November 14, 2018

How writing Twitter rants became a “huge learning motivator”

Rebecca Yoshizawa asked her students to write Twitter rants. The opportunity to address a large, external audience motivated them to hone their arguments and polish their messages.

Rebecca Yoshizawa is creating learning spaces where engagement soars—with help from a little blue bird.    

Yoshizawa is a sessional instructor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. This semester she assigned students in GSWS 318: Reproductive Justice and Rights to create three “Twitter rants”—a series of connected tweets that communicate an argument or perspective informed by course material and their own experiences. Each assignment was worth 10% of the final grade.

What do Twitter rants look like? Three examples:
@ojkaleidoscope | @LyssMeredith | @alyssadm97

Yoshizawa explains that one of the biggest strengths of using Twitter is that students can produce work that has an impact beyond the classroom.

“For their academic material to live outside of the university and mean something to someone besides me is a huge learning motivator for students and particularly relevant for Gender Studies, which centralizes activism and consciousness raising. But other disciplines could similarly assign Twitter rants—consider a biology class with a component on communicating research to publics. Wouldn’t that be a great assignment?”

As one student, Tara, said, “Writing the tweet rant forced me to develop a really strong argument, one that I could apply in other parts of my life, because I knew real people would read it. I rewrote it and rewrote it over again.”

“It was empowering to use my academic knowledge and personal, lived experience to show what I have learned, rather than regurgitate a textbook.” – Kal, Gender Studies student

But can tweets be considered real academic work? Absolutely, says Yoshizawa.

“Sure, tweets are short, but I don’t find any reduction in the analytic skill required to delve into the difficult content we address in the class. Instead, the character constraints of tweets force students to really think about what they want to say. Actually, the Twitter rant particularly is a valuable pedagogical tool because, like all genres, it has certain conventions that students need to recognize and apply … As well, all of the tweets within a rant need to be able to be read as stand-alone pieces, while fitting together into a cohesive whole that takes the reader on journey.”

“It was fun and interesting, plus I learned skills in conciseness that I know will help me with future papers.” – Alyssa, Gender Studies student

However, Yoshizawa acknowledges that, as beneficial as the assignment has been for her students, it might not be suitable for all classes.

“I wouldn’t do this assignment in a first-year class where students are ideally learning the basics of good writing. Plus, instructors should consider ways to protect their students while encouraging them to enter public discussions on controversial topics. Trolls, or worse, harassers are attracted by topics covered in my class, such as abortion. I think instructors will want to consider students’ resiliency.”

To avoid exposing her students to unwanted risk, Yoshizawa gave them the option to submit their assignments to her privately.

One thing Yoshizawa says shouldn’t be a barrier to trying out this approach is the social-media savvy of instructors.    

“If you don’t use Twitter you may not feel as comfortable having a Twitter-based assignment in your class. And though I do think [familiarity] helps, it is not necessary. I have had classes where students did infographics as their final assignment, and I hadn’t created one before that myself. But I take that as an opportunity to collaboratively develop the assignment guidelines. I ask students to bring examples of good infographics, or podcasts, or whatever I’m assigning, and we use class time to figure out genre and technical conventions together as an activity. Then I made an infographic alongside my students. If I want my students to take risks, I have to be prepared to do the same.”

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