Helpful Advice for Starting Out on The Twitter Dot Com

bau pals
Reading Your Tweets Like…

I suspect that much of PALS’s new growth on Twitter (aka #OnHere) in the past year comes via follows by new accounts. I don’t have hard data to support my observation, but I suspect PALS shows up more as a suggested follow, especially for new folks. Regardless, our growth reflects how Twitter’s algorithm works coupled with the way content moves #OnHere.

We have a small Twitter following compared to other academic blogs. We don’t have the large audience appeal working in the favor of many other collaborative academic blogs with a social media presence. The practical part of teaching American literature is neat, but niche. In the big picture, we’re small on Twitter. Our small size, regardless of our content, also reflects how Twitter works.

PALS has been #OnHere since August of 2015. It took a long time to grow our following. It took a long time to figure out how running an account for a blog/entity/thing versus a personal account differed. Many of us behind the PALS scenes have been #OnHere well before 2015. Still, we’re learning and figuring things out when it comes to tending to PALS and providing the content that #PalsNation wants.

I thought it might be useful to share a little bit of Twitter advice, especially since we have many new followers, including many graduate students. Graduate students are frequently told to get on Twitter or other forms of social media…

a mentoring.jpgHowever… Let’s be honest: in many cases graduate students are told to get on Twitter by 2 types of people: 1) Folks that aren’t on the Twitter Dot Com or 2) folks that are not good at the Twitter Dot Com. We are on the Twitter Dot Com. We’re decent at it. We’d like to share a few pieces of advice. Before we get into technical advice for starting up with Twitter, we’ll begin with philosophical advice.

A lot of Twitter advice focuses on being your own person on Twitter; it’s a recommendation steeped in a lot of privilege. You’ll find the “be yourself” advice in a myriad of advice columns; you’ll find such advice below. However, recognize that such advice often comes from experiences centered within positions of great privilege. It is important to take any advice with a grain of salt.

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BJ Blazkowicz gets it; Jack not so much.

Twitter has problems. There are rat bastards, trolls, and Nazis out there. There are people out there that will throw folks under the bus. Twitter can exacerbate systemic inequalities and can hang people out to dry. Twitter, the company, does little to stop this. All of the above doesn’t even account for the systemic inequalities within academia. Unfortunately, the work of supporting individuals attacked by sustained trolling campaigns falls on a larger community. You don’t have to engage with people. Mute and block are your friends.

Twitter is a weird platform and much of it has nothing to do with you. So, be cool with understanding that the workings of Twitter (platform and company) are weird (and often just bad). It doesn’t have all that much to do with you or the people you follow. We try to use Twitter to have a little bit of fun with PALS. We smash the retweet button. We post memes and gifs. We have a decent amount of engagement. However, Twitter isn’t what drives traffic to our site. On the flipside, Twitter is huge for making connections with folks interested in pitching a guest post. It has taken a while for us to get used to this facet of Twitter. For instance the recent meme-ification of PALS really didn’t happen until the coming of #WaltGrittman.

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Don’t worry about running with big accounts or big people. Be your own dog. Find fellow travelers in terms of personality and your personal and professional interests. For example, it has taken me a great deal of time to find a handful of folks that appreciate my humor. Find folks that share the same personal and research interests. Pay attention to your research interests, but if you like museums or zoos or whatever, then follow accounts related to those interests, too. You will find fellow travelers. It can take time. Finding new folks is a cool thing about Twitter. Finding your Twitter voice is a process. Again, be your own dog as best as you can. It’s hard not to worry about being yourself when there is so much self-fashioning and promotion on Twitter. There is a lot of self-fashioning in academia. Twitter turns self-fashioning up to 11.

Try to be kind. Don’t be a bad person. The thing about assholes on Twitter is that we tell them to be kind and nice, but they don’t listen. Don’t placate abusive or condescending people. It’s actually harder than it sounds because Twitter rewards bad behaviors with likes and retweets. Twitter often foments a feed frenzy. Twitter seems big, but it can be a small world, especially in how it functions like a little public square in the world of academic fields and subfields and subfields of subfields.

meerkat shit list
Not a lie.

Try to interact with other people, which is a hard thing to do for many of us. Wade into the discussions about your research interests. Get fizzy with the recurring debates about soda. Remember, Twitter is just weird. You don’t need to be on all the time, which is a hard thing to remember. Try to reply to people. Interact with them. Actually respond directly; don’t overuse the quote-tweet function. It takes a long time to figure out how to get a read on how some conversations work. Some conversations are a free-for-all. Some conversations are A-B conversations in public, so C your way out.

Some content resonates. Some tweets are duds. A lot of times the profound sinks to the bottom, but the mundane rises to the top. Just do you. It took me nearly 10 years to have a moderately viral tweet. I can’t explain it.

Twitter affords an opportunity to retool one’s scholarly interests outside of how the traditional academic world works. Running in certain circles means that I’ve been able to refocus my scholarly interests. Many of us at PALS have used Twitter to become early Americanists, for example.

Below you’ll find advice folks starting out with a new Twitter account. Again, keep in mind your own personal situation and account for your own internet safety.

  1. Use your own name, if you can, in the Twitter handle and in the name field for your account.
  2. Don’t be an egg. Make sure to include some kind of profile picture. Use a headshot, a picture of your research, an animal. Just don’t go with the default.
  3. Come up with a pithy bio for your account. Identify your affiliations and your research interests. It took me a long time to come up with a pithy bio. It took me writing a fellowship application to come up with my bio.
  4. Don’t go following crazy right away, especially with Twitter’s suggested follows that appear when creating a new account. Start building your Twitter network with people you know in real-life. By starting with people you know, you’ll build a network that will function as a way validating your account as one that is genuine.
  5. Tweet and reply to people in your initial network. You’re building up a sample set of tweets that demonstrate who you are as an individual #OnHere. Aim to build a record of consistent tweeting, maybe of 30 to 50 tweets.
  6. Start building the second level of your network. Start with your subfield; don’t jump right into the larger discipline. You’ll likely find it more rewarding to build a network of folks related to your subfield. Start by following academic blogs, professional organizations, & libraries/archives in your subfield. Then, check out their followers for further suggestions. You can build this network over time; no need to do it all at once. This manner of finding accounts is a much more fruitful approach than relying on Twitter’s suggestions.

Again, remember just to do you. It is okay to lurk and watch conversations unfold. Adapt anyone’s advice for your own circumstances. Welcome to the Twitter Dot Com. Hopefully this advice helps you with entering the fruitful and maddening world of Twitter.

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Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

East of Edenlast of the mohicans

Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”

BIG BOOKS 3

A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?