Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Thoughts on Twitter snark, deconstruction, and a pedagogy

At the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference in San Antonio last week, there was an amazing Twitter back channel on which people reported on highlights of the sessions they were attending, critiqued ideas presented in those sessions, and engaged in conversations about conference content. It was, I thought, a delightful addition to the conference.

However, in the final conference session, a plenary featuring Lulu CEO Bob Young, the Twittering turned, in the minds of some people, a bit vicious. My impression of the Twitter stream:
  • We began tweeting in disbelief that the speaker was so tone-deaf to his audience.
  • We ramped up the snark and began giggling because wow, was this guy ever wrong about his audience.
  • We settled into a collective sobriety and depression because Young clearly had been--in the words of one participant--scarred by his teachers and even by librarians, and because we sensed the profound disconnect between industry and academia
Others' reactions
Gardner Campbell has written an excellent post in which he expresses his chagrin in participating in this Twittering, but in which he also explains how (and perhaps why) Young went awry in his talk.

Gardner writes,

But there’s one other thing to note here. A keynote speaker has an enormous responsibility. At these moments, the entire conference comes to a point of focus on one speaker, one set of ideas, one address. ELI 2008 was full of enormously talented speakers, and any of the featured speakers would have been a much better closing keynote than Bob Young was, though I’m sure no one on the program committee had any idea Young would do what he did. But back to the point. Time slots on a program are always precious, especially when so many wonderful ideas and speakers are in circulation. I think we all felt an enormous wave of disappointment (this comment [from Barbara Sawhill] eloquently describes the feeling) that an extraordinary opportunity had been discarded by a speaker who seemed to have no sense at all of the gift he had been given. The program committee, acting on our behalf, gave him a treasure, a great privilege, and to him it appeared to be no occasion at all–nothing to rise to, nothing to answer, nothing to value. Instead, we got jokes about his inadequate speaker’s fee and the relative IQs of his various audiences.
Jim Groom, who wasn't attending the conference, but who was attending to its Twitter stream, shared these thoughts about the plenary tweets:
From my vantage point, receiving all these reactions second-hand via twitter offered a fascinating look into something other than what was being said at the podium, or the vicarious experience of “being there.” What it suggested to me was how the community thinks about what is being said. To hear a large number of people (all of whom I respect and trust) in my network respond to ideas they neither agree with nor, at times, can tolerate was both unbelievably entertaining and fascinating all at once.

As Kieramc (a fellow twitter-ite who was not at the event) tweeted: “This may be my fave ELI session this year.” I couldn’t agree with her more! It was a blast from the bleachers, in part because I didn’t have to sit (or is it suffer) through this talk, but also because the experience suggests a real pulse within the network. This was a moment of cognitive crisis in our “collective intelligences” which had immediate reverberations in the network (or in this case twitter — sorry if I am using Network a bit loosely here).
Collean Carmean was considerably more disappointed with the direction of the plenary tweets:
I was truly jazzed by the sense of long-distance ‘being there’ via Twitter energy during the ELI experience the last few days. Smart, funny, deep, interesting live back channel and longed-for summaries of fun, food, ideas that I missed.

Then, a LULU of a shift. I checked in yesterday and was stunned by the back-channel backlash, and the…harshness…of the Twitters. So stunned I stepped away from my machine.

Twitter changed for me in that moment. It lost its luster as a stream of consciousness with my connections and left me disconnected. Someone posted that he felt ’strange and estranged’ but he was there, and so had a context. I was just sad.

My take
If we were out for blood, as some people seem to be implying, I'm wondering how much of the incident was expressing our distaste for bad speakers, and how much of it might be traced back to our training as (for many of us) humanities scholars. My own experience in graduate programs in English and cultural studies consisted in many cases of taking a text and tearing it apart (or, worse, as was more common in cultural studies: reading a secondary text that was savaging a primary text, without bothering to read the primary text). And that's what was happening in many ways during Young's talk. We were actively deconstructing the text he was creating--his narratives of his education, as well as his beliefs about how academics view their students--and a lot of that deconstruction, in part because it was taking place in 140-character sound bites, manifested itself in snark.

Of course, this raises a bigger issue: Are we training our students to be similarly snarky, to deconstruct knowledge* rather than to construct it? Is the kind of savage deconstruction we see today in many English and various humanities "studies" programs a necessary part of humanities training? This kind of training--which thank God I didn't get until grad school, as my undergrad institution was much more traditionally liberal artsy--has definitely affected the way I see the world. It's made me more cynical and suspicious about U.S. culture in general, but also about the discipline in which I received my Ph.D.--cultural studies. I have observed that many cultural studies TAs here are more likely to try to have content-based consciousness-raising sessions in their classes than try to teach cognitive skills. I'm not the only one locally to have made this observation.

Which brings me to American studies. I love teaching American studies because it's one of those disciplines that, when taught well, takes a more holistic approach to culture. It asks what phenomena unite or divide Americans, rather than criticize the Americans themselves for destroying cultures worldwide. (Don't get me wrong--the U.S. deserves plenty of blame for corporate imperialism, but I like the American studies approach because it avoids alienating conservative and moderate students in a never-ending blame game of cynicism and suspicion.)

So when someone posts on Twitter that "There's obviously something interesting about his experience, but he doesn't seem to have prepared to share it with us," that's a fine critique. In looking up this Tweet, I remembered it as "he doesn't seem to be" (rather than have) "prepared to share it with us." This, to me, is a significant statement. Whence comes this inability to share? The American studies scholar in me asks about that gap in communication--what is this corporate leader holding back from academics, and why? What is it about his experience that makes him come across as recalcitrant or even obnoxious? What assumptions is he making about academics, and why? I think the Twitter stream was asking those questions, just in ways that are less articulate (but considerably wittier). Much of what we were doing may in the moment have been a slapdash, on-the-fly close reading of Young's talk, but looking back at the Tweets allows us to continue conversations on bigger issues.

So yay for Twitter, and thanks to those who participated in the banter during Young's talk. If only we could always keep our students so engaged. Maybe the next time I teach, I'll have the class's Twitter stream projected on the back wall (as someone recommended we ought to do for Young's talk).

* What do I mean by deconstruction? I'm not necessarily talking about Deconstruction with a capital "D." As it's practiced in the disciplines with which I'm familiar, deconstruction means (in practice, if not always in theory) taking "text" A and running it through filter B (e.g. feminist theory, Derrida, Foucault, Heidegger) in order to see what kind of hamburger gets produced. In my opinion, it's not particularly imaginative or generative.


Anonymous said...

Interesting idea to project the twitter on the back wall, but I might ask: is this the coming apocalypse of Continuous Partial Attention? Are you going to be reading the twitter while you present? How?

This is not meant as a slap, though I do wonder about how productive it is to have one's concentration further and further divided. I'm actually curious: how can a teacher harness the critical engagement of Twittering during presentation/discussion in real time as well as use it for professional feedback? How do you do this in a way that's genuinely communal and not simply balkanizing a conversation into dyads or trying to read,listen, talk, and run technology simultaneously?

Anonymous said...

As one who had only dabbled in Twitter a bit before the conference, but tried to be engaged with the ELI2008 Twitter stream throughout, I was left with a number of questions, and would love to hear more discussion on this.

Why was relatively little scaffolding provided around the use of Twitter? What assumptions were made about common understandings of how best to make use of the affordances of Twitter – both technologically and in terms of the rhetorical conventions/expectations of Twitter users?

Why was Twitter the conference backchannel tool of choice rather than blogs or wikis, or a Facebook group, or a Ning site, or …? Was there some rationale for encouraging people to use Twitter? Could that rationale have been more explicit? Is Twitter now the de facto backchannel of choice for conferences, or is someone actively evaluating/experimenting with this?

Could speakers have been more prepared for this backchannel to be present? Could they have even been encouraged to think about how the backchannel might have been actively incorporated into their presentations? Could this have been an opportunity for someone to play with/seriously investigate the idea of backchannel in a presentation setting - i.e. the setting most of our faculty teach in?

How did experienced and already well-connected (i.e. already networked into a group of mutual followers) Twitterati use and experience the ELI2008 Twitter stream vs. Twitter newbies or “outsiders”? What patterns emerged in the Twitter interactions during the conference? In what ways did Twitter/Twitter use enable inclusivity/expansion of social networks and in what ways did Twitter/Twitter use reinforce/strengthen existing social networks … and in what ways were those possibilities complementary or mutually exclusive?

How will the conference experiences of Twitter users, newbie or otherwise, affect their use of Twitter in the future?

Did someone capture the entire ELI2008 Twitter stream? Is it publicly available for review/study? Will someone do that?

I cross-posted these questions on Jim Groom's older blog post on this topic:

Happy to receive direct thoughts via email: as well as to continue public discussions ...

Mathieu Plourde said...

I posted my own experience with Twitter on my blog.

I really like your questions, Jim. I personally think that a well structured wiki is a better tool to discuss real matters during a session. I had a great experience with wikis at a Sakai conference last December.

I think there is a time and a plce for scatered thoughts, and there is a time and place for serious discussion. Twitter is definetely not the second one.