[This is a guest post by Michael Ullyot, an assistant professor of English at the University of Calgary. He blogs at the eponymous http://ullyot.ucalgaryblogs.ca/; you can follow him on Twitter at @ullyot.--@jbj]
Amazon recently released its @author feature “in a limited beta release on Kindle and Amazon Author Pages,” to encourage readers to send questions to their favorite authors. (I learned this last week from the Twitter stream of Stephen B. Johnson, one of my own and ProfHacker’s.) It’s apt, in this era of open-source writing amid chain-store bankruptcies, to have Amazon positioning itself as the social-network intermediary between readers and writers. Some like Neil Gaiman have been doing this for ages, in internet years at least: but others would probably just as well not field constant questions.
What effect could this accessibility have on our teaching? Students may soon have new outlets for an old question about authorial intent: “But how do you know the author meant that?”
I’m more interested in what Twitter can tell me about the thinkers in my classroom than in the books we read. It’s partly because I teach historical texts–so tweeting Shakespeare just isn’t an option. But this term, I’m using Twitter in my intro-to-Shakespeare course to listen to my students’ questions. Full credit to Profhacker: as I’ve written elsewhere, this experiment was provoked by a Profhacker post by Mark Sample (who wrote another full of practical advice).
My assignment asks students to use Twitter sparingly (six times a term), a day or two before we convene for class discussion. It will make my teaching more responsive and lead us down investigative paths, gathering evidence for arguments as we go. It will tell me about ‘trending topics,’ about interests and uncertainties, in the intellectual climate of the room, and about what we can start to resolve together.
What would it be like to tweet historical authors questions about their texts? It’s tempting to speculate about the tweets that Dickens would have fielded from those crowds on the New York pier, waiting for the next instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop — according to a famous anecdote. (I can see a hashtag series on Twitter emerging from this.) Shakespeare professors have the benefit of historical distance–as Northrop Frye once wrote:
Critics of Shakespeare are often supposed to be ridiculed by the assertion that if Shakespeare were to come back from the dead he would not be able to appreciate or even understand their criticism… [But] his own account of what he was trying to do in Hamlet would no more be a definitive criticism of that play, clearing all its puzzles up for good, than a performance of it under his direction would be a definitive performance.
His point is a corrective to our ask-the-author habit: authors don’t pack their texts with materials for us to unpack, they write texts for us to interpret critically, which for Frye means comparatively. The point is that authorial intent is less material than we tend to think.
It’s a point I offer to encourage students: remember that the text isn’t just a problem to solve, but a provocation to think for yourself. There are a lot of questions I’d like to ask Shakespeare, mostly biographical (“Tell me about your wife”) or methodological (“Where did you read all that?”). But “was Hamlet really crazy?” isn’t one of them. That’s for us to decide, for us to gather evidence and make conflicting arguments about. That’s what my Twitter is for–not probing absent writers, but present critics.
What about you? Does Twitter inform your teaching in any way? Is it better outside the classroom, or in? Do you use it to measure group perceptions, to crowdsource questions, or in other productive ways?
Photo by Flickr user Calamity Meg / Creative Commons licensed