The ghost of twitter past.

The Twitter Essay

 Published on January 6, 2012 /  Written by /  “Twitter Bird Sketch” by Shawn Campbell; CC BY 2.0 /  19

Consider the tangible violence technology has wrought upon grammar. We rely on automated grammar and spell-check tools in word-processing software (so much that they’ve become a crutch). E-mail shorthand fails to live up to the grammatical standards of typed or handwritten letters. And many believe our language is being perverted by the shortcuts (and concision nearly to the point of indifference) we’ve become accustomed to writing and reading in text messages and tweets.

For many teachers and writing pedagogues, this is a travesty, a torturous fact of modern life that we all must contend with and defend against in our classrooms. However, I would argue that we are at a moment in the history of the English language where the capacity for something wondrous is upon us. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been other wondrous moments in the evolution of human language, but there has not (and may never be again) a moment just like this one, a moment where the very fabric of how we speak and how we express ourselves through language has become so tenuous that every new textual utterance threatens to either devolve into gibberish or reinvent the very way we speak and write.

The evolution of written language is speeding up at an exponential rate, and this necessitates that we, as writing teachers, reconsider the way we work with language in our classrooms. We can no longer be the staid grammarians that taught so many of us to write, nor can we simply dismiss or overlook the teaching of grammar entirely. Rather, we must think consciously (and practically) about how our students’ conceptions of (and contexts for) writing are changing, and we must approach the teaching of grammar in new and innovative ways.

While I agree that technology has wrought a certain violence upon grammar, I would argue that writing instructors can exact an even more punishing and permanent sort of violence. Students aren’t terrified to send text messages or post status updates to Twitter or Facebook, but they are often terrified to write academic papers.

David Crystal writes, in txtng: the gr8 db8, “The popular belief is that texting has evolved as a twenty-first-century phenomenon — as a highly distinctive graphic style, full of abbreviations and deviant uses of language, used by a young generation that doesn’t care about standards. There is a widely voiced concern that the practice is fostering a decline in literacy. And some even think it is harming language as a whole” (7). His use of the word “deviant” here is telling, suggesting that, in the eyes of detractors, text-messaging as a medium threatens not just grammatical errors, but moral infractions. It isn’t just that technology, and text-messaging in particular, threatens to undermine language, but in so doing, it threatens to undermine the very culture upon which literacy is so precariously perched.

Crystal goes on to refute this belief a few pages later, writing, “All the popular beliefs about texting are wrong, or at least debatable. Its graphic distinctiveness is not a totally new phenomenon. Nor is its use restricted to the young generation. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy” (9). He points out that the average texter is aware when they are breaking the rules. He or she is aware of the ways that text-message-speak distorts Standard English — aware, in fact, to the point of revelry.

One of the primary goals of abbreviations in text- or Twitter-speak is to condense an utterance to fit the 160 character limit of a text-message or the 140 character limit of a Twitter post (or Tweet). However, there is also a certain charm, a playfulness, involved. There is pleasure in the act of composing with these constraints, an intentional and curious engagement with how sentences, words, and letters make meaning. Composing a text-message or tweet is most certainly a literate (and sometimes even literary) act. And, interestingly, the average text-message or tweet distorts grammar much less than the naysayers would have us believe.

In fact, more often, text-messages and tweets rely on very conventional sentence structures and word order to create clear contexts for the various abridgments. However, like a poem, this form has the ability to condense what might otherwise be inexpressible into a very small and self-consciously constrained linguistic space. And, also like a poem, a clever text-message or tweet unravels, offering layers of meaning and interpretability for the reader. For example, neologisms are quite common in the world of texting. In a recent exchange I had via text, “hiyah” came to mean both a greeting (as in “hi ya”) and the sound-effect accompanying a karate-chop, a calculated portmanteau, a “hello” that feels like an assault. Granted, this sort of inventiveness is not always rampant in the wild, but the medium certainly offers and encourages this potential.

I’ve recently experimented in my composition classes with an assignment I call The Twitter Essay, in which students condense an argument with evidentiary support into 140 characters, which they unleash upon a hashtag (or trending topic) in the Twitter-verse. Tweets often attempt to convey as much information in as few words as possible. A tweet could be seen, then, not as a paragon of the many potential horrors of student writing, but as a model of writerly concision. In composing their Twitter-essay, I have students proceed through all the steps I would have them take in writing a traditional academic essay, including brainstorming, composing, workshopping, and revising. I also have them consider and research their audience, the Twitter members engaged in discussion around a particular hashtag. Finally, I have them work dynamically with the Tweets of their peers, responding to them on Twitter and close-analyzing them in class. I ask the students to consider their word-choice, use of abbreviation, punctuation, etc. To model the activity for them and to give them a sense for the shape of a Twitter Essay, I compose my instructions for the assignment in exactly 140 characters and post them to Twitter.

For example, in my upper-division writing course, “Queer Rhetorics,” I instructed the students to,

Write an essay about #queer in 140 characters that does real work in the world, not wasting one character. Make something happen with words.

The most interesting response I got to this particular prompt was from a student that had never used Twitter previously:

#queer #kwear #qu’eer #ckwewr #QuEeR #qr #kuere #CWEER #qawear #kwier #cawe’re #ckuere #cwear #qwere #chweir #q-u-e-e-r

Without even fully understanding the function of hashtags, the student managed to disrupt (or queer) the primary organizational structure of discussions on Twitter. The essay was about #queer in both its content and its form, while also savvily disrupting how we tag ideas within a discourse.

I assigned a similar activity to a group of composition students in a class on “The Posthuman,” another topic that lends itself well to experiments with modality and the disruption of language and discourse. I asked these students, again in exactly 140 characters,

What is the posthuman? Write a Twitter essay on #posthuman in 140 characters that explores or complicates the term. Don’t waste a character.

More interesting than the responses I got for that particular question were the ways my students took to using Twitter after doing the activity. Twitter became a space for investigating and troubling language. Outside of any required class activity, one student tweeted,

#Rhetoric is a means by which humans imbue each other with their ideas. Through the use of ideas, authority, emotions, and logic.

My students also decided to send @replies (or messages tagged for a particular Twitter user) to one of the authors we were studying in class, Steven Shaviro, asking questions about and responding to his work in an attempt to bring him into the conversation we were having in class. This particular author, though himself an avid Tweeter, didn’t respond; however, for me, the success of the activity was measured by the hum in the room as the students realized they could use Twitter to communicate directly (and in real-time) with the author of the essay we were discussing that day.

Here is the text I used for the Twitter Essay assignment in my “Monstrous Bodies” course in Fall 2011:

INSTRUCTIONS: The Twitter Essay

1. Write what I call a “Twitter Essay.” In the next few weeks, we will return to some of the overarching questions of the course, so let’s use this activity as a way for us to begin formulating the revised thinking we have about monstrosity, the human, horror, etc. Here are the instructions:

What is a monster? Answer in a Twitter essay of exactly 140 characters using #twitteressay. Play, innovate, incite. Don’t waste a character.

(The instructions above are exactly 140 characters, so this gives you a sense for how much space you have to work with.) Post your essay on Twitter. The only rule is that you must include the hashtag “#twitteressay” somewhere in your Tweet. You can add additional hashtags or links, but you can only write one Tweet and it must be exactly 140 characters. Feel free to address any aspect of monstrosity. (No need to use our course hashtag, #monstersclass, unless it makes specific sense for you to include it.) You can offer a revised definition of the word “monster” or narrow in on a more specific topic. Spend time carefully composing, making sure every character of your tweet is necessary and meaningful. As you work, think also about the components of a traditional essay: a hook, an argument, supporting evidence, etc. While you can take creative license in how you interpret the word “essay,” you should at least be able to make an argument (if pressed) for how your Tweet functions as an essay.

2. Now, peer review. Search #twitteressay on Twitter to see all of the Twitter Essay tweets. Respond to (and, perhaps, retweet) at least two of the ones you find. In your response, analyze the choices the author made and/or offer additional thoughts. Include the author’s handle and our course hashtag “#monstersclass” somewhere in your tweet. So, for example, if I were peer reviewing my own instructions:

@Jessifer’s use of “incite” in the #TwitterEssay is unusual juxtaposed with “play.” Incite often has negative connotations. #MonstersClass

(Note that the peer review tweet does not have to be exactly 140 characters.)

Gary Small writes, in iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains . . . Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now — at a speed like never before” (1). David Crystal concludes his book on texting in a similar way, “Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. Some love it. I am fascinated by it, for it is the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. In texting we are seeing, in a small way, language in evolution” (175).

Small and Crystal locate the evolution they each describe in different places. For Small, it is our brains themselves that are evolving, whereas for Crystal, it is language doing the evolving, as though words are somehow distinct from the people uttering them. Both highlight the way that learning and language are defiantly dynamic processes. The perversion of language in a text-message or tweet has both use value and intrinsic value. There is both the end result of concision and the fun to be had in attaining it. There is both the undoing of language for the purpose of making meaning and the undoing of language for its own sake, calling attention to the fundamental oddity of its rules and structure.

Check out this Storify for more on Teaching w/ Twitter. Parts of this piece are adapted from “Feed: Texting, Twitter, and the Student 2.0,” published on TECHStyle, A Georgia Tech Forum for Digital Pedagogy and Research.

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19 Responses
  1. I am unsure that language can be corrupted by using it in other modes. This is not the corruption Orwell warned about. Language that becomes incapable of being understood ceases to become language. I don’t know when or where that has ever happened (except maybe dying languages with no speakers) but I think tweetspeak and leetspeak are alive and well. As for evolutionary change? Unless something is happening in the epigenesis of the ‘languaging’ parts of our brains, I think most geneticists would argue that nothing much is happening to ‘change’ our brains in ways that will make us into homo webiensis. k

    Your assignments rock. Right now in the connected learning MOOC being sponsored by the National Writing Project we are discussing memes and I am seeing the strong need for making them more useful in the classroom like you have here, even pushing it down the K-12 foodchain. I will be returning to this as I begin the annual breastbeating that is the syllabus revision. Uggh. But with new ideas like these I am very sure to be a happier learner and teacher in the fall.

  2. Edward R. O'Neill, Ph.D.

    From this essay, I can understand what was done and why. I appreciate the approach taken, even if I am not concerned with new media doing ‘violence’ to grammar. (As a film scholar, I don’t consider how film did ‘violence’ to theater or novels.)

    But I am left with many questions that are central to the educational, rather than philosophical dimensions of this work, and with the results of the experiment.

    First, what was learned? By you? By the students?

    Second, how was the students’ work and learning evaluated? The monstrous bodies rubric link is broken. And I don’t see rubrics or criteria elsewhere on the relevant sites.

    The students’ self-evaluation seems to be based on: absences; regularity and thoroughness of work; preparedness; how many assignments were completed; effort, interest, and commitment; and engagement.

    But I would like to understand better how the instructor’s evaluations were made, and how students came to understand these expectations.

    And third, was this experiment considered a success? Or: what was discovered by doing it, not by planning it?

    Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.

    1. I am also not particularly concerned about new media doing “violence” to grammar. What I find more curious is that this sort of language is so commonly used to describe what new media does. The first two paragraphs here are meant to frame the hyperbolic stage upon which the rest of the piece sits. It’s not the stage I’d choose to set, and two years later, the stage is already considerably different.

      And now your questions, which are excellent. I’ve actually meant to return to this piece — to write a continuation, perhaps for another venue. I guess I’m starting to draft that continuation here. Thanks for that. 🙂

      “First, what was learned? By you? By the students?” For me, the assignment is a way to continue a conversation about the “essay” as a form, to encapsulate the discussion into a 140-character space. What can an essay do? How does it work? Where is it born? Where does it go after it’s born? Of course, this happens differently depending on how and where the essay is set loose, but the overarching questions are similar. My other goal is to teach / model writerly concision. And the assignment also serves as a way of introducing the Twitter platform. Spending an hour+ working on a single tweet helps get a new user inside the tweet and how it functions. Ultimately, I’m a fan of emergent outcomes — i.e. every time I’ve done the assignment, students surprise me, and we learn something slightly different.

      “Second, how was the students’ work and learning evaluated?” With an assignment like this, I often respond to my students’ tweets with tweets, composing thoughtful engagements with their work, also in the constrained 140-character space of a tweet. The students peer review each other’s work similarly. My classes, in general, rely on a lot of reflective self-evaluations, for which I’ve experimented with lots of different models. Of which, my favorite is to have students write me (and themselves, and sometimes the web) a letter about their learning. I respond with a letter in return. The prompt for the letter offers some possible directions they might go, questions they might ask themselves, but ultimately I’m most interested in what students think is important about their learning — their work for a class, etc.

      “The monstrous bodies rubric link is broken.” Thanks, I’ll fix the link.

      “But I would like to understand better how the instructor’s evaluations were made, and how students came to understand these expectations.” I talk to my students early on (and openly throughout the term) about grades, evaluation, peer-evaluation, self-evaluation. I tend to think that our own ability to evaluate ourselves is one of the most important things we have to learn (and keep learning). To answer your question more directly, students in my classes grade themselves. I do not put grades on individual assignments. I turn in grades at the end of the term (because I’m required to), but I usually give students the grades they give themselves. By the end of a term, students are incredibly good evaluators of their own work, and if I do make changes (which I reserve the right to do) it is more often to raise rather than lower grades. The reasons why I would lower a grade are made clear, but I’ve likely already had a conversation with a student, in those cases. With an assignment like the Twitter Essay (but with many of the assignments we do in my classes), the process is what warrants evaluation more than the product.

      “And third, was this experiment considered a success? Or: what was discovered by doing it, not by planning it?” Without hyperbole, this has been the most successful assignment I’ve ever created. I’ve done many variations. One of my favorites is to approach it with analogue tools, graph paper and pencils, where we draw a box around 140 squares and pencil out each character into a square. I never expected this assignment to be such a success. It was, during its first incarnation, an experiment, a whim even. But it’s grown into something that I love to assign, and exactly because every time I do it I learn something new about my students, about writing, about whatever subject we’re essaying about, and about teaching.

      1. Edward R. O'Neill, Ph.D.

        I’m embarrassed, because I’m still at a bit of a loss.

        I can understand what you do, but I still don’t hear any standards or criteria. What makes one student’s performance better or worse than another’s?

        Achieving concision: I can guess how that would be evaluated; it seems like something that happens in writing classes a lot. But how do you evaluate students (or let them evaluate themselves) on how well they “continue a conversation about the ‘essay’ as a form”? What are the scales and values?

        I was able to find the George Tech rubric. Are you saying students evaluate themselves according to that rubric?

        The same goes for how the experiment can be called a success. Some experiments confirm or disconfirm an hypothesis. Was it that type of experiment? Other experiments are more exploratory: to see what happens when…. What I get from your reply is: *you* always learn a lot from it, something new. (I don’t think that paragraph mentions what the students learn.) And you don’t say what any of those new things are.

        Your work sounds rich. But I can’t grasp how one student could do better or worse at, say, ‘continuing a conversation.’ I can’t tell what students learn, nor what you learn–except that it’s always new. Is that the criterion? An experiential criterion of novelty or insight? Because that would be quite fascinating to hear described.

        If you can get students to assess their own work accurately, that is, by my lights, a tremendous achievement. The research I have read shows that student self-assessment is highly variable. (Some studies just end up saying, in effect: we can’t tell if the self-assessment is variable, or our methods don’t work.) So I hope you also write more about how you do that.

        1. Perhaps, this will help: I’m not a fan of rubrics, generally, and did not use one for this assignment. I’m fonder of rubrics when they are constructed by or in conversation with a group of students. Ultimately, I think assessment is useful when it’s formative and used as a learning tool. The kind of external summative assessment you seem to be asking about is not something I’m a fan of (especially when it relies on discrete “scales” and “values”). And not something I’ve seen supported by compelling research. External summative assessment has its uses, here and there (and mostly for the benefit of institutions and not students), but our educational system has let it run rampant. I’ve written a lot on the subject of assessment, of various sorts. In fact, a search for “assessment” over to the left may give you a bit of a glimpse.

          1. Edward R. O'Neill, Ph.D.

            I agree with you that not everything needs to be graded. That is madness. And when I taught online, I saw it discouraging participation. No one wants to be evaluated for every gesture they make. And it can squelch discussion–which should be exploratory in character. A conversation, as you say.

            I think some people are not fans of rubrics because there are so many bad ones. If it’s a choice between a bad rubric and none, yes, none is better.

            I have facilitated conversations with students (who are not my students) about how their work should be evaluated. We built a rubric, and it reflected their interests and needs. And the instructor liked it, and it was used. And it was a grid.

            And if you are saying that formative and summative assessment can be quite different, I also agree very much. When I taught–I’m an instructional designer now, so I help others teach–I tried to ‘scaffold’ assessment. So we started with shorter and simpler criteria, and we added them gradually. My criteria for discussion posts were: Is it on time, the required minimum length, and on-topic? That was easy for them to do. For argumentative writing, the assignments started short and grew, and earliest criteria were: Is the argument supported by evidence and reasoning? Does the essay have a beginning, middle and end?

            You may say: that’s not very deep. But I believe that some criteria are minimal: they are foundations for other things, which you are perhaps calling emergent. Obviously, if the work isn’t turned in, or is simply not enough to be part of a meaningful conversation, then one can’t apply any more subtle standards.

            When I blogged about standards, I tried to make a space for the ideals of the discipline, as well as the more minimal criteria (“Is there a topic sentence?”) A student can write a formally-perfect paper which does not contribute meaningfully to a dialogue or debate, or aim towards mutual understanding; whereas those latter things might be exactly the ideals we believe our discipline cherishes.

            I recently consulted with a professor who spelled out many expectations for her students’ writing. And both she and the students were overwhelmed. When we looked at the expectations (which were not in a grid), it was clear there were ten dimensions for writing (five with some sub-dimensions) and over a hundred different possible types of comments a student might put into a paper (seven possible comments on eight possible topics, each of which could be interpreted two ways). This was obviously unwieldy, as there was nothing to tell the student which comments might be preferable to offer in any given context–which is the conversation you really want to have.

            All that complexity crowded out the more significant discussion, which is perhaps the one you value more: why do this, rather than that? Why are we doing *any* of this? What does this discipline care about and want to achieve? How can the student use the disciplinary methods to fulfill her own goals?

            So if you are saying: have those discussions, I agree. But that doesn’t mean all kinds of criteria can’t live in rubrics: formalizable criteria. To my mind, something being in a grid can’t make it good or bad. Is a list bad because it’s a list? No, only because the data is mangled by structuring it that way (as Powerpoint so often does). And to structure criteria as dimensions broken into scales is not an entirely unreasonable way to do it–when the criteria really are susceptible to that structure.

            So all rubrics, for everything? Not so much. No rubrics and no grids? I don’t see that as viable either.

            As for “external summative assessment,” I have only seen the word “external” applied to evaluation, not assessment, so I’m unfamiliar with this use. Benefitting the institution? Can it not also benefit those within the institution? Are the two so inimical? Ideally, the institution benefits from clear expectations and standards because they emerge from discussions, are open to interpretation, and because the students benefit too. So, yes, if those rubrics don’t benefit the student–well, you can’t ditch them, or the dean will squawk–but use them for what they are worth. But throw them away?

            I think my comparison in my blog post is the old saw that ‘writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis without a net.’ How can you make a line call in tennis, when there is no line? And without a line, you can’t play tennis. The line isn’t the point of the game, but the game can’t be played without it–or it can be played, but it’s not tennis, it’s something else.

            I would like to see the research on the ineffectiveness of rubrics. At least one interesting piece of research simply suggests too many of the criteria are redundant, and 49 values could be reduced to…seven.

            So maybe: sometimes a rubric, but generally a simpler one.

  3. Angelina Collazo

    I’ve been trying to decide on a meaningful way to integrate social media into my classroom that didn’t just seem like a gimmick. I also don’t agree with those that say text language is degrading the English language; I feel like it’s simply reworking it to fit a different context, and I want to help students connect their in-class context to their real lives.

    I teach eighth grade, though, so I’ll have to go through a few logistical hoops. This is probably a lot different in higher education, but did you find, for the most part, that it was pretty easy for students to “catch on” with using Twitter and what you were expecting from them as far as quality of work? I know I’d be too embarrassed to post anything less than my best effort when I knew the entire world could look at my tweet, or that my whole class would check it out, but I wonder if that effect actually shows in practice

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