I held out against Twitter for a long time.  Not so long as some of my colleagues, I’ll admit, seeing as a number of them still don’t have an account.  But I found the idea pointless, narcissistic and rather reminiscent of Facebook, which I had similarly given the cold shoulder for a few years.  Still, I ended up with an account at the advice of friends, and I thoroughly enjoy it.  An excellent amount of nonsense is talked, there are always links to fascinating articles and a low hum of cultural and academic gossip in the background.  I think there’s a general acceptance now that Twitter has its uses for university life – even those who don’t use it can see the potential benefits, even if they don’t want to invest the time or hassle involved.

Tweeting in lectures, however, is more controversial.  I’ve read several complaints online that students these days have smartphones, laptops and tablet computers in lectures, and that “you can’t know what they’re doing on them.”  In a certain strand of academic commentary, Twitter represents all that is terrible about Students These Days.  The character limit allegedly plays to dwindling attention spans, the interactivity makes it look like a game, and the continual stream of information links it to the fear that younger generations are incapable of being alone with their own thoughts for a single moment.  Tweeting, from this point of view, epitomises the decline of the humanities.  Nothing could be further from the meticulous attention, patient thought and eloquent self-expression which these subjects pride themselves upon cultivating.

Tweeting in lectures might also seem rude, as if the speaker has failed to achieve a sufficiently high standard and the audience are letting them know that by withdrawing their attention.  I can see how some lecturers would take offence at their students apparently opting for online entertainment instead of listening to them.  After all, the real value of a lecture – over an article, a book or a recorded talk – is the presence of the speaker.  Any good lecturer, like an actor, reads the atmosphere in the room and speeds up or slows down in response to the cues coming back from the audience.  They might reiterate a point if they don’t see people catching on, or pause if a lot of writing breaks out in response to a slide, or go into a more complex analysis of a topic if the audience seems to have understood a concept more quickly than they had expected.  The students, for their part, can get a lot from a lecture which a printed transcript couldn’t provide.  Tone of voice can express the speaker’s degree of certainty on a judgement, gesture can emphasize the most essential parts of an argument, and an abstract idea can be fleshed out by the whole language of the body.  So tweeting might seem like students withdrawing from this exchange and mutual attention into technology which cannot provide them with the same intellectual sustenance.

However, I think this is a bit of a misreading of the situation.  Certainly there are bad ways to use Twitter, and there’s nothing to stop students from simply ignoring the lecturer and escaping into their own Twitterstream, just as they might indulge in a little Candy Crush Saga or apply their ninja abilities to some errant fruit.  But there was never anything to stop them from retreating into their own thoughts, or doodling on the paper, or writing notes to the student next to them.  Twitter doesn’t create an option for inattention which wasn’t there before (though I can see how it might make inattention more fun once you’re bored.)  There’s also the potential for tweeting during lectures that is simply trivial, or repeats and rephrases “I am bored” in seventeen hundred different ways.

But it’s also potentially very suitable for humanities students.  We talk a lot about the academy as a conversation: we hold colloquia, symposia, seminars and forums.  We structure teaching around the assumption that a lot of the best learning takes place through exchange between students and tutors.  We shrink from the idea that knowledge can be “imparted” or “transferred” in a one-way process in which one person talks and another person shuts up and memorises what they say.  Instead think of the seminar room as the site where learning is created collaboratively, through the back-and-forth of conversation.  My favourite seminars are the ones where we don’t work through a set of pre-written questions or topics, but develop an ongoing discussion which ramifies and deepens until the clock puts a stop to it.

Aristotle, listening to Socrates whilst sporting the showiest iPad cover I have seen in some time.

Aristotle, listening to Socrates whilst sporting the showiest iPad cover I have seen in some time.

It isn’t just in person that this conversation takes place, of course.  When we mark essays, we annotate in the margin as if we’re responding to a spoken statement.  We interline the student’s writing with our own comments, responses, agreements and corrections.  I often find myself slipping into the idiom of conversation: “can you explain that further?”, “I’m going with that idea for now…”, “OK, now you’ve got me”, “Yes!  How on earth did they ever think that?”  None of which the student will ever answer, of course, which underlines how instinctively we take the conversational model.  We don’t simply evaluate an essay as an finished event, like a pole vault which has cleared a certain bar or an auction which has reached a particular price.  We understand it as a series of conversational gambits, to be considered and replied to, even as a grade is given alongside the marginal annotations.

Whilst we’re doing this to their essays, students are frequently undertaking the same activity with library books.  A lot of librarians I know can be whipped to an articulate fury by a mere reference to comments in the margins of their books.  Vandalism aside, these comments point towards students also understanding their learning as a discussion, even with people who are long dead or chairing a department in Harvard.  I’m always struck by how unfunctional the marginal annotations in library books are: they don’t just work to highlight important parts or gloss difficult words, they shout at the author, sneer at their credentials, call their good faith into question.  Many readers cannot bear to let the author have the last word, even though they’ll never hear the reply.  That’s also the reason why reading books annotated by someone else can be so annoying: it’s like trying to listen to one person whilst another keeps interrupting them and drowning out their ideas.  Conversation in the academy doesn’t have to be interactive to be meaningful, and literature students seem to feel a powerful impulse to articulate their thoughts in words, even if those words will only be heard by themselves and possibly the next reader.

This is where Twitter comes in, as I see it.   It can be the margin of the lecture hall, the place where students type quotations, cheer good points, reflect on the argument being developed express bafflement or surprise.  Literature students aren’t good at sitting mutely for fifty minutes whilst someone else does the words.  Why should they be?  Everything we do elsewhere in the department seems to assume that we’re at our best in conversation with each other.  A lecturer is in conversation with their audience in one sense, responding to the atmosphere in the room, but that’s often not articulate enough for students.  They want to annotate their experience, to speak to themselves and each other about what’s going on.  And they want to do it in words.

This is believed to be an allegory illustrating the attack of the failwhale during a medieval Wifi failure.

This is believed to be an allegory illustrating the attack of the failwhale during a medieval Wifi failure.

We train our students to think in words, to cut out the irrelevancy, the pussy-footing and the throat-clearing.  Not to mistake a general splurge on a topic for a precise thought.  To learn that they need to be using words all the time, with concision and even a little flair.  Twitter’s a fine place to learn that.  It has its drivel, its crassness and its trite platitudes, but what textual medium doesn’t?  Like the margins of a book or an essay, it only provides a narrow sliver of space alongside the main text for the reply to be heard.  (No room for the illuminated capital letters or improbable bestiaries of medieval manuscripts.  Though there are plenty of cats, it must be said, as my metaphor collapses in on itself…)  I think there’s a lot of value to be found for students in tweeting as a way of becoming even more engaged with a lecture, in taking it on its own terms as a conversational gambit and responding in the air around the speaker.  What do you all think?

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