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Twitter in the Classroom: Observations and Analysis

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My class used Twitter for a few general purposes & for two specific assigments
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Brief Assignment Overview: 

My class used Twitter for a few general purposes and then for two specific assignments. For our general goals, we used Twitter to share resources among one another and to familiarize ourselves with various conversations that are important to people in the digital humanities. By following one another, we were able to tweet helpful links, questions about class, reminders and advice about assignments, etc. By following people participating in the sorts of conversations we were interested in (conversations about digital technologies, rhetoric, and writing), we found out how these conversations develop on Twitter and the internet generally.

For the two assignments, we practiced rhetorical analysis by analyzing various Twitter feeds and then used our own Twitter streams as a space for sharing Learning Record observations.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

Research, rhetorical analysis, invention, delivery, reflection, Learning Record observations

Required Materials: 

Internet access on any connected device, inside or outside the classroom. Various Twitter clients could be helpful and are available for free (see, for example, Tweetdeck and Yorufukurou).

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

My general overview for using Twitter can be found on my wiki. The rhetorical analysis assignment is available below (in the instructions for students section). You are welcome to use and modify these assignments as you see fit, although I would recommend creating your own handouts or webpages and adapting the descriptions to your own needs.

For the Learning Record observations, no specific assignment description was offered students. The Learning Record is a portfolio-based assessment model, and this system asks students to make observations about their development over the course of the semester. We used Twitter as a platform for sharing and keeping track of these observations so that students could learn from and be inspired by one another. You can find out more about the Learning Record on the LR website.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

I spent 30-45 minutes in one class period introducing students to Twitter, helping them create accounts and follow one another, and having them begin tweeting, searching, and exploring. I offered this overview of Twitter for them to consult during and after this introduction (you are welcome to borrow this material, but it might need to be updated as time goes on). It would help to have your own Twitter account set up before class and to be familiar with how it works generally. If you would like students to follow particular people and conversations on Twitter, it could take a few weeks or months of your own personal Twitter use to find the people you find most relevant for your class interests and goals. This assignment assumes that rhetorical analysis has already been introduced to the students. If this is the first rhetorical analysis assignment, it would help to spend at least half a class period explaining the expectations and terms for analysis.

Instructions For Students: 

Rhetorical analysis is a practice that helps us think through how a particular text is persuasive and who it would persuade.  A successful rhetorical analysis takes into consideration at least three things:  the main argument/goal of the text, the rhetorical strategies that the author employs to make the text persuasive, and the audience for the text.  In addition to identifying the main argument/goal and the rhetorical strategies, we also want to analyze whether or not they would be effective for particular audiences.

This weekend, your assignment is to write a rhetorical analysis of tweets from a particular tweeter.  You should write and submit this assignment as a new page on our course wiki.  You should name this page "Twitter Rhetorical Analysis - [last name]", and you should file this page in our "Rhetorical Analyses" folder.  Your final product should be 350-500 words long, and it should be completed before class on Tuesday, February 9.

To start, pick one of the people you follow on Twitter (for the sake of objectivity and everyone's comfort, do not choose someone from our class).  This person can be someone you were asked to follow for this class or someone else (a friend, a celebrity, etc.).  We want to look at several tweets from this person, so it should be someone who tweets fairly regularly.  As you look at this person's tweets and write your rhetorical analysis, you should go through the following steps.

1.  Invention - Remember, for rhetoricians, invention is about finding what is out there rather than making something up.  After you have picked someone from Twitter to analyze, you will need to read through their tweets to find out what they talk about on Twitter.  You should look through at least 50 tweets, and you can do so by going to their Twitter page.  For example, if you were focusing on Steven Johnson (whose article about Twitter we read), you would go to  You can get to a tweeter's page by going to your list of people you are following and then clicking on their name.

As you look through this person's tweets (again, at least 50 of them), take notes on what they tweet.  Does this person use their tweets to share personal information such as where they are or what they are doing?  To make jokes?  To participate in conversations?  To share links?  Anything else?  Once you have a general sense for what the person tweets, identify these uses more specifically.  If the person shares personal information, what sort of information do they share about themselves?  If they have conversations with other people on Twitter, who are those conversations with and what are they about?  If they post links, what are these articles/websites/blogposts/etc. about?

Once you have a clear sense for what this person does on Twitter, think about how they are presenting this information.  In other words, we want to identify what rhetorical strategies the person uses to help accomplish their goals.  Rhetorical strategies can refer to any number of things, including the way an author structures their argument, the way they establish themselves as authorities, the values and emotions to which an author appeals, and the specific language they use to present their argument.  Of course, most people on Twitter are not making arguments; instead, their main goal is likely to share information about themselves with friends, to share interesting links with other people, to make jokes, to have a short conversation with someone about something, etc.  Nonetheless, we can still talk about a tweeter's rhetorical strategies.  That is, we can still talk about the ways that they use language, the way that they appeal to particular values or emotions in their audience, the ways that they establish themselves as trustworthy or authoritative, etc.  Try to answer the following questions regarding the tweets that you read:  What is the author's tone in these tweets?  Does the author use different tones in different situations?  How so?  Does the author appeal to any particular values or emotions in their tweets?  For example, does the author use their tweets in political ways?  If so, how?  Does the author use their tweets to try to make their readers laugh/cry/get excited about something/think about something/take action in a particular situation/etc.?  If so, how?  Does the author do anything else that appeals to specific values or encourages specific emotions in the audience?  There are many other questions we could ask, but this should give us a decent start.  Feel free to take note of anything else that helps us identify how this tweeter is trying to achieve their goals on Twitter.


2.  Analysis - At this point, you should have a good sense for what this particular tweeter says and does on Twitter, what their goals are for using it, and how they go about achieving those goals.  Now we want to analyze this information to get a sense for who would likely find these particular tweets interesting, useful, funny, or meaningful in any other way.  Don't worry about identifying specific audience members.  Instead, focus on the type of person who might be interested in these tweets.  It might be helpful to think of the community to which various audience members might belong.  Try to be as specific as possible as you identify possible audiences and communities.  It is not incredibly helpful to say that a particular tweeter appeals to a "general" audience.  It would be much more specific to say that a particular tweeter appeals to educators and friends.  It would be even more specific to say that a particular tweeter appeals to people who teach college writing.  Part of the challenge here is to figure out the range of audiences that would likely be interested in these tweets.  Some people will appeal to a broad range of audiences; some people will appeal to a smaller audience.  The goal of your analysis is to demonstrate the range of audiences that would likely follow this person based on what they tweet and how they do it.

Let's consider a few hypothetical situations.  Imagine Celebrity X, an actor who mainly uses twitter to post personal stories about other celebrities.  These tweets would likely appeal to people interested in Hollywood gossip, but they might not appeal to a fan of Celebrity X who wanted to know more about her daily activities.  Imagine Celebrity Y, a comedian who uses twitter to post obscene jokes and random thoughts but also to help promote their favorite charity.  Some people might follow this person because they enjoyed the jokes; some people might follow this person not because they enjoy the random thoughts but because these random thoughts are eccentric and allow you to make fun of Celebrity Y; some people might follow this person because they are interested in the charity; some people might not follow this person even though they want to support the charity because they find the jokes offensive.  Finally, imagine important Academic W, a significant figure in new media studies who only uses Twitter to post links to her blog posts.  Some people might follow this person to keep up with new blog posts; some academics interested in new media studies might not follow this person because she only blogs about video games and they are interested in something else.  In other words, just because someone is famous does not mean that all of their fans would follow them on Twitter.  Just because someone is an academic in a particular field does not mean that everyone in that field would follow them on Twitter.  The audience for a particular tweeter depends on how that tweeter uses Twitter.

So, the goal of this analysis is to think about the ways that certain uses of Twitter will appeal to different people.  Again, we want to be as specific as possible, and we want to be able to demonstrate what sorts of audiences would be interested in what a particular tweeter posts and why these audiences would be interested.


3.  Arrangement - At this point, you should have a clear sense for what you want to include in your rhetorical analysis.  All of this information might be in your head, or you might have notes that you have written as you gathered information and analyzed it.  The next step is to think about how you want to organize this information into a coherent and well-structured analysis paper.  There are multiple ways to do this, so you will have to decide which organizing principle you will use.  Do you want to organize your paragraph around different audiences?  Around different ways that your person uses Twitter?  Some other way?  Regardless, you should organize your analysis so that it is easy for your reader to get a sense for the main conclusions of your analysis and how the different parts of your analysis fit together.


4.  Style - You will also need to consider how you translate all of these ideas into a particular style in your paper.  Like in our research summaries, we want our analyses to be objective.  We are not taking sides here; we are not making claims about whether or not someone is interesting or whether we like them.  Instead, we are analyzing - as objectively as possible - what they tweet in order to describe who would likely follow them.  Another important consideration here is quotes.  As you perform your analysis, it will be important to provide specific examples from the tweets you are examining.  When you quote a tweet, include the date and time it was posted in parentheses.  On Twitter, if you click on the date and time underneath a particular tweet, you will be directed to a page that is specific to this tweet.  It would help to offer a link to this Tweet in your parenthetical citation.  Here's an example:  earlier this week, I posted a tweet that asked everyone, regarding the Rhetorical Peaks handout, to "please bring a hard copy with you to class" (Feb. 3, 2010; 3:02 pm).

Once you have finished your rhetorical analysis, save your page.  Let me know if you have any questions about the assignment.  We will discuss this assignment in class next Tuesday, and I will also offer you feedback that you can use to help you revise your paper.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

Since I was using the Learning Record in this course, no specific grades were given on any aspect of our Twitter use. For the rhetorical analysis assignment, it would be easy to grade it as you would any short analysis assignment.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Students responded well to the rhetorical analysis assignment. It was helpful to consider how a rhetorical orientation could be embodied in 140 character chunks, in links, and in a network of followers. The assignment gave students a different perspective on cultural figures and academics.

As for the Learning Record observations, students were somewhat hesitant to engage and share their observations (but not more so than other classes that have used the Learning Record but didn't share their observations on Twitter). The main challenge here is helping students be more comfortable with the observation process generally and then making them comfortable with sharing these with one another. To work toward these ends, I would want to spend more time in class discussing observations and allowing students to post on Twitter at that time.

Additional Resources: 

ProfHacker has a number of posts on using Twitter in the classroom.

Course Description: 

While digital technologies make available a range of tools that shape our physical interactions with the world in new ways, they also offer us new metaphors, new ways of talking about these interactions, and new ways of organizing ideas.  To use a favorite term of twentieth-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke, these technologies make available new possibilities for identification.  In the 2.0 world, we not only find new ways to identify and form communities with others; we also experience a shift in the process of self-identification and in the ways we define ourselves.

This class will explore a range of digital technologies and writing environments as well as the discourses surrounding them to give students a more thorough understanding of the ways that they have already begun to establish virtual identities and of new possibilities for digital identity formation.  By exploring and participating in these technologies and discourses, we will hope to achieve the following course goals:

- Continue to develop rhetoric skills related to summary, analysis, and argumentation;

- Gain fluency in digital technologies and examine the ways that these tools shift our understandings of rhetoric and writing;

- Identify and participate in conversations surrounding writing in digital environments.

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