Thoughts about a Cross-Context Twitter Summit
Sixty minutes of class time today felt like six. A community of educators along with their students, their colleagues, and other professionals that they invited… had an extremely engaging conversation. In the words of Mark McGuire, one of the participants and instructor of Design in the Department of Applied Sciences at the University of Otago in New Zealand, the Twitter Summit we had today “was a good party. [Too] many (mostly) strangers squeezed into a kitchen, all making new friends. The buzz all we remember.” I couldn’t say it better.
Instead of the web being a lonely place, with each individual staring at their own individual screen, as the “kitchen” metaphor powerfully conveys, the web was a community, a network, a rhizomatic flow of ideas and a friendly place where time and place collapsed. For an hour, a few dozen people from Egypt and New Zealand, Australia and Nepal, and cities in New York/New Jersey and California and Florida and Missouri discussed their thoughts and experiences about writing in their professions/disciplines and how it is changing, how new media are affecting those changes and creating new possibilities as well as challenges. Participants that students talked to included a microbiologist (Egypt), a hydrologist (US), college administrator (Nepal), and among others, a number of teachers/professors from different countries.
There was a second way in which the “kitchen” metaphor was apt. As another participant, Kate Bowles, a higher ed and educational technology scholar from Australia, put it, the medium of Twitter didn’t allow participants to “discriminate between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’. We’re just writing here together.” In place of a class where my ideas about writing too often/quickly meant instructions even when I mean them to be suggestions, there was a busy room with students directly engaging—by using writing—in conversation with fellow students, teachers, and other professionals around the world. The class was quiet (in spite of my encouragement for students to discuss ideas as they read and wrote them); Gene also suggested the good idea of reading tweets out loud while typing, but the class went on being “quietly noisy.” Students were learning writing by doing writing.
The idea of the event originated from a conversation that I’d been having with a wonderful colleague of mine who teaches at the American University of Cairo in Egypt. The last few semesters, for almost every upper division and graduate course, I’ve been inviting a prominent scholar or experienced professional via Skype, letting students talk to the guest. For my Writing in the Profession (WRT 304) course, I decided to invite Maha Bali from Egypt. But there was a problem: Maha’s city is currently facing power cuts, the timing of my class (2.30pm here 8.30pm in Cairo) is not the best for the parent of a toddler, and Maha seems to prefer asynchronous professional communications to synchronous ones (as she describes here).
On the other hand, I have been regularly joining Twitter Summits with members the National Council of Teachers of English, and I have learned a lot from fellow teachers without going to conferences, making new connections, and collaboratively leaving footprints of our best ideas on the network. So, I requested Maha to be our guest “speaker” at a Twitter Summit. Then, as energetic and generous as she is, Maha helped me spread the word among her networks, and she also invited her students (quite a few of them joined the chat). I posted an open invite on Facebook as well as personally invite a good number of scholars from around the US and other countries via Twitter itself.
My students in WRT 304 and I planned the summit by collectively writing a number of preliminary questions, which they took turn to post every five minute or so during the chat. They also poses many questions, as well as actively engage guests in the conversation, during the one hour conversation.
There was a level of humor and friendliness which many participants seemed to use for countering the sense of isolation that talking through a computer or cellphone screen can create. Praveen from Nepal said while introducing himself that it was midnight in Kathmandu. Krishna from Missouri said that not much has changed in his data-driven field of higher education studies in the last 30 years. Kate said that at “5.30am here in Australia, still dark, early Autumn.” Gene, the Director of the program where I work, said as soon as we asked participants to introduce themselves: “This is my first tweet” (his Twitter handle is @GeneHammond47). Many participants greeted him with encouraging messages.
Students seemed to be more straightforward in their introduction; some of them also observed for a while before they started responding, after which they drove the conversation with great gusto. As one student observed, there was also a sense in the conversation that everyone was familiar with the topic, that we all spoke the same language, that we shared the discourse about writing.
But I have to add that this was (really) largely an illusion, and to a lesser extent a reality. Let me explain what I mean by this.
If we look at some of the conversations during the middle of the hour, especially the discussion about why participants wrote, what they wrote, what was their favorite/common writing, etc, then it seems at first that we all shared the same view of writing. Ramy, a microbiologist, said, “I have to write for every possible purpose. In science, we don’t exist if we don’t write & publish” and then “I have to write almost every day either presentations, blog posts, online tips & assignments, etc.” My students here at Stony Brook said similar things. For instance, Sonali said that she is “more of a professional writer. Not too creative. I need a purpose for my writing.” So, the Egyptian scientist and an American health science undergraduate major spoke about academic writing in similar terms.
But it took some of the teachers involved, as well as my students who helped with planning/organizing of the event, a lot of thinking and preparing so that we developed a feasible topic for cross-contextual discussions, we found a common ground and common terms, and we described and explained the subject of the conversation through blogging and multiple days of advance Twitter chat. Especially our main guest Maha and also a few other colleagues asked me a lot of questions about what I meant by “writing in the profession”—and my students and I were always conscious about cross-contextual differences (in spite of the fact that university “cultures” can be similar to some extent when it comes to areas like “academic writing”).
Thus, it was not that my students and I here in the US decided the subject, format, and purpose of the conversation in a one-way-traffic model. The planning was based a deliberate attempt to avoid making the local seem like universal. The shape of the conversation was not based on my knowledge and expertise of my profession, or by the highly local academic discipline and academic culture/conventions in which I and my students function. Furthermore, my role was limited to collaboration and information-gathering, such as helping students write the questions, soliciting feedback from guests and adapting the questions for making the conversation more open, and, during the summit, welcoming and thanking participants. The nature of synchronous Twitter Chat reinforced the complex (even necessarily confusing) and multidirectional nature of the conversation—which I really wanted it to be. The one-hour micro-MOOC, or what we half-seriously called a “creatively open online learning” (COOL) experiment was a powerful supplement to what students have been doing. It would be unreasonable to assume that they could replace the dozens of other modes of learning, in both on-site and online learning and especially the first.
What we did was intensively collaborative, online, open, and powerful in many ways. But it was something new and it needs to be seen as unique, emergent, supplemental form of learning. So, my best insight from today’s wonderful international Twitter summit is that it is possible (perhaps necessary) to engage students with outside audiences. It is important that we inspire and guide them to engage with the world through synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication/writing. Learning how to use writing in its emerging forms can give them tremendous leverage on the job market or even higher learning as even academic/professional writing/conversations are increasingly influenced by new forms of writing.
My students would not learn as much and with as much fun and engagement about what I call “professionalized media”—or social media used in professional ways—if I had just described, demonstrated, or even let them use among themselves.
The network is powerful, and students will harness that power if they practically learn how to use the mediums. At one point, they should start using the writing skills that they use in order to do powerful things like exchanging ideas, forging new professional relationships, and influencing others in the world. And this seems to happen best when the audience is diverse in their professions, interests, contexts/cultures, and so on. As Eliza said, “Just seeing how connected we are yet we come from different backgrounds, is amazing really.” The power of writing is best seen in context, as Linda suggested when she said: “It’s amazing what 140 characters can do! Such deep and insightful thoughts being tweeted with.”
Students were very grateful to the guests, thankful for the opportunity. Here are some of the tweets from the end of the summit:
Jasmeen: “Thank you everyone for joining What an amazing use of social media to “meet” so many people on an international level!”
Arielle: “Thanks everyone for joining us! It’s truly been an amazing experience!”
Ken: “Thank you. The guide to writing a blog is useful. I wish I had the posts on viruses during my biology course.”
Angelyse: “Thank you all for you great insight and time! hope we could do this again, enjoy your day.”
Sonali: “Thanks to everyone around the world for joining in this insightful conversation.”
Sean: “Twitter summit w/ was an enlightening experience into the new age of communication and rapid spread of knowledge. Thank you all!”
Eliza Hassan: “I am so in awe with Twitter after today’s Twitter Summit!!”
Guests were glad to offer their time and support as well. Here are some of the noteworthy tweets:
Kate Bowled: “Had a fantastic time in — great questions, so many thoughts. Totally worth getting up in the moth-busy dark for. Thank you all.”
Cynthia Davidson: “Thanks for the opportunity-I hope we can continue the thread after class is over.”
Kristina Lucenko: “Thanks to everyone in , and to @SharmaShyam for hosting us all! A terrific discussion. See u all in the Twitterverse.”
Tanya Lau: “Agree! Thanks @SharmaShyam for organising – the most lively and diverse tweet chat I’ve been on!”
Ramy Karam: “…We should definitely talk soon about how to join efforts, and follow up on writing & elearning.”
Maha Gayel: “Thank you for giving us the chance to join this interesting discussion.”
Iswari Pandey: “Great conversations at Write4Pro today. Thanks, Shyam, for organizing it.”
Mark McGuire: “#Write4Pro was a good party. 2 many (mostly) strangers squeezed into a kitchen, all making new friends. The buzz all we remember.”
I tried to express my gratitude to my students and our guests using the words “love you all”—slightly awkward as it was, I haven’t thought of a better way yet. And I’ll have to leave this (unedited) blog post here because I now really need to prepare to teach tomorrow and get some sleep!