Social Media and General Education: My Queens College Presidential Roundtable talk

This week I gave a Presidential Roundtable discussion at Queens College. The talk was titled, somewhat anemically, “Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages”, though arguably what I was saying didn’t really end up having much to do with text messages! (I justify my being misleading by reference to the fact that the Presidential Roundtable was not in fact a roundtable format.)

The thrust of the talk was that there are important structural similarities between social media like blogs and Twitter (their openness, their relative lack of imposed structure, their focus on audience and emergent conventions, their positioning of the individual as the locus of value and meaning) and the kind of general education that we’re seeking during this year of gen ed reform at QC.

I transcribed the video after the break, mainly so I’d have the text for my own purposes. It’s lightly edited to cut out some of the more egregious ums and ers and actuallys. Video of the talk is below for anyone who is interested. I spoke mostly extemporaneously and said some dumb things, so please be generous in your interpretation!!

Special thanks to Zach Whalen, who generously answered some of my questions about his Graphic Novel class. (And to his students, whose tweets served as fodder!)

Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages from Boone Gorges on Vimeo.

Transcribed text

Hello everybody. I’m here to day to talk on a subject that I have titled “Teaching on the Coattails of text messages”. It may or may not end up that I have actually talked a lot about text messages, but I thought it was provocative enough to get you in the room to about the things I really wanted to talk about. Consider yourselves baited and switched.

I have two points to make today. The first one is that there is a structural similarity between the things that make social media work the way that they work; the properties of social media that set it apart from what we might call “traditional media”; that make it popular; that make people want to use it – and, on the other hand, the structure of general education. Or, more specifically, the properties that we want our general education to have here at Queens College. There is a sort of isomorphism, a sort of equivalency between the two, and I want tot alk about where those properties lie. I’m going to do that by looking at a couple of specific examples of the way that social media can be used in a classroom, and I’m going to sort of let these properties emerge.

The second is the upshot of this equivalency. What does that mean? What are the pedagogical consequences? What are the consequences for the way that we think about the class, the individual class level? What are the consequences for the way we think about the general education curriculum as a whole?

First, I should start off by talking about the phrase “social media”, which I don’t really like very much. It sounds a little buzzwordy, it sounds a little like marketer speak. And to some extent it is. But that’s only because it’s been co-opted from its true roots. Social media is media that is, at its heart, social. You might actually argue that all media is at its heart social, it’s always about some sort of communication, which is a social activity. But social media is predicated on being primarily social, as opposed to being unidirectional.

When we talk about social media, we usually mean these sort of very big, fancy web apps that are worth billions of dollars, things like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Youtube, but there’s a panopoly of other ones. I’m going to talk about each one in turn. No, I’m not going to do that. One of the things that I want you to take away from what I say today is that even though I’m going to be talking about specific examples – in particular, I’m going to talk a little bit about blogs, and a little bit about Twitter – what I ultimately want to say about this equivalency relationship between social media and general education can really be abstracted away from any of the particular technologies. You don’t really want to tie your cart to any one horse; you don’t want to give yourself over to one single technology just because it’s the one that people are using today. I want to talk about more general facts about social media, and I’ll just be using a few of these as an example.

The first one is blogs. As I look around the room, I see a lot of people who have heard me talk about blogs a lot before, until I am blue in the face. I’ve been working on blogs here at Queens College for aoub tfour years, since I started here as a Writing Fellow. For those of you who don’t know, a blog is a website that is easily updateable. It’s a little bit like a journal that is kept online: the most recent stuff shows up at the top. It’s dynamic, as opposed to static. Generally, it allows for some sort of interactivity between the reader and the author – that’s what makes it social, in the form of comments that happen on each post.

I want to talk a little about a particular classroom use. Having surveyed all the classroom uses of blogs I’ve ever seen, I’ve chosen the following example: my own. This isn’t just egotism, it’s that I want to give you a phenomenological account of my experience using blogs in the classroom. I want to tell you the ways in which I found myself surprised, and the sorts of qualities that emerged as I used these blogs.

So here’s the setup. The semester I’m talking about I believe is the fall of 2008, which is the last time I taught Introduction to Ethics. This was at Hofstra, where I was an adjunct. I had taught the time maybe ten times before, over the course of a couple years, and I’d had real problems with it. Most of my students were business majors, and this was part of their general education requirements. Ethics in particular was required by the business school for reasons that you can probably divine, although I’m not sure if the business school really knew what happens in a philosophical ethics course. But that’s kind of beside the point.

So, I’d taught this multiple times before, and I really thought that the students had more of a knack for philosophical thinking than they thought they did. But I had a real practical problem, which is that the students didn’t read the stuff before they came to class. We were reading original texts, which are extremely daunting. It’s very hard to get anything out of the Nicomachean Ethics or something like that, and actually be able to come to class and say something about it. My initial interest in using blogs came out of my interest in using things like reading quizzes and reading response journals, namely that I wanted to give students an impetus to actually do some of the reading before they came to class, and engage actively with the texts. In philosophy, at least, unless you’re actually reconstructing the arguments and the theories in your mind, you’re not really doing anything at all. In order to learn philosophy, you have to actually do philosophy. That’s probably not unique to philosophy, though philosophers like to say that it is.

The structure of this particular assignment is: I gave them a blog assignment just about every class. They were not terribly exciting. It was something like: Here’s something we talked about in class, or something from the readings, maybe we applied a particular theory – let’s say Kant’s theory – to a set of cases in class, the blog assignment was to apply it to another case and explain how it would work. Not terribly exciting, but, like I said, the purpose was not so much to foster conversations, so much as it was to get students to think a little bit and to read a little bit.

I found myself surprised in a number of ways by the things that emerged over the course of a semester. Things that I hadn’t really thought about at all. Now, all of the purposes for which I originally used blogs were not really inherently social, you’ll notice. they were all about the traditional learning goals of making sure students absorbed text, and interacted with them in an absorbtive way. I hadn’t really thought about anything particular social. So I was surprised when a couple of different kind of things emerged. And I want to look at a few of these blogs, to talk about what some of these things are.

This is one example of a blog. (It’s very pretty. I used – it was all free.) I apparently had asked something about whether, under Hobbes’s theory, it made sense to talk about the moral value of government actions. In any case, it wasn’t a particularly engrossing question, perhaps. But one of the things I found emerging was a different sort of community inside of comments sections than what I had originally anticipated. As the semester went on, I thought that the posts themselves got better. But that’s not really what surprised me that much. What surprised me was that kind of culture was forming inside of the comments sections, and it was a comment section that reflected a few higher-end cognitive abilities – I might say something like higher-order community properties – than I had anticipated.

Let me talk about what one of these is. Here the author has written some things about Hobbes and morality. Jeffersson responds and says: “the golden rule does fit very nicely here…”. So this is just a sort of debate emerging out of the comments. It’s already a step in a nice direction, where I had this student Jeffersson saying “The golden rule does fit very nicely here,” responding to a particular example that the student had brought up. “Treat others the way you want to be treated”, and then bringing it out and expanding upon it ( 10:00-10:30). I thought this was a relatively high-level thing.

What’s really interesting is that here at the bottom, I’ve got a response from CM Tisdale. CM Tisdale was not a student in my class. I have no idea who CM Tisdale is. But CM Tisdale says: “That’s just the problem. [‘That’ being something that was said earlier.] The agents of law and conduct believe it’s their job to keep us from destroying each other. My view’s always been that such and such and so and so.”. I had a habit at the beginning of every class of bringing up some blogs in front of the class, just to see what was happening, and to highlight some interesting things. When I brought this up, they looked around the room and said, “CM Tisdale?”, and they kind of freaked out, to be honest. They freaked out because it had never really occurred to them that anyone was going to be reading this, or more so that anyone would really want to read this, or that anyone would want to read it enough that they would take the time to respond to it. It was a big surprise for them. It didn’t happen a lot over the course of the semester, but CM Tisdale was a fan of our blogs (I’m not really sure why, but he posted in a few different places). We had a few other scattered comments.

Just from an anecdotal point of view, what this sort of outside comment did for me was that they highlighted the extent to which students started to see themselves as authors who were writing for a real audience. This is in contrast to the kind of reading journals that I had previously received. When I had asked students to answer very similar sorts of questions to the ones I was asking them to answer in the blogs, they would be written in a very rote way, in a way that presumed that I had certain background knowledge. And I do, because I’m the instructor. But that started changing, as students started gaining what I assumed was a real cognizance that other people were reading. The comment from CM Tisdale is just an extreme example of it. It’s really manifested throughout the semester, as the comments that classmagtes left on each others’ blogs became more sophisticated and more analytical. You found the original posts beginning to anticipate the possible problems with the arguments they were putting forth. What emerged was a real eye for debate that I hadn’t previously anticipated coming out of comment sections.

It dovetailed with something I talked about explicitly in the class. As a philosophy instructor, especially in an ethics class, which can be sort of heated because students come with their preconvceived notions about what constitutes ethics, I have to deal a lot with students who engage in the worst sorts of logical fallacies. Anyone who has taken a Logic 101 course will know things like ad hominem, strawman arguments, situations in which students will defend their own position by attacking the weakest part of the opponent’s theory. This is something that I talked a lot about in class, because I had good reason to: students would say, “I already believe this” coming into the class, “so I’m going to defend it by attacking the opposing theory’s weakest parts”. And I talked a lot about what we in phiosophy call the Principle of Charity, which is the idea that if you really want to find out what the other person is saying, if you really want to establish genuine conversation, if you really want to search for some kind of authentic truth, then you should be responding to the very best formulation possible of your opponent’s position, rather than the weakest formulation possible. A metaphor for this is that you can only build truth on a strong foundation. The knowledge building enterprise is about building on what other people have done.

This is something that I talked about in class, but talking about it explicitly with students, that method of knowledge production doesn’t really sink in. To them, it’s just “Tell me what Kant thinks.” In the comment sections, though, engagement with a genuine audience gave them a sense of how it works without my imposing it on them. You would have an individual writing somehting about how they interpreted Kant, and then other people from the class – real people, a real audience – would come in and respond. It’s a microcosm of the way that scholarship, philosophy actually works.

[Question] You were lucky, because Tisdale said something that was relevant. Suppse the comment was way out of left field, even pornographic. Then what do you do?

There are technical and pedagogical ways around this. For one, at the beginning of every semester, I made sure to be active in comment sections, modeling the kind of comments I wanted, and students started to take on that role as well, as referrees for each other. This is another part of the community that emerges. Technically, of course, if someone posts a pornographic comments, then students are able to delete it. They’re in charge of their own blogs. I’ll talk a little bit more about building a sense of consciousness about decorum online when I talk about Twitter, so that question may be answered a little more.

Let me look at another example. I really love this one. It’s at the end of the semester, December 11. “Nietzsche is wrong”. I spend one day talking about Nieztsche in my Intro to Ethics class, because, for the life of me, I don’t understand Nietzsche. I wish that I did. I love reading him. But I can’t spend a lot of time on him. I paint a very cartoonish picture of what Nietzsche thinks in Beyond Good and Evil.

This particular blog happens to be written by a student who is one of the students who tends to be very vocal in class, always having a lot to say, which is generally a pleasure, but also precludes participation on behalf of some other students. A really great an enjoyable student, and his blog posts are obviously quite good and wordy in themselves. What I really like here is, once again, what happens in the comment sections. First comemnt is a very straightforward “I agree. Nietzsche is wrong to assign the power of value to only those individuals he deems worthy.” Here we have a very amicable but distant tone. It’s very similar to the tone I’d seen earlier. The tone changes as the comments continue: “Maybe you’re wrong, Eric….”

Now, this student was NOT one of my vocal students. This student is one who was relatively quiet a lot of time. What’s happening here, at least in my point of view, is that you have social lubricant building. Where you wouldn’t otherwise have participation from this particular student, especially engaging with the student who is the most vocal student in class. Earlier in the semester, this student Liz actually says, “I haven’t commented so far, but I wanted to get one in by the end of the semester”, and finally, through a sort of snowball effect, the student has built up enough rapport with the other student to be able to couch the intellectual content of what she wanted to say – something that is relatively simple (Nietzche is wrong), but something that is actually antagonistic to what the original poster says, so even harder to say – but is able to say it because it is lubricated by the social layer that is on top of it (“Maybe you’re wrong!”) and below it (“Yay!”).

And then Eric responds: “Yay for you!” And here’s another student who’s stepping in – the tone has been set at this point, right? – “I disagree completely with everything in your title and with the other conformists of Eric’s regime. You forgot Nietzsche is entitled to free speech as a human being…” Here we have the sort of mixing of tones, the mixing of cotexts, that is enabled by this sort of medium. This is really the important point here. It’s not because I fostered a community that this emerged. It’s certain facts about this medium that allowed the community to emerge. Certain properties of the medium itself.

What properites? In this case, one of the properties, I think, is its relatively egalitarianness. What I mean by that is that each student had his or her own blog space, and in that blog space, he or she was the primary voice. Other voices, in turn, had to respond to that voice. That’s a lot different from the classroom space, which is stratified in a much more obvious way. First of all, I’m standing here at the front of the class spouting my knowledge to people who are facing me. But also, students who are very vocal preclude involvement by other students in the class – necessarily, because we only have a certain number of minutes in the class. So that’s one thing about this medium – it’s relative flatness – that allows this sort of flower to bloom where it otherwise wouldn’t.

Another one is its openness. By openness, I mean “visibility to others”. It’s only because students were reading what others were written, and moreover it’s only because the authors knew that they would be read by their classmates, that these sorts of conversations and conventions could emerge. This is a fundamental fact about this medium. If you have a student writing a response journal and handing it in for a grade, that’s a different medium, and that medium does not allow for this sort of openness. So these communities don’t emerge.

let me step back. Here’s a couple things I take away fromt he example of blogs. First, there’s a focus on audience. There’s a focus on having a real person on the other end, other than the instructor, who is the abstraction of a person, mixed with an intellect (from the student’s point of view, I presume!). You have a real audience. And, not only do you have a real audience, but the focus is on the audience. After the first few times around, after the first few assignnments, when the students start to see that they get better comments when they step up their game in their blog posts, the audience becomes the focus. And that is what we’re trying to teach our students in everything that we do, but especially when we’re teaching them to write. We want them to think about the audience that will be recieiving their work, and to write with them in mind. That’s somehting that the medium enables, and that’s somsheitng that emerged here, in virtue of the medium.

Another one is empathy. Now, “empathy” is sort of a loaded word. You could think of empathy in a hippie-ish way. But I think of it in a more philosophical way, along the line of the principle of charity. You have these students who are taking the best version of what they think their classmates are saying, in order to get closer to the truth, yes. But also because their is a common vulnerability when everyone puts their work out there. It’s the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Everyone puts their stuff out there, and you can’t be too snarky, because everyone’s work is out there. That creates a focus on students as full human beings, as well-rounded human beings. There’s a connection between the words on the computer screen, and the person who comes into class, and the person you have a conversation with in the comments section. These are stratified, but they are connected. And that’s what I take empathy to mean in this case. It emerges because of these facts about the medium, the openness of this particular medium.

So what do you get? Well, when you have these things together (the focus on audience and empathy), you get: the possibility of connection. By connection, I mean all sorts of things, which I’m going to talk more about later, but I mean REAL connection. It’s not necessarily that it’s going to happen but it’s that having these properties of a medium allow the possibility for connections to emerge in an organic way.

Example number 2 is Twitter. Twitter in nutshell: 140 character messages. Why 140 characters? Well, now I’m going to make my tenuous connection to text messages. It’s because a text message can only be 160 characters for technical reasons. It’s actually sent on the dead air between cellular signals. Doesn’t actually charge anything for the cell phone companies to send it that way, by the way, so when the cell phone companies charge 10 cents, it’s 100% profit. In any case, it can only be 160 characters. So 140 characters for a twitter message allows for 20 characters, like your username. Twitter was initially designed when people didn’t generally have smartphones, they didn’t have access to the internet, to the world wide web. They could only access things through text messages. The 140 character limit imposed on Twitter is a remnant of that.

What you’re seeing over there is, by the way, a screenshot of my Twitter stream. I’m going to show you a live view of my Twitter stream in a moment – dangerously.

Another one of the mechanisms that defines Twitter is the ‘following’ mechanism. The following mechanism says: I’m going to put my messages out there, my 140 missives, epistles, I put them out there and other people can choosen whether they want to receive them in their stream. It’s all public by default, but when you log on to Twitter you don’t see every tweet in the world, it would be useless. I don’t speak that language, I’m not interested in that topic, I don’t know this person. Instead, users are able to filter who they listen to by following their tweets.

Out of this very open space, various sorts of conventions emerge. One of them is the at-sign, which we’re going to see in a moment. The at-sign is a way of tapping someone on the shoulder, o mentioning them. Everyone has a user handle. Mine is ‘boonebgorges’ (very long, 11 characters – I wasn’t thinking!). You can see the at-sign in action up here. afamiglietti said: @cscannella dude you’re totally in Amsterdam, bro. Even if cscanella wasn’t following afamiglietti, the message would still reach him in virtue of that mention.

Another convention is the hashtag, it’s another convention that emerges. It’s a tag. By adding #, plus a few letters that are agreed upon in a group, you can have a way of tagging all of your tweets that are about a topic or about an event. So when I went to Educause in Denver last year, everyone who was tweeting about Educause tagged their tweets #educause09. That way, you can instantly search all of the tweets in Twitter for people who are talking about educause 09. It’s a way of consolodating the conversation that you’re interested in out of enormous, flat, unstructured landscape that is Twitter.

Just to give you a sense of what’s going on on Twitter. This is always a little dangerous, but just before I started talking, I sent this message: Starting my Big Talk in about five minutes. Please say hello to the lovely folks at Queens College. We’re going to see if anyone has actually said hello. This is my tweet stream; you’re seeing everyone I follow and their most recent tweets. I’m going to click on @boonebgorges, to filter for those tweets that mention me. OK, here’s some people. “Why hello there, lovely people of Queens College. Be sure to give Boone a hard time.” I only know Ed through Twitter. I think he’s in sociology somewhere, but I don’t know. [Totally got that wrong!] Micah Humphries is, shoot, I don’t know, I think he’s a philosopher. [Totally got that wrong too!] Luke Waltzer works at Baruch. acavender is in Notre Dame and is in the Religion department. Here is “Hello lovely folks at Queens College, if you need BuddyPress…” Oh God, this is advertising. So this is a friend of mine who works in web development. All these people are out there, sitting at their computers, people I’ve met through Twitter or elsewhere. They’ve just responded to my request to say hello to you.

Let me get back on topics. Gee whiz, isn’t that neat? Who cares? As an aside, I’ll say that when I started working on blogs here at QC, a lot of people said “Who cares?” Blogs are self-indulgent, don’t have any point, all of them are about what I had for breakfast this morning, why would this ever have a role in my classroom? Today nobody says that. Blogs are much more than that, and it’s become part of common knowledge that this is a legitamate way to talk. Moreover, it’s become common knowledge that this is a legitimate scholarly apparatus. In every field, there are prominent scholars who are also bloggers about their field. I know it’s tru in philosophy, at least.

So who cares about Twitter? Well, all the same things are leveled against Twitter. Twitter is narcissistic, it’s about what you had for breakfast this morning. What role does this play? Well, I’m going to start off with a personal anecdoete. Not necessarily to tell you how great I am, though doubtless I am really great. I want to show you why somebody would care.

Let’s start with me, because I do care. When I first joined Twitter, I followed people who I already knew outside of Twitter. Of course, because I’m a CUNY student and employee, it includes a lot of people around CUNY. As you start following people, you start seeing who they’re talking to, and what they’re talking about. Maybe you start following some more people. For me, that meant a larger network of CUNY people, who I didn’t know off of Twitter, but I did know on Twitter. So, I’m using Twitter for a while, and one day a friend who I knew through Twitter (and subsequently met in real life) tweeted about a small web development quesiton that he had – how do I make this look like this. Twitter being the sort of beautiful open space of friendship that it is – the commune – I tweeted at him and said, “I’ll help you”. I gave him a response. After a few back and forths, it turned out that he was doing this project the CUNY Academic Commons. After a few tweets back and forth, I ended up getting employed. Now I’m the lead developer, the lead technical person on the project. This happened because I was using this space in Twitter.

As a result of this, I started following people who were interested in the CUNy Academic Commons, and they started following me. Because the CUNY Academic Commons is built on a platform called WordPress, I started folowing people who were interested in WordPress, and they started following me. I became a part of this other network, which had some overlap with the CUNY network, and with the Academic Commons network, but it was distinct in its own way, and larger. And, as I became more well known in the WordPress network, I got all sorts of things: speaking gigs – I go to all of these WordPress events – jobs, prestige, glory, girls money, all that sort of stuff.

The point of this is not that Twitter will get you a job. It’s that Twitter is an open canvas. STructural facts about Twitter, namely the fact that it doesn’t really have much a structure, leave it open for all sorts of possibilities. That sort of unstructured nature allows for these networks to emerge naturally around shared interests. In turn, all sorts of “real life” things can happen as a result of those networks that form on Twitter. It feeds itself in this way.

What’s really interesting is when different networks merge unexpectedly. Just to give you an example, I have other networks that start from me. One of which has to do with, let’s say, academic philosophy. There are a lot of philosophers on Twitter. I follow them out here. It just so happens that some of them are interested in educational technology, especially as it regards philosophy education. So they come down here [pointing!], and it starts to overlap down here, overlapping independently. I just submitted a conference proposal to the American Association of Philosophy Teachers conference, which is in May, or June, or something [way wrong! It’s in July/August], and it got accepted, and I had co-authored it with some people I had met on Twitter, through this network. The networked hooked back up down here.

This is not magic, and it’s not something I planned, but it’s something that can happen when you have a structure that allows for spontaneous communities to develop.

What does this mean for the classroom? Here’s an example. This one’s not about me. It’s a friend from Twitter, surprise surprise. His name is Zach Whalen. He’s in English at the University of Mary Washington. He’s teaching a course this semester called “The Graphic Novel” in the English department. The graphic novel, as you probably know, is comic books. Long, beautiful comic books, but they’re comic books. He’s using Twitter for a bunch of things in his class. There are a lot of people using Twitter in their classes experimentally, but I picked on him for a particular reason.

Let’s look at some of the examples of tweets from his class. He’s using it to foster a sort of backchannel. By “backchannel” I mean a discussion that happens during class activities, or outside of class activities, that is secondary to the discussion that is primary. It’s a backchannel as opposed to a frontchannel. In this particular case, what’s happening is that Zach set up a screening time and watch the movie adaptation of a book they had read in class. Most of the students at this point were sitting in the same room, on couches, with their computers in their laps, watching the movie. And tweeting about it in the background. Some of the students were at home, and they had pressed play at the same time. Some of the students had already seen the movie, and were simply following the tweet stream so that they could keep up with the chatter in their classrooms. Here’s what happened. None of these tweets have any value on their own, but they’re all indicative of properties that emerge when you look at them as a whole.

Here’s a tweet. He tagged it #engl375. That’s the hashtag that they’re using to bring together all of the content of this class. “And here’s the most awkward use of music in recent movie memory.” So it’s a little bit of a snarky comment. “And the most obvious visual gag outside of a Naked Gun movie.” Here we have some sort of meta cultural reference, pulling from different areas. Maybe not the most astute thing in the entire world, but it’s a tweet, what do you expect, it’s not supposed to be. Another example: “This dude looks like a troll.” What I love about these tweets as an observer is that I don’t have any idea what they mean. They are context dependent, and necessarily so, because tweets are 140 characters long. You can’t give the kind of context you would give in an academic paper, or even in a blog for that matter. You’re limited. But that is a way of building community into the equation. Where I might write a blog post, and somebody would be able to print off that post and hand it to someone else, and the post would still be coherent, that’s not true for a tweet. A tweet doesn’t have any meaning once it’s taken out of the community where the conventions have been established.

This kind of snarkiness, by the way – I’ve been going back and forth with Zach over the last week or two, asking him about this experiment, and it’s interesting – this sort of making-fun-of-the-movie is both what he likes about the experiment and what he fears about the experiment. Because what can be a sort of edgy critical response can quickly turn into a sort of mob mentality, where people are dishing out for the sake of dishing. But one of the things that Zach likes about this tension is that it gives him a chance to step in as an instructor, and model what it means to be a public citizen on the internet. This responds to what you were saying before, Sam: These students are using their real names, and it gives a chance for people to discuss, in an organized way, in the class, what it means when you go out there and participate in a larger community of people out there, talking on Twitter. These are publicly viewable, and they’re publicly indexed, through Google. So it’s important that students are aware of what they’re doing online, and this is a good opportunity to have those discussions – which are increasingly important as students have more and more of their communication in these open spaces.

Here’s another example of backchannel. I love this page. These are a couple of tweets from one of the students in the class, in the timeline of a single student. We have to start from the bottom, because it goes in reverse order, the newest things start at the top. A very mundane tweet, asking a question about the assignment: “Is the homework supposed to be a single 5×7 panel comic?” But notice that she said #zachwhalen. That’s not the convention. The convention is @zachwhalen. So she says, less than a minute later, “Did I just type #zachwhalen instead of @zachwhalen? lol” Except she misspelled it, so it’s not going to show up on his Twitter stream. “OMG I FAIL SO BADLY I’M GOING TO STOP TRYING TO TYPE RIGHT NOW”, less than a minute later. Then, we have the tweet a few hours later, “I now have dragon edge origins awakenings. Too bad I can’t play it yet”. I assume this is a video game, I don’t know. Next, a few hours later: Cake.

What I love about this is that here we have the literal juxtaposition of tweets that reflect all sorts of different aspects of this student’s life. Here the student is eating cake – that’s an important part of anyone’s life – and then there is this video game, which is clearly important enough to the student to have it as part of her public persona. And then we have things here that are a part of the class. Then we have these sort of bridges bewteen social spaces and academic spaces.

The fact that these are happening right next to each other means something. It means that possibilities for convergence, possibilities for serendipity, possibilities for accidental connections are there, in a way that they wouldn’t be if all these different kinds of communications were isolated in their own silos. Twitter’s formless like that. Your updates show up in a single place. That, in addition to being scary and unstructured, can be an exciting thing. Even though nothing may emerge from these sorts of juxtapositions, it could.

Here’s a silly example. These are two students from that class. Actually, this one is the student we were just looking at. This student said something about “I got to such and such a level in the dragon age game” – it’s a few days later obviously. Blueofthekin kenw that she had just tweeted a few days earlier about how she had just gotten the game and said “Wow, you’re fast”. “It’s not that long of an expansion pack. Not sure how I feel about the ending.” “I’m almost there. I’m defeating Amarinthine from the dark spawn. Love my sword made of elder dragon bones. Love it.” “Yeah, that sword is awesome.” Again, I lvoe this because I don’t understand it. I don’t know the game they’re talking about. I’m not a part of this community. But what’s interesting is that these two are classmates in this graphic novel class. Does this game Dragon Age have anything to do with the class? Possibly not. Did these students already have a relationship before starting the class and meeting each other on Twitter? Maybe, maybe not, I don’t really know. The point is that here we have the opportunity for these things to interact in meaningful ways. Maybe 99% of the time these things are not going to connect. But when they do, it’s in virtue of the fact that they appeared in the same place. #engl375, and this dragon age game. Because they were next to each other, it allows a way for these connections to emerge in a way they wouldn’t otherwise do.

So what do we know about Twitter? It has minimal structure – this is something I’ve already talked about. It’s just there. It has less structure than a blog, because a blog has a hierarchy built into it: I post an entry, and you can leave comments, but they are necessarily secondary. Twitter’s not like that – it’s totally open, totally flat, everyone is the same. It has minimal structure. And it has openness. Everyone can read all of the things that other people are writing, and decide to follow them or respond to them in the ways that they wish.

What do we get? The possibility for connection. It arises naturally out of these features of this particular medium. If you had a medium where everything was siloed; if you had a medium where all of the conversation that happened about English happened over here, and was unconnected with things that happened about video games; or, if my conversations about academic philosophy and my conversations about WordPress were over here, those connections can’t happen. Likewise, if there’s more structure imposed from above, if I say “I’m going to set up a community where you can talk about x, and then another community where you can talk about y”, that structure has the effect of hampering openness. And, again, it has the effect of hampering the possibility for connections that I’ve been talking about. So I see these as key.

What does this say about general education at Queens? Here is the denouement. Let’s talk about the structure of gen ed. We’ll do it by looking at this quote, which comes from the Task Force report. This is from the first bullet points in the introduction, where the purpose is to lay out the purpose of a general education, and here it is: “A central task of general education is to enable students to make connections across course and disciplinary boundaries” – one kind of connection – “and between their undergraduate education and the changing world they will inhabit”. Two kinds of connections that are being talked about here. There are a few other bullet points below this, but all of them make reference back to this underlying, foundational purpose for general education. Why bother to have general education at all? It’s to allow students to have the foundation they need to create connections.

Let’s talk about some of these bullet points. General education is focused on connection. We’ve just talked about that. And not just connection between disciplines, though that’s extremely important, but also connections between what we traditionally call academics and what we might traditionally call “the world students inhabit”, in other words the real world, the social world, life itself. The personal, and the private. The social, and the professional. The connections between these spheres is something that we’re looking for in general education. Not false, imposed connections, but real, authentic, emergent connections.

Second, relevance. One of the things I hear every time I talk about gen ed is that we want to change from LASAR because LASAR felt like it was a check list that students felt like they had to check off. I follow the keyword “CUNY” on Twitter, and I see this a lot: “Stupid CUNY, why does CUNY make me take French, I’m never going to use French”. It’s not relevant. So one of the things that a good general education should do, and a good general education curriculum, is to make its relevance manifest. It’s not about inventing relevance. It’s not about imposing relevance from our points of view. It’s not about pandering, in other words. I’m not saying that we should find something that the students like, like video games, and then connect to that. That’s not what relevance means. Look, we already believe that general education is relevant or we wouldn’t be making our students do it. We have to make our students understand why it’s relevant from our points of view. Again, this goes back to the empathy point. The reason why we care about general education in the first place is because we think it’s relevent in a deep way to what it means to be a human being, to what it means to be a scholar, to what it means to produce knowledge. And that’s somehting we have to convey to our students. That, to me, is what comes out of the general education curriculum.

Another piece of the structure of general education that I see is that the individual is the pivot point. By this I mean the followoing. When you talk about interdiscipolinary connections, you might think of something like: “How does Philosophy relate to Biology?” People do talk about this, and it’s extremely important. But people have been talking about this forever, and it’s really hard to figure that answer out. Maybe we need to step back a little bit – and I think we do this in our curriculum – and ask, instead of what does Philosophy have to do with anything, we ask “What does your philosophy class have to do with your biology class?” The way that Perspectives courses are set up is to foster this sort of individual pivot point. It’s not necessarily about a grand overview, what does Sociology have to do with Biology, it’s instead thinking, “We’re going to talk about human evolution through this particular lens, and then you’ll take this lens that is constructed out of the things that you learn, and then you apply it to the other courses that you take.” It’s about framing it in terms of individual student as a thinker, the student as the scholar, the student as the locus of meaning, rather than thinking about it in some sort of broad way.

And finally, fertile spaces in which connections can emerge – another cornerstone of the structure of general education. I see this reflected everywhere in what we’ve been doing this year. Think about these roundtables. Think about the way that literary studies relates to psychology. Think about the way that poetry relates to sociology. These spaces right here are intended to be those fertile spaces where connections can emerge. But they’re not the only ones, and some other ones are Perspectives courses, and in particular these learning communities where Perspectives courses are paired with English 110 topics courses that have similar content. This again is the construction of a space that doesn’t necessarily foist connections on students, because connections that are foisted on students are bound to be artificial and not long-lasting, but it provides the space, the soil in which they can grow. It’s giving a sort of framework.

What does this have to do with social media? I hope that I don’t really have to tell you: The structure of general education IS the structure of social media. It’s exactly the same. All of the things I’ve been talking about. It’s founded on the idea of connection. If you’re on Twitter, and you’re not tweeting at people, and you’re not using hashtags, and you’re not following anyone, then you’re not really using it at all. That’s what I meant at the beginning when I said that social media is fundamentally social in a way that maybe writing a book is not. The book can have meaning outside of the immediate circumstances, but the tweet cannot. We saw this – we were looking a tweet that said “This guy looks like a jerk”, and we didn’t know. It’s context dependent. It has to be connected or it becomes meaningless.

Relevance. It’s a funny thing – and this is something that the marketers have already figured out – social media doesn’t need to be made relevant because social media is built on a foundation of relevance. A student doesn’t join Facebook and then say “OK, what’s relevant about this for me, I better figure out something that will make it relevant”. No: they joined it because it’s already relevant, because their friends are there, it’s relevant to their own purposes. It’s a fundamental fact about these social spaces that they are immediately relevant. And part of the reason is because of this third point.

Namely, that the social spaces – the ones I’ve been talking about, blogs and Twitter, but also the other ones – think about the person as a whole. What I mean about that is, take Twitter: When I tweet about WordPress, or I tweet about philosophy, or I tweet about what I had for dinner last night, these things appear next to each other. And out of these things emerges a more accurate picture of who I am as a person than emerges out of very segregated spaces. Now, this often seems like a terrifying thing from an academic point of view – well, this doesn’t have anything to do with academics! – and it may not from the point of view of its content. But in terms of establishing relationships that are based on empathy and based on the people who we are, instead of based on some artifical abstraction – well, we’re both interested in philsoophy, so let’s make sure we both talk about philosophy. So the individual becomes the locus in social media. I don’t sign up for an interest-based account on Twitter. I sign up for an account for me, and all my interests fall within that account. Same with Facebook. You sign up for an account for a person, not an account for every single class, for every one of your communities. The individual is the molecule here. That’s fundamental to social media. And I think it’s fundamental to thinking about general education being an attainable goal for our students.

Finally, fertile spaces in which connections can emerge. I don’t know what more to tell you other than the things I’ve already shown. It’s these facts about the social media spaces. It’s these properties of openness, properties like minimal structure, properties like the fostering of empathy and relationships – these structural facts about social media allow connections to form in ways that wouldn’t be possible if those properties were different.

When I flip back and forth between these two sides, you can see what I meant at the beginning when I said that there is a real structural similarity between these things [social media and general education]. So what does that mean? What’s the upshot? Well, I guess what I’m envisioning is a general education curriculum where students are encouraged to bring all parts of themselves to the table in spaces that are fertile for connections. Perspectives courses and learning communities are a step in this direction, but they don’t go far enough. Once that semester is over, all those things are left behind. All those things you might have learned about the different lenses through which a sociologist and an evolutionary biologist look at human evolution remain only a memory. I think that that’s an artificial structure that hinders communication and hinders the kinds of connections I’ve been talking about. So I’m envisioning something where those structures don’t exist. Or where those structures are somehow looser. Or a secondary space over the top of it – you can think about Twitter, you can think about blogs, you can think about personal websites, you can think about these social networks, whatever – some sort of space that acts as the medium in which the connections happen. Because the nodes of the connections, the students themselves, they move through the curriculum, but without some sort of medium, some sort of agar, some sort of gel, those connections can’t survive. The nodes continue, but the connections don’t. So some sort of space that has some of the properties that I’ve been talking about I believe will make those connections happen. How that actually works is a very difficult question to answer.

But I think that, given the structural similarities between general education and social media, we would be foolish not to pursue it as a means to getting the goal that we want, which is a student who is really connected with the world around them. Thanks.

9 thoughts on “Social Media and General Education: My Queens College Presidential Roundtable talk

  1. Amanda French

    I’ve had similar experiences using blogs in the classroom, too; the startlement when someone outside the class replies is always salutary for us all.

    I’ve always hated the idea that humanities courses teach “critical thinking”; I think that students are already capable of critical thinking in non-academic contexts, and it’s the height of arrogance to think that we need to teach them to think. (Of course, we can teach logic and argumentation, but I think that most of that is teaching students names for things they already know about.) What I always try to teach in general undergrad courses is that “The same kind of critical thinking you already do in other contexts is exactly the same kind that you should do in this unfamiliar context.” Or, in other words, that their college courses are indeed relevant to them, and they are relevant to their college courses.

    That’s what I see you getting at in this piece — that social media can help students see that philosophy and biology and French are *real world* subjects, not (only) academic subjects.

  2. Boone Gorges Post author

    Hi Amanda. Yes, the point about the relevance of philosophy and biology and French is something that I wanted to hammer home near the end. I guess the idea is this: No one needs to justify the relevance of social media; it’s a foundational part of why SM works. Gen Ed, on the other hand, (justifiably or not,) finds itself forced to argue for its own relevance.

    The first step in all of this is for individual faculty members, departments, and universities to codify for themselves why gen ed is relevant. In some cases this might involve actually *making* it relevant. But usually it’s just a matter of articulating something that’s already there. Especially important are the often underexplained non-vocational arguments for the relevance of gen ed, having to do with citizenship and humanity and all that other stuff that is always gestured toward but rarely cashed out.

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  4. Boone Gorges Post author

    Thanks, Deryk! One of the things I really like about Twitter is how it makes the work that people like you and I do (which can be largely solitary and somewhat isolating) into more of a social endeavor, if only because you can chit chat in a public space.

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