• October 25, 2014

How Orwell and Twitter Revitalized My Course

Too often, students have "small disconnected islets" of knowledge in a vast sea of ignorance

How Orwell and Twitter Revitalized My Course 1

Lauren Rolwing for The Chronicle

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Lauren Rolwing for The Chronicle

This summer I stumbled upon an early and mostly forgotten George Orwell novel called A Clergyman's Daughter, a book that was little read in his lifetime and perhaps even less read now. The novel's protagonist is Dorothy Hare, the daughter of a selfish and indifferent rector living in the English countryside in the early part of the 20th century. Dorothy undergoes a traumatic incident in the first half of the novel that results in her waking up in London with total amnesia. After bouts of homelessness and seasonal farm work, she finally winds up as a teacher in a small private school outside of the city.

When she first encounters her new pupils, who range in age from 5 or 6 to their late teens, she concludes with despair that the mechanical and rote methods of instruction of their previous teachers have been spectacularly ineffective. Whatever knowledge the students have consists of "small disconnected islets" in a vast sea of ignorance. Those scattered bits don't add up to much: "It was obvious that whatever they knew they had learned in an entirely mechanical manner, and they could only gape in a sort of dull bewilderment when asked to think for themselves."

Fortunately I don't find my students gaping at me too often in dull bewilderment. But Orwell's description of Dorothy's students caught my attention, because it does capture an experience I have encountered in the classroom more times than I would care to count.

It typically happens when I begin pressing students to make connections between disparate sets of concepts or skills in a course. For example, when we are tackling a new author in my British-literature survey course, I might begin class by pointing out some salient feature of the author's life or work, and asking students to tell me the name of a previous author (whose work we have read) who shares that same feature.

"This is a Scottish author," I will say. "And who was the last Scottish author we read?"

Blank stares. Perhaps a bit of gaping bewilderment.

Instead of seeing the broad sweep of British literary history, with its many plots, subplots, and characters, they see Author A and then Author B and then Author C and so on. They can analyze and remember the main works and features of each author, but they run into trouble when asked to forge connections among writers.

That problem is especially acute at the beginning of a semester. In their terrific book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors offer a clear explanation for that by noting the different ways in which novices and experts in a field process and position new knowledge.

Experts, they explain, have a much richer "density of connections among the concepts, facts, and skills they know." When they encounter a new piece of information or a new idea in their field of expertise, they immediately slot it into a fully developed network that enables them to see connections between it and dozens of other things they know. So when I encounter a new writer in recent British literature, I can immediately see how it connects to other like-minded authors, to major events in British history, to a specific region of Britain, or even to current events there.

My students, by contrast, are novice learners in the field; their knowledge of it is sparse and superficial. Especially at the beginning of a semester, Ambrose and her co-authors explain, students might "absorb the knowledge from each lecture in a course without connecting the information to other lectures or recognizing themes that cut across the course." They don't know enough about British history to understand that Scotland and England have a complex and fraught history, and that therefore we might find connecting threads between Scottish authors in terms of how they portray their neighbors to the south.

But the real problem arises from the gap between my knowledge network and theirs. That gap can lead to confusion on their part, and frustration on mine. I will spend a class period prompting them futilely to make some link that seems obvious to me, and be left wondering: Why don't they see these obvious connections? What am I doing wrong?

How Learning Works helped me understand that this state of affairs is natural enough. But the book also allowed me to recognize that I have to plan my courses more deliberately in order to help students build connections within my course, between my course and their other classes, and between the course material and their lives outside of my classroom.

As I was reflecting over the summer on how to accomplish all of those objectives in my fall courses, I came across a blog post by Joshua Eyler, director of the Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence, on the use of Twitter in his courses. On his blog, Eyler reproduced an assignment sheet he had given to his students that included the injunction: "Make connections!" I wondered whether the assignment he described might offer a route to helping my own students.

Eyler assigned his students to post five tweets each week on any topic related to the course material, and to use Twitter to link course material to their own interests. He established a specific hashtag for all course-­related tweets, thus creating a space on Twitter to both continue class discussions and extend the course content into new areas. Over all, Eyler wrote in his blog post, the use of Twitter in his classes improved the learning of his students substantially: "The level of student engagement in these classes is the highest I've ever seen, and—as a result—students have been performing exceptionally well."

That post, along with my own growing interest in Twitter as a tool for learning and research, led me to try a similar assignment in my senior seminar on 21st-century British literature and culture. The course focuses on what it means to be "British" in the postempire, postmodern period, a vexing subject made more pressing in 2014 by the coming referendum on Scottish independence.

The structure of my assignment looked much like Eyler's, in that I created a hashtag for the course and asked students to post three tweets each week that related to the main topic of the course or to any of our readings or discussions. Like Eyler, I made the assignment low stakes. As long as the students posted three relevant tweets a week, they received the allotted 10 points for that week. The Twitter assignment accounts for 10 percent of their final grade.

As of this writing we are five weeks into the semester, and I can echo Eyler's sentiment that this assignment has produced levels of connection and engagement among my students that I have never experienced before. We begin every class period by taking a quick look at the tweets that have been posted since the last meeting. That means every class begins with a brief discussion of connections they are seeing and forging.

The content of their tweets varies considerably. Some students mention key phrases or passages from our required texts. Some note links between the texts and current events in Britain. Some post news items about their favorite British musicians, actors, or writers. Because our required texts include frequent references to features of British life with which they are not familiar (television shows like Coronation Street), students frequently post connections to Web pages, news stories, reviews, or videos that help explain life in Britain today.

In doing so, as a colleague pointed out to me, they are putting together a collective body of research on contemporary British life that has become a crucial resource for all of us in the course, including me. They have posted links to blogs, newspaper articles, scholarly essays, and videos that have become part of the course content.

They are, in other words, shaping and helping to create the course through our shared hashtag.

In Orwell's novel, Dorothy Hare discovers that the surest way to connect the disconnected islets in her students' minds is to engage them in a similar fashion. She buys a sheet of wallpaper, plasters it around the circumference of the room, and charges the students to fill it in with the events of English history. They leap into the task, filling in dates and characters and cutting out pictures and stories from illustrated papers to create a vast timeline of their national story. At long last, with the help of such activities, Dorothy's students begin truly learning.

Neither Dorothy's wallpaper nor a Twitter hashtag are necessary to make such learning happen. A variety of new and old technologies can accomplish it as well. The important lesson I took from Orwell, Ambrose, and Eyler was less about technique and more about following the advice of one of Orwell's contemporaries, E.M. Forster, who captured the main idea concisely in the first two words of the oft-quoted epigraph to his novel Howard's End: "Only connect ..."

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College. His new book, Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty, was recently published by Harvard University Press.

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