Saturday, March 7, 2015

Hiram is Baffled By The Twitter Essay.

I recently began to follow an academic blog that contains the assignment noted below. As I teach 100 students a semester, or so, creating about 10 writing assignments or essays each term, I'm always on the look out for new and interesting assignments.

But for the life of me, I'm not sure I could make this one work. (Or explain its value to my students, colleagues, or chair.)

I won't link to the blog itself (because I think the RGM has had enough...and I'm sure you'll guess anyway) but here's the essay assignment and its justification.

I actually want to understand this, and perhaps I'm a little too old fashioned to get it.

A Twitter-essay condenses an argument with evidentiary support into 140 characters unleashed upon a hashtag in the Twitter-verse. Tweets often attempt to convey as much information in as few words as possible. A tweet could be seen, then, not as a paragon of the many potential horrors of student writing, but as a model of writerly concision. In composing their Twitter-essay, students proceed through all the steps they would take in writing a traditional academic essay, including brainstorming, composing, workshopping, and revising. I also have them consider and research their audience, the Twitter members engaged in discussion around a particular hashtag. Finally, I have them work dynamically with the Tweets of their peers, responding to them on Twitter and close-analyzing them in class. I ask the students to consider their word-choice, use of abbreviation, punctuation, etc. To model the activity and to give them a sense for the shape of a Twitter-essay, I compose my instructions for the assignment in exactly 140 characters and post them to Twitter.



35 comments:

  1. All I know is that the first hing my students would ask would be: "Does it HAVE to be 140 characters?" and "Does the hashtag count as 1 word or 2?"

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  2. I don't have a problem with this. It is hard to do this with a 140 word limit. No, it's not as hard as writing a 25 page research report but it has unique challenges.

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    1. I used to write Letters to the Editor: the forced brevity was good exercise. Twitter's limits aren't really that bad: I write tweets in series all the time if I have more to say, And jolks like Heer Jeet have made the numbered twitter essay a form of it's own.

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    2. I agree. But this is not a series of tweets. the entirety of the essay is a single 140 character piece of text, and some of that is hashtag.

      Why not just have my 100 students write one word essays. Just "Truth" or "Thrones." Think of the concision that would teach my students. And I have to tell you that my grading would be easier.

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  3. It strikes me that all of the described parts of the course are good stuff. I could imagine doing the same thing, but using sonnets, or haiku, or even limericks. The medium imposes certain constraints, but to work within them and still create something worthwhile, there are good habits that cross the boundaries of the specific medium.

    Maybe the point it that you start with the idea, and you burnish that. If instead, you start with the medium and "work backwards" to the idea, you often come up short. For example, writing poetry or song lyrics is not a simple matter of stringing random words together with the same number of syllables on each line, and making the last word on second line rhyme with that of the previous line, then tweak it till it makes some more sense.

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    1. "...making the last word on *every second line rhyme with that of the previous..."

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  4. I think I'd ask them to write the normal-length essay (whatever normal is for the course) and then condense it (and would try the same for my instructions, which would be tough, since I write very detailed assignments -- overly detailed, some would say, but the process of creating them is something like the process that has created Frod's 19-page syllabus: I keep adding stuff as my students find new ways to misunderstand what I've written). It's somewhat the same idea as writing an abstract, which is also a useful exercise (I haven't tried poems with constrained lengths/forms, but I like that idea too).

    In fact, a few years ago, I had a "present your research project in a more popular medium" assignment, and one student who'd written about some sort of undersea exploration did a series of a dozen or so tweets narrating the highlights of such a trip. It worked quite nicely (and the selection process took some thought). That assignment got crowded out by other course requirements related to a university initiative (and by my repeated reminders to myself that, with a 4/4 load, I have to take something out when I put something new in; even if the students could handle the workload, I can't handle the grading load). But I keep thinking about ways to fit it back in, since I thought it was a good one.

    But I still want them to write the long-form version, too (and that's still my first priority, and not only because our writing-intensive classes have a minimum word count, which may eventually turn out to be a dinosaur, but hasn't gone extinct yet).

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  5. I'm with Ben and the Ogre, but only if there are also assignments requiring fully developed arguments in a long form.

    The Ignobel Prize ceremony (sorry, no link; using my phone) has something like this Twitter assignment: the 24/7 summary. You have 24 seconds to explain your research field in terms that anyone could understand, and then have to summarize THAT in seven words. The results are informative and witty.

    But they're not a substitute for scholarly prose, and isn't that part of what studenys are in college to learn?

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  6. Wait a minute. I'm just checking. Are we debating the merits of a college essay that is one 140 fucking characters long?

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    1. I was discussing the merits of all the parts of the assignment that might lead up to a 140-word essay or other type of work product. The final essay itself could almost be tossed in the trash.

      But you've inspired me regarding the merits of the essay itself. Someone should do an analysis, perhaps using Shannon information theory or something, about the maximum amount of true information that could be compressed into a tweet but still be comprehensible to the average college-aged reader.

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    2. See, I could live with a 140 WORD essay, but 140 characters would be about 25 words.

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    3. Yeah, but, they'd be 25 REALLY GOOD WORDS.

      I should have written 140-characters, but ah, well...

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    5. I am stupefied that anyone thinks a 140 character essay should or could be a thing. This is not a world worth saving. I probably need some time away from the blog. Sorry if my annoyance is not tempered with any good humor. I'm fucked up about this issue.

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    6. Don't edit yourself. Tell us how you really feel ;-)

      Aside from the parts that are just good habits to apply to other assignments, I think one outcome of the exercise could be showing that after all the workshopping and winnowing, the 140-character essay always pales in comparison to what was left on the cutting-room floor, i.e. to demonstrate that tweets are almost always just the throwaway brain farts we know they are. Based on who proposed the assignment, I won't hold my breath.

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    7. The examples he cited as being positive were a total shambles. Stop reading now...

      For example, in my upper-division writing course, “Queer Rhetorics,” I instructed the students to,

      Write an essay about #queer in 140 characters that does real work in the world, not wasting one character. Make something happen with words.

      The most interesting response I got to this particular prompt was from a student that had never used Twitter previously:

      #queer #kwear #qu’eer #ckwewr #QuEeR #qr #kuere #CWEER #qawear #kwier #cawe’re #ckuere #cwear #qwere #chweir #q-u-e-e-r

      Without even fully understanding the function of hashtags, the student managed to disrupt (or queer) the primary organizational structure of discussions on Twitter. The essay was about #queer in both its content and its form, while also savvily disrupting how we tag ideas within a discourse.

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    8. That's from the link that aemilia provided lower in the comments. The question left begging was that "disrupt[ing] . . . the primary organizational structure" and "disrupting how we tag ideas" is necessarily a good thing. I felt like the reason I didn't get it was because maybe I'm at the limits of my understanding of that topic.

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    9. My take was that the student in question could well have been taking the piss out of the assignment. Possibly a lot more savvy than Dr. S is.

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    10. I thought maybe those hashtags could be found by searching on a term. Perhaps they're arranged in some deliberate order; I'll leave it as an exercise for others to find that out.

      I can imagine the same student fastening a fine mesh to the front of his car and driving at high speed through a mayfly hatch, then stretching it over a frame and submitting it as an art project. Is it disrupting how we represent life, or is it just taking a shortcut on an assignment?

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    1. A true typo, with Y and T abutting on the typical keyboard.

      The other usual typo I see: studnets.

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  8. Thanks for the comments. I've thought about this all day, and I just feel like it's complete bullshit. I'm not right or wrong about this. But if I had a colleague who was doing 140 character essays (25-30 words!) I'd call him/her on it in public.

    Of course there's something to be learned from concision. But Twit-essays is pandering, and in the worst case scenario, work-dodging.

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    1. If you want to see some more serious work dodging, you could google on the first phrase, "A Twitter-essay condenses an argument with evidentiary support", and look for hits that include the exercise of the "Discussion Circle" or something like it.

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    2. OK, the exercise is called "Fishbowl Discussion" or "The Twitter-enhanced Fishbowl Discussion." After the activity, and after the meta-level discussion of the activity, what then? How to evaluate that students have done anything more useful than to talk about "[h]ow did it feel to be in the inner or outer circles?" Does the exercise demonstrate something that is then to be applied within something that can be evaluated? I mean, college is way more than grades and job-skills training, but students should come out of each class doing something better than when they went in, no? If the outcome can't be at least tangentially identified, then it seems like it's just polyamorous navelgazery.

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  9. There's a fascinating conversation between the creator of the assignment and another prof in the comments here: http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/the-twitter-essay/. The other prof keeps trying to find out how the assignment is actually evaluated. It's an exchange well worth reading.

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    1. Thanks, aemilia. The discussion was great, the pdf that was referred to looks interesting (will read it later), and O'Neill's own page seems a lot more sensible on tech-related teaching.

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  10. So I'm with Hiram and the RGM on this one. I think this is mostly bullshit. I recently started twittering on the tweeter, and my impression is that it is an awesome medium for the quick-witted like Ben to toss of excellent one-liners. What I conclude from this is that this 140 character essay assignment would make a lot of sense if the course were a creative writing course in comedy writing.

    That said, in a very large lecture course my GTAs actually came up with a twitter assignment as a way of getting the students to do the reading for recitations. When we had assignments that gave the students two contrasting views on the week's material, the GTAs had the students do a twitter debate in the voice of the two authors. Some of the students came up with some pretty witty and clever 140 character broadsides, and the GTAs seemed to think it had actually increased the number of students who showed up for recitation having read the assignment. The tweets counted as part of their participation grade.

    I never would have thought of it, and the results seemed worthwhile in a small-bore kind of fashion.

    But an assignment as elaborate as the one described in post seems more than a little absurd,

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  11. When I was arriving at post-pubescence, I found myself attracted to someone with whom I was barely acquainted. These feelings grew to invade my consciousness more and more, and I delighted in imagining being around this person more. There was no help for it but to explore the possibilities more directly: thus came the first date.

    Procedurally, the date went well, but that may be the best that could be said of it. As the evening progressed, I came to realize that we were very different people who had come from, and were headed towards, very different places. I would never find out if I was as vastly different from her expectation of me as she was from mine.

    As I lay awake that night, I was gripped by feelings that were then hard to fathom. I was grieving for a relationship that could never be. I was disappointed, not really by her, but by how our differences had so soon proved irreconcilable. And I was disappointed in myself for having allowed myself to foster attraction not to the person, but to the idea of a person, which I was coming to realize was a fool’s game. This melange took physical residence in my heart while I awaited sleep’s fleeting respite.

    I’ve since come to see that events like these are important in a person’s development, as they prepare us to work through life’s daily disappointments. They inform our weltschmerz; they gird us with a healthy skepticism; they prepare in us a (sometimes cynical) humor that buoys us against the riptide that could so easily pull us under. But, apparently, they don’t completely immunize us, as even jaded old me can be suprised by the depth of disillusionment I can still feel.

    A case in point is this twitter essay “thing”. I had been enthralled by the idea of composing and workshopping an essay in long form as described by Contingent Cassandra and Proffie Galore above, and then teasing nuggets from it for further massaging into the form of a tweet. I poked fun at the idea of composing each draft and critique pertaining thereto inside the character limit, in part suffering under the illusion that because 140 characters eo ipso, hashtag or no, could not bear the weight of any significant argument, therefore surely the assignment’s worth comprised the substantive steps leading to the product, not the product itself.

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    1. [continued due to exceeding Blogger's 4096-character limit; irony unintended]

      Then I went on a date. It was bad, folks. I read the page linked by aemilia above, as well as some others I dug up myself, and it seems that my comical idea of the worst way this assignment could be done is how it is being done. And, students assign their own grades. And, it’s used multiple times per course. Because “Students aren’t terrified to send text messages or post status updates to Twitter or Facebook, but they are often terrified to write academic papers.”

      As a researcher and educator, I often feel duty-bound to rebut lay criticism of any research where said criticism is clearly born of ignorance deeper than my own. For instance, an acquaintance once brought up an apocryphal story of an NIH-funded study of the mating habits of drosophila. “Can you believe it?” he sneered, “a million of the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars just to watch fruit flies fuck!” Though not an expert by any means, I knew enough to gently contest his sound-bite science. This tendency of mine also makes me wary of criticising other academicians’ work, lest I ascribe to myself expertise and authority unearned.

      So, I’ve participated in this discussion, had some laughs, and read the other pages about the twitter essay, showered and slept, showered and slept again, and I still can’t escape the feeling that I’ve been had, and that one of the havers was myself. Relative to my actual date, where was once grieving is now disappointment, and disappointment now disgust, commingled in my queasy abdomen. I’m torn between feeling I’m too naive on this topic to render credible opinion, and not wanting to live on this planet anymore.

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    2. When encountering odd activities, opinions, or whatever from colleagues, I try to recall their other contributions. Solid, engaged, and trustworthy people - the kind of educators I hope my kids will have when they're older - occasionally come up with a dud.
      I spent quite a bit of time looking at his other work, and basically this twitter thing has no redeeming feature that I can see. It's not just a dud, it's one of a string of them.
      Dr. S is articulate and vociferous, but might benefit from some time with the Edmundson book recommended on these pages not so long back.

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    3. I count that as another vote in favor of me checking out this book.

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