can actually be really productive (for the long version of this argument read about Oulipo). Because Twitter is based on SMS technology it limits communication to 140 characters, it is surprising what develops out of this limit, and how quickly one starts to think in messages of 140 characters.
  • Maximizing the Teachable Moment: It is often hard to teach in context, Twitter allows you to do this, but better yet, allows your students to do it for you (a way that others will hear perhaps). Recently someone in my Twitter circle made a marginal comment about a male friend who was dating an older woman. Another person in the same circle called him out this. Perfect, an in-context lesson on gender prejudice.</p>
    • Public NotePad: Twitter is really good for sharing short inspirations, thoughts that just popped into your head. Not only are they recorded, because you can go back and look at them, but you can also get inspiration from others. This is really useful for any “creative” based class.
    • Writing Assignments: Remember that game you used to play where one person would start a story, the next person would continue it, etc. . .Okay try this on Twitter.</ul> Have other thoughts/uses for Twitter and academia? Add them to the comments.

    P.S.: You can follow me on Twitter if you want to see how I use it.