by Shelly Steward, Sociology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015
As a sociologist, I see the ideas of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim brought to life all around me. As a teacher, I want to give students a similar critical lens to carry with them wherever they go. Talking about current events and popular culture in class fosters some of these connections; however, while teaching Sociological Theory, I worried that these conversations still relegated theory to the academic realm — as something students had to do to complete the course, and were likely to leave behind when they moved on. To make theory a way of seeing and understanding the world, they needed to be reminded of it outside of lectures, sections, and assignments. How could I insert sociological ideas into students’ everyday lives beyond the classroom?
My strategy to address this problem was to create a course Twitter account. From a first-day-of-class survey, I knew that students spent a lot of time on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Twitter allows users to post short comments, photos, and links with followers. From the course account, I wrote posts, or “tweets,” that related concepts from class to current events. I asked students to follow the feed with their own accounts, so they would see my posts each time they logged in on their phones or computers. The feed also allowed students to interact; they could respond to my posts, and post their own contributions by “tagging” the course. Most commonly, I posted a news article or video combined with a brief question meant to encourage critical engagement. For example, while studying Weber’s ideas about bureaucracy, I shared an article about the DMV, and asked how Weber would improve the situation described. While reading Foucault, I shared a video of Cookie Monster singing about self-control, and asked where Foucault might see disciplinary power. I embedded the Twitter feed onto the homepage of our bCourses site, allowing students who did not want to create their own account to see the posts, and encouraged these students to email me their contributions. Instead of encountering theory only in lecture, in section, and on course websites, students were reminded of its relevance every time they glanced at their Twitter feed. Rather than making theoretical connections only while sitting at the computer drafting an assignment, they were reminded of it every time they glanced at their phones — in line at the grocery store, sitting on the bus, or waiting for friends.
I assessed the effectiveness of the course Twitter feed in three ways. First, I tracked students’ contributions. Two-thirds of students followed the feed from their personal accounts, meaning what I posted showed up on their home screens. Nearly all of those who followed participated by responding to posts and contributing their own. Twelve out of 40 students, for example, shared thoughts on bureaucracy in response to a post about Weber. By the end of the first term, 90 percent of students participated in the feed, either directly or via email. Second, I observed participation in class. In section, students regularly referenced news stories they had encountered on Twitter, indicating that they were reading and remembering what they saw. Third, I asked for students’ input on mid-semester evaluations. When asked, students overwhelmingly agreed that the Twitter feed helped them see theoretical connections in their everyday lives; all respondents reported that it was “helpful” or “very helpful” with a 95 percent response rate. When asked qualitatively what their favorite parts of the course were, nearly one-third mentioned the Twitter feed. “[It] was awesome because it made me think about theory all the time,” wrote one student. These assessments show that students accessed the Twitter feed, related its posts to section discussions, and saw it as effective in integrating theory into their lives. By using students’ predilection for social media, the course Twitter feed fostered a habit of seeing social theories in unexpected places and everyday contexts, and hopefully its student followers will continue to think critically and engage actively with what’s going on around them.