All a twitter …

The talk arising out of ASEH 2012 about digital history and “what is a digital historian” led me to again consider the utility of Twitter as a teaching and research tool.

At previous NiCHE events and conferences, I’ve been one of the those tweeting the proceedings and happenings, and I’ll admit I was beginning to wonder somewhat about the utility (especially when 5 of us were tweeting and 1 person – usually Colin Tyner – was about the only one who seemed to be following). But the participation rates on Twitter during ASEH 2012 seemed higher; the question is whether it is anything more than a novelty that will wear off?

The obvious upside is that Twitter can lead to some connection with those not at the conference, or at a different paper or panel. I wasn’t able to attend the Madison conference, but I’ll admit that through Twitter, I did feel a little connected. On the downside, does tweeting key parts of a paper lead to disengaging with other parts (i.e. are we not paying attention when we compose our tweets?). And there is the danger of it being too commodified?

I think tweeting has become more acceptable – at least at certain conferences and settings, or maybe just within certain fields that have a stronger connection to digital humanities and methods – and there is more acceptance of those using smart phones, iPads, and laptops to click-clack through a talk. Is that good or bad? I’ll admit that tweeting can be a convenient cover for doing other things on an electronic device (e.g. using email, googling that thing the presenter just mentioned, etc.).

I had considered using Twitter for courses I’ve taught this past year and this upcoming semester. I recently had a conversation (over Twitter no less – so maybe calling it a “conversation” would an exaggeration; lets say exchange) with a few other historians: Ian Milligan, who recently used Twitter in a third-year lecture course, Shannon Stunden Bower, who is considering it for an upcoming course, and Wilko von Hardenberg, who is employing it in a digital history course later this summer.

Based on this “exchange” it appears that the main benefit of Twitter as a pedagogical tool may be that it facilitates engagement. But since the course I’m teaching in the upcoming semester is a seminar, rather than lecture, course, I’m not sure how Twitter would be beneficial, since a seminar should inherently facilitate engagement anyway. Perhaps if there is a related website and online discussion board, which I’m mulling over, then Twitter as an ancillary could be fun and useful in a very minor way.

Another potential classroom side-benefit I could see, albeit a limited one, is that using Twitter might make you appear “with it” to the students. But that has its pitfalls too – as Grampa Simpson puts it: “I used to be with IT. But then they changed what IT was. Now what I’m with isn’t IT, and what’s IT seems scary and weird. It’ll happen to YOU.”

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  1. Rob Gee

     /  April 14, 2012

    I’ve been following your sequence of posts in preparation for your environmental history seminar, and I was especially grateful for your draft syllabus. As an American historian working in (and on) Canada, there’s some important works there that I’m not familiar with. I’ve been thinking a good bit about Twitter though as well. I joined Twitter last year during Congress in Fredericton after seeing the ways that several colleagues were putting it to use at CHESS in St. Andrews and at CHA/Congress. But I didn’t put much effort into building my network and making much use of it until earlier this year. And my network has tripled in size in the two weeks since ASEH (granted from ridiculously small to unusually small, but still). Many of my new connections were people I met at the conference, many were people who I know were there but I never met or spoke with them. Others followed along from afar. After the last sessions of the conference and several hours into an extended stay at an excellent Irish pub I was discussing the merits of using Twitter for teaching with Mark McLaughlin and Katherine O’Flaherty. One interesting opportunity its use seems to present is the ability for colleagues to follow along with and contribute to discussions. During a semester you could manipulate your hashtags such that your students, my students, and Mark’s students–all of them likely reading and interacting with similar themes–could discuss with each other and with Mark and myself (hypothetically). When you talk about urban landscapes and built environments they can tweet photos of what they see in Ottawa, vs Fredericton, vs Halifax. An engagement tool, most definitely. Also, in my experience those engagement tools, counterintuitively, are more valuable, even necessary, in the upper level seminars where you’d think the students would be motivated already, but alas…
    I guess my point is, the real value of Twitter made itself visible to me in the wake of a conference where it played a supporting role. But in so doing it has extended the conference and made room (as have all of our blogs–so your online component and discussion board are a good idea as well) for conversations and “exchanges” (to use your word) that the three and half days of ASEH couldn’t possibly make room for. What’s also interesting to me is to look back through the tweeting of the panel sessions and see what people felt compelled to tweet, and where four or five tweeters in the same room said essentially the same thing at the same time but in unique ways. It’s an interesting form of communal note taking–where some people are merely echoing, while others are engaging, questioning, and critiquing. There’s a lot going on in 140 characters at a time. In review I find myself thinking not only about science, or activism, or visual culture, but about how we interact with information and how we turn ideas into knowledge. Anyway, I’ll leave it there for now, but I look forward to reading more as you work through content and pedogogical challenges for your course.

    • Thanks for the great comments, Rob. I had meant to mention in my last blog post that it was your Stillwater blog post on “What is a digital historian” (which was great) that partially prompted me to write this blog post. And the idea of linking up environmental history courses across the continent through Twitter is intriguing! As my post may have indicated, as much as I enjoy Twitter, I was becoming a bit pessimistic about is utility, but after your comments, the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way for me!

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