We are just starting our fourth week of classes at Morehead State University and despite a respiratory virus which severely upset my work schedule, I am fairly pleased with the way the semester is going. While I have used Twitter in the past, this semester I stepped up its use and I think things are going well. Of course, not all of my students agree but my dog doesn’t like taking his medicine either, so I am taking their complaints under advisement, but keeping the assignments at least until I hear some compelling arguments against them.
I teach online a lot. In fact, for recent years my primary teaching load has been online. This is in part because I am the one who pitched and piloted the online versions of our general education writing classes, but also because I like it. I think teaching writing online allows us to focus on the writing in ways that face-to-face classes do not. There is a tendency to fill traditional class time with talk, either mine or students. In an online class that talk must come in the form of writing which means the emphasis remains on writing. I also like the transparency offered by online writing workshop. Of course, I must also admit there are practical reasons as well. Half of my job is administering a National Writing Project site and I find it a lot easier to juggle the two roles (as well as my personal roles of mother, wife, dog owner) and my research with a more flexible schedule. However, while I prefer to teach online I also know there are drawbacks to it. A big one for someone who actually likes her students is that Blackboard (the CMS we use at MSU) does not do much to encourage personal interaction. Little things like the lag time in student name updates (so the newly married or newly divorced women’s names don’t match the roster) or the fact that student names do not match their personal preferences are a problem. Plus, the dry and rigid structure with no pictures or other personalization really makes it difficult to get to know students.
In recent semesters I have tried to combat this problem by using Twitter. We start out creating 6-word-memoirs to introduce ourselves and I ask that they post those 6-word-memoirs in their bios. This means that whenever I’m reading our class Twitter stream I can toggle to my list of followers or just click on an individual student to not only see their name and photo but also jog my memory about this person. You can see the results for my Professional Writing and Writing I classes. Perhaps more importantly, I also ask my students to post about their daily life. It can, but does not need to be anything too personal. They can keep it rather superficial such as notes about classes, friends, food, and their health – in other words the little conversations that we would likely have in a traditional classroom before, in between, or after our lessons. Of course, this system isn’t perfect either. Some students are reluctant and resistant while others leap into it with a frenzy (or are already active on Twitter) and overwhelm the class stream with the trivia of their lives, but I appreciate the fact that Twitter allows me to get to know my students on a more personal level than Blackboard and that it opens another channel of communication which is always a good thing, in my opinion.