Today’s guest post is by Honor Sachs, an assistant professor of history at Western Carolina University and author of Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier.
Several years ago, I attended a seminar on digital pedagogy. I thought it might be worthwhile to explore new opportunities out there for social media in the classroom. It was indeed an eye-opening experience, though not in the way I had hoped. Seminar leaders regaled us with software package after software package filled with whistles, bells, alerts, gimmicks, everything, they claimed, one would need to connect with this generation of “digital natives” (their term, not mine.) Students these days spend so much time on social media, they claimed, that faculty need to learn to connect with them online in order to really engage. “Here’s a program that allows you to text your students!” “Here’s another that allows you to collect data on how much time your students spend on homework!” “Here’s a program where you can instant message your student and remind them to study!”
It was absurd. The ideas pitched at this seminar were infantilizing and the software was hopelessly uninspiring. I held back the snark as best I could and hoped it would end soon. This is not for me, I thought. I have no interest in sending my students text messages to remind them to do their homework. The gimmicks designed to integrate social media into the classroom seemed lifeless and without substance. When it was all over, I committed myself to remain old school: lectures and books for me. Old school.
I’ve experienced such moments of disillusionment many times. We all have. Every faculty member has at some point been told by some minion of market research—often somebody who has never spent a day in an actual classroom—that we have lost this generation of undergraduates because we are afraid of technology. They tell us we do not know how to do our jobs without social media. They disparage the lecture. They tell us we need to “flip” our classrooms. They tell us our assignments need more “scaffolding.” They come armed with “research” illustrating how faculty need to up their “engagement” game.
It took a much more intellectually sound logic for me to embrace the possibility of using social media with my students. A few years back, my friend, Robin Morris at Agnes Scott College, told me she was experimenting with Twitter in the classroom. Robin explained to me that she had started to invite students to follow her on Twitter (@proromo) as a way to bridge her courses to current events. She explained that Twitter allowed her to model for students the way a historian sees the world. The idea seemed risky to me—I had always believed in drawing a very clear line between my students and my online personal business. But, at the same time, the idea of allowing students to see how a historian thinks about the past in the context of daily life was intriguing.
I decided to try it. I put my Twitter handle (@drhonor) on my fall syllabi and invited my students to follow along. At first I was cautious, tweeting only about history when it related to course material. I found Twitter to be a baffling place and much of it was overwhelming. Initially, I stuck to my intended plan and used it as media solely for my students. I tweeted thoughts about class readings, reflections on lecture, news of upcoming talks. My students followed along and would occasionally send me links of their own. Eventually, I began to let my guard down a bit and loosen up. I shed some of the professor veneer and connected with a wider network of historians, writers, and archivists. I had fun with it. It seemed like a good way to engage students beyond the classroom, to get them to integrate their studies into their everyday thinking. Mission accomplished.
But student interest in Twitter was fleeting. Like Facebook before it, Twitter grew stale within a few years and students moved on. For a while, they migrated to Instagram. I gave that a go, but found its usefulness limited. Its emphasis on images over text did not leave me much to work with. There was one year when our student body here at Western Carolina University was taken over by a truly toxic social media platform called Yik Yak. Yik Yak is an anonymous message board that I can only describe as a training ground for internet trolls. It became a repository for anonymous hate speech, online harassment, and random grotesquery. Thankfully, its popularity did not last long.
Then came Snapchat. A number of people had tried to entice me to Snapchat before, but it never made sense and always seemed quite silly. It is little more than a collection of fleeting photos and videos that disappear after a very short lifespan. What’s the point? I could not possibly use this for anything other than goofing off, and I certainly do not need any help with that.
But my students were obsessed with it and insisted I give it a try. So this semester, I allowed my students in my large History 131 survey class at WCU to show me the ropes. Each day before class, they gave me a short tutorial in Snapchat and I stumbled along. I followed them and they followed me. At first it seemed wildly strange that students would allow a faculty member to peer into their lives. Students, it seems, Snapchat everything, and I mean EVERYTHING about their lives. After my first weekend on Snapchat, I came into class and told them we need to set some boundaries. I said I would look at their snaps during the day, but not at night and not on the weekends. I assumed they did not want me to see what they did on the weekends. To my enormous surprise, they did not seem much to care what I saw and, honestly, it was kind of novel for me to gain new insights into student life.
But then something interesting happened. The week that students were to turn in their first writing assignment—a short piece on Camilla Townsend’s Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma—I noticed that they snapchatted their progress through their work. They took selfies with their books around campus. They took pictures of their computer screens as they worked through their writing. They snapped pages in the book, highlighted passages, and commented on the content. They were documenting their learning and sharing their progress with friends. I had not asked them to do this; they were just broadcasting of their own initiative. I was amazed and not a small bit thrilled.
As I spent more time on this new online space where students lived, they continued to delight me. When I assigned Thomas Paine, one student snapped a video of herself reading Common Sense out loud to her roommate. Another student posted a video of himself reading the grievances in the Declaration of Independence out loud in the middle of campus. Another sent me a snapchat of her friends lip-syncing to the Hamilton soundtrack. Over Thanksgiving Break, students sent me updates when they shared ideas and information from class with their parents and families. Daily, I discovered that students snapchatted my Powerpoint outlines, took photos of their lecture notes with comments about what they learned. One late night, I got a snap from a student who was proud that she had linked her Cards Against Humanity hand to our lesson about the Puritans. It seemed that course material was creeping into their lives in organic and unexpected ways – and they were proud and eager to share their insights with me. By using Snapchat, I was able to see this in a way I never had access to before.
Now, one semester in, I am still figuring out what to make of this new social media experiment. There are many positives. My students regularly message me with questions or items of interest and I am able to get back to them quickly. I have found they are far likelier to approach me with questions through social media than through email. I have also received immediate feedback on the course that I would not otherwise see. For example, this semester, I have experimented with a new set of writing assignments and through Snapchat I have learned that these assignments are actually working. One student was so proud of her work, she posted a photo of her grade and commented “I’ve finally learned to write in my history class! I’m doing so much better on all my papers!”
There are also potential problems. The pressure of constant accessibility might be too much for faculty already overburdened by student demands. If one is not already inclined to be glued to their smartphone (as I most certainly am) social media like Snapchat might not be worth the effort. And while I am lucky to have a group of students this semester who are mostly considerate and respectful, I can imagine that such media has the potential to devolve into online harassment or hostility. Finally, there is also the issue of exposure to student issues that gives me pause. In just a few short months, I have seen students air their troubles, their sadness, their anxieties, and their depression online, alongside their levity and joy. Such a vantage point demands a particular level of commitment to students’ wellbeing that extends far beyond the classroom. Not all professors could, or should, go there.
Despite these concerns, my experiments with social media in the classroom have injected new life into my courses. My students and I are genuinely having fun with Snapchat. On the surface, that might not seem like it has much intellectual value, but on a deeper level, I think there is something to be said for the pedagogical importance of having fun. In our current higher ed dystopia, much of the fun in teaching and learning has been smothered by the advent of stultifying learning outcomes, assessments, and data-driven objectives – soul-sucking exercises that have curtailed and constrained much of the meaningful intellectual exploration in today’s college classrooms. Through their Snapchat posts, I feel like my students are reclaiming a level of creative play by performing, broadcasting, and evaluating their college experience on their own terms. It gives them an unfettered, unmonitored, highly personal outlet in which to experiment with ideas and identities free from the pressures of assessment, scrutiny, and oversight. The value of such free-form intellectual space, however silly it can sometimes be, should not be overlooked. At the very least, experimenting with Snapchat in the classroom has reminded me that students have as much to teach me as I have to teach them.