Sunday, January 19, 2014

Teaching with Twitter

Last fall I wrote one of my monthly columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education about how I was experimenting with the use of Twitter in one of my courses.  The impetus for the assignment came from some of the research I had done on cognitive theory for my book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, in a chapter called "On Original Work."  At the time I wrote the Chronicle piece, the assignment seemed to me to be working really well--but I was slightly anxious about publishing the column before the end of the semester.  What if it turned out that the students really hated the use of Twitter as part of their course work?

Course evaluations for the fall 2013 semester arrived last week, and happily the students' verdict matched mine--almost every evaluation mentioned the course Twitter assignment as one of the "most effective teaching methods of the instructor."

"I loved the class Twitter feed!" one student wrote.  "I learned so much about British culture and found a lot of research for my papers and Colloquium on the feed.  Please keep it for your other courses."

When students, talk, I listen.  (Sometimes, anyway.)  So I'll be using Twitter again this semester.  This time around I am trying it out in my Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop.  To give you some idea about what a Twitter assignment looks like, I've reproduced the assignment sheet below.

Twitter Assignment

Good writers are readers; they read not only for pleasure, but also with an eye on how the sentences and paragraphs and pages of their fellow writers work.  So part of my goal in this course is to help you become a more discerning reader of nonfiction writing, someone who can spot a great sentence and understand what makes it tick.  That won’t happen if you confine your critical reading of creative nonfiction to the five texts we are reading this semester, and to two seventy-five minute class periods per week.  You need to become more attuned to the language that confronts you every day, in both your academic and your social environments.  You need to get in the habit of noticing good writing.

In service to that end, all students in the course will be required to use Twitter to share with the class three outstanding phrases or sentences they have encountered each week.  These sentences can come from the assigned reading in the course, from work you have read in other courses, from material you read outside of your courses, and even from the social media postings of your friends and followers.  The only requirement will be that you are prepared to explain, once a week in class, what makes those phrases or sentences worthy of our attention.

Your three required tweets must be posted every Tuesday by 10:00 am (no tweets required for the week of spring break, the two weeks on either side of Easter break, and the last week of the semester).  Spread them out over the week by simply posting great phrases and sentences when you see them, rather than by trying to do them all Tuesday morning.  All tweets most include the hashtag #CNFAC14, and an indication of the writer whose work you are tweeting.  You can use shorthand that our class would easily understand, as in “LAM” for a quote from Last American Man. We will begin class each Tuesday by talking about what we see on the course Twitter feed, and how your tweets exemplify principles we have discussed in class or how they point us in new directions. 

As the semester progresses, the Twitter feed will become an excellent resource of exemplary nonfiction writing.  So not only should you write to the Twitter feed, but you should also read it! Notice what your classmates are noticing.  Do not repeat the same sentences that your classmates have posted—which means that you should look beyond the required course reading for at least some of your tweets.

Your weekly tweets are worth ten points, and will be checked every Tuesday before class.  If you have a Twitter account that you would prefer to keep private, simply open a separate one for this course, and close it out when we are done.



  1. I really like this idea. Mind if I borrow it for my creative writing course?

  2. Of course not, Tim! Please use and let me know how it goes . . .