Ms E-Mentor recently joined Twitter: https://twitter.com/msementor . It’s a buzzy, interesting and distracting place, the Twittersphere. I managed within my first week to join in the Friday afternoon trend that was #popleveson, where thousands of tweeters posted Levenson Enquiry-style tweets using pop lyrics (example: “But you are not a poor boy from a poor family, are you Mr Mercury?” by @moomindroll). I also started my own very small trend by using the hashtag #GoodLecturer to link to the Guardian Higher Education Network‘s live chat on ‘How to be a Good Lecturer’ on 18/05/12 (see my comments within the live chat thread as well).
There’s no shortage of interesting stuff out there on Twitter and Academia: Are Twitter/blogging antithetical to ‘deep’, scholarly writing?; AcademHack’s suggestions on Twitter for Academia; Katrina Gulliver’s “10 Commandments of Twitter for Academics”; the LSE Impact Blog’s Guide to using Twitter in University Research, Teaching and Impact Activities; Should students ‘do’ social media with their lecturers/tutors?
Until recently I’d not taken much notice of Twitter, thinking it mainly for those with smartphones (hoping Antiques Roadshow will be in town soon so they can value my mobile). But then I read the Observer’s “Twitter feeds you need” and met one of their mentioned top tweeters, Stella Duffy, at Gladstone’s Library. I signed up.
As I’m tweeting as Ms E-Mentor I’m inevitably interested in the ways that Twitter can be used within academia, research and (higher education) teaching. One of my most immediate responses to Twitter is to note its capacity for blurring of boundaries (what other medium offers the seeming proximity to celebs/stars — surely part of Twitter’s popularity?). While academics on Facebook may well not (rightly, in my view) want their current students as ‘friends’ (and vice versa), Twitter is different. Any tweet is immediately public and hence potentially there is a tweeting etiquette. I hope some of my students will follow me, as I may well follow some of them, and some of the blurring of boundaries that Twitter brings seem to me to be good from an academic point of view. Hopefully academics are rounded people who have lots of different interests and enthusiasms and it is good for our students to see this about us. This isn’t about being inappropriately personal, it’s about being an authentic person (and lecturer/academic). Twitter is also potentially a place for wit, wry comment and fun (as exemplified by the tweets of Elizabeth Windsor @Queen_UK). If you’ve only got 140 characters you’ve got to be to the point; if you go over, edit down until you’re sharper!
But can you teach with Twitter? Before I actually had a Twitter account I tried…
Yesterday I and approximately 30 other colleagues attended Teaching English Studies Through Blended Learning at the School of English, Leeds. Many thanks to David Higgins for organising what was a lively and stimulating event. I think we all came away with copious notes and heads full of ideas about teaching HE English in the twenty-first century — in part in relation to e-learning, but by no means exclusively. I particularly appreciated the mix of presentations and opportunties for reflection and discussion.
I kicked off proceedings with “@likeabatoutofhell @ClosetCase @MsDisillusion @TheBlooferLady: Tweeting the Victorians — New Adventures in #OnlineEnglishTeaching”. This was a way for me to demonstrate how I have integrated a range of discussion forum activities across my two Victorian Literature modules (many described in detail in other posts on this blog). It was my first chance to share my Fin de Siecle Twitter session with the wider world, in which my class chose a character from a range of late nineteenth-century texts, also chose a twitter name for them, and then tweeted as Dorian Gray/Dr Jekyll/Dracula/assorted New Women characters, etc. But we did this all within the VLE discussion forum and not on Twitter. This provoked interesting discussion: some colleagues told me I could have done this in Twitter if I’d wanted, although I expressed concerns about the rest of the twittersphere potentially joining in. The ‘walled garden’ metaphor for the VLE came up (which for some is a good thing; for some not), and questions about boundaries in online learning spaces. I will post about this Twiiter-like activity in more detail another time.
Fiona Douglas (Leeds) talked about developing self-assessing interactive study skills activities for students (and, importantly, NOT calling it study skills but ’Studying and Researching English’) using Articulate software. Greg Garrard (Bath Spa) then introduced us to his Poetiks poem reader, which can be used as a tool to aid students with understanding scansion. I must admit that I feel slightly queasy at the prospect of a computer somehow being able to ‘read’ a poem. My first mischevious thought was to wonder whether if I tried putting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh through (longer than Paradise Lost) it would blow up. Greg is a powerhouse of radical and queasy-making ideas to other English lecturers, as one of our subsequent small-group discussions revealed. He’s an advocate of cutting down the number of texts we teach students and slow reading.
Alison Johnson (Leeds) used the database Scopus to show how many articles are being written about blended learning, and gave two of her PhD students, Alberto Gomez and David Wright, the opportunity to have their say about how online learning facilities available to them at Leeds had helped their studies. Laurence Publicover showed us the blog he’d started to accompany a module on ‘Literature and the Sea’, and Paul Maddern took us round The Seamus Heaney Centre Digital Archive, which is a treasure trove of recorded poetry performances.
There’s lots more to say about the day, and I may well post again. In the meantime Ms E-Mentor has decided it’s time to join the twittersphere, and I’m now tweeting as @MsEmentor.
My colleague and fellow-blogger Aidan Byrne (aka Plashing Vole) has just forwarded me a post from the Australian academic who blogs as Music for Deckchairs about learning from edtech failure(s). The post begins “The problem with edtech evangelism is that it assumes the most valuable lessons are learned from other people’s success. This is why our lives fill up with stories of exciting tools that have transformed this that or the other thing. Exhausting, really.”
Absolutely true. Tomorrow I’m off to a Higher Education Academy-sponsored day event at Leeds University English Department to talk about blended learning with a bunch of colleagues there and I’ve reached the dizzying heights of being invited as their keynote speaker. I guess they aren’t thinking I’ll turn up and say “actually all the e-learning stuff I’ve tried has been a bit rubbish and I wouldn’t recommend wasting your time on any of this with your students”. I’m not, of course, but the principle of being allowed to try things out and it perhaps not working is something that our university structures don’t always accommodate too well. Any new project proposal these days — whether pedagogic or subject-based research – seems to have to say confidently before its even started what shiny outcomes it is going to have achieved.
Music for Deckchair’s post thus reminds us that what doesn’t work is as important for learning as what does. So you try out an e-learning activity with your students and it doesn’t go well. Reflect on it. Why didn’t it work? Did you really want it to work? What would you do differently if you did it again? Ask your students why it didn’t work (they may well be more likely to know than you). Write this process down and publish it. It’s valuable.
One of my potential e-learning failures this past academic year has been this blog. I’ve neglected it a lot (sorry to my three-and-a-half readers out there — I’ve appreciated your patience). My excuse — such as I have one — is that I’ve been very focussed on writing a good old-fashioned book and I don’t seem to have been born with the writing multi-tasking gene. The part of my brain that writes literary criticism is also not the same part of my brain that writes poetry, so the development of my MMU MA Portfolio due in later this year has also been taking a bit of a back seat. But I’ve noted in myself that whilst I’m happy — and indeed enjoy — discussing aspects of my teaching on this blog, I would have been a lot more uncomfortable discussing my book-in-progress. Maybe as English academics we are still a lot more private about the processes of producing our published work. This includes failure as well as success. There are days, weeks, even months when a project may not feel like its ‘going well’ at all. Other times the writing adrenalin kicks in, connections are made and insights emerge. Most often it’s just a sustained long, committed slog, where you have to keep on ‘showing up at the page’ when you can. And again. And again.
Yesterday was the end of another teaching year. It was the final session on “Women’s Writing: Reading Gender”, a second-year module that introduces a variety of feminist literary theories and themes concerned with women’s writing. The final session attempts to address what has happened to ‘The F(eminism) Word in the Noughties and Teens’ via a discussion of some of the characteristics of Third-Wave Feminisms.
A few weeks ago I’d been lucky enough to catch queer and gender theorist Judith Jack Halberstam giving a talk in Birmingham on ‘Gaga Feminism: Pregnant Men, Heteroflexible Women, and the End of Normal’, in advance of the publication later this year of her latest book Gaga Feminism (Duke UP, 2012). The talk was lively and provocative (well done to Birmingham LGBT Forum for getting her to Brum!). Halberstam argued that Lady Gaga is a ludic figure in relation to the image(s) she presents of gender and sexuality, and that as understandings of gender/sexuality are now changing so fast and so continually, and have in effect ‘gone gaga’, we should ‘go with it’ and do likewise, embracing such unfixed fluidity rather than resisting it.
Well, I’m nothing if not bang-up-to-date, so I passed this on to my class and we watched the full 7 minutes 20 seconds of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way video (along with the other nearly 94 million people who have done so across the planet). Are there people doing PhD analyses of this yet? It’s certainly a phenomenal piece of pop video, particularly the opening few minutes. Gaga as ‘Mother Monster’ is certainly an interesting phenomenon: she’s a massive pop icon who positively embraces an image of ‘otherness’. No doubt there is lots to say as well about the way Lady G ‘performs gender’, although of course ‘Born This Way’ is about as essentialist a title as you can get (although within an American context the title’s essentialism is arguably part of its provocative queerness).
Is Lady Gaga a feminist icon? Opinions differ. But one of the key tenets of third-wave feminism is that wherever feminism is now being explored it’s in popular culture. The last fictional text that universally seemed to get all feminist literary/cultural theorists going was Bridget Jones’s Diary (1997) — a popular bestseller. Has there been anything since that has had the same currency in terms of fiction, or is the novel no longer where the most cutting edge, zeitgeist explorations of contemporary gender will take place?