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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Strategies for Teaching Blocked Writers

PALS Note: We are happy to have Aaron Colton take us through his composition course that focuses on the ever pervasive writer’s block. Both Colton and his students made unexpected discoveries along the way. Join us as we get a glimpse into that journey.

On the first day of the fall 2018 semester at Georgia Tech, I asked the twenty-five students in my freshman communication course whether they’d ever experienced “writer’s block.” Virtually every hand shot up. The pervasiveness of writer’s block among my students—described mainly in the context of college applications and timed AP essays—stunned me. As a longtime instructor of composition, I’d confronted a host of explanations from students as to why they had not completed a given assignment, but never had I thought to ask struggling students whether they would consider themselves “blocked.” Instead, I’d come to associate the condition solely with professionals—as is the case in popular films like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) and the Will-Ferrell-led Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Writer’s block was the burden of those who write for a living, I had thought, not students.

Writer’s block is in fact so ubiquitous among professionals that there is an entire cottage industry dedicated to curing it. Historically, the prevailing treatment for blocked writers has been the written self-help manual, which can range from simple lists of suggestions (The Chronicle and Inside Higher Education publish such pieces regularly) to full-blown monographs (perhaps the earliest of which was published in 1934, according to Zachary Leader’s excellent intellectual history of writer’s block). More recently, an array of digital productivity tools has emerged, intended to support writing by way of time management or carrots and sticks. Pomodoro timers encourage writers to follow a 25-minutes-on, 5-minutes-off schedule; websites such as Written? Kitten! and WriteOrDie celebrate progress with images of cats or, terrifyingly, delete one’s sentences should a preset words-per-minute goal go unmet.

The preponderance of articles and apps that tackle writer’s block typically call attention to the process of writing. A common assumption about writer’s block is that the blocked writer is either doing something wrong or not doing something essential. Thus, written recommendations tend to be practical—“stay off social-media,” “stop editing prematurely,” and so on—while apps force writers to abide by the same instructions.

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from Spongebob Squarepants “Procrastination”

Though the very theme of the course in which I had queried my students was itself “writer’s block,” I had not designed my course as a remedy for blockage—nor did I consider it a therapeutic outlet. Rather, my intention was to introduce students to written and multimodal communication through three related questions: (1) How should we define “writer’s block”?, (2) How is it best remedied?, and (3) How should we understand the recurring figure of the blocked writer in recent American media? However, in challenging my students to adopt an analytical approach to blockage, we discovered a powerful method for resolving students’ own experiences of it—one that I now advocate for struggling writers at all levels of the college curriculum.

In the major assignments of my course, I asked my students to weigh varying conceptualizations of writer’s block and to assess its resolvability and cultural significance. Throughout the semester, students created and revised:

  1. A 3-4 page encyclopedia entry on writer’s block. Writing in a descriptive genre, students drew from several of the perspectives on writer’s block they discussed in class—from neuropsychologists’ scientific findings to novelists’ more abstract theories—and then made tough decisions about which perspectives they found necessary to include in an informational account of the condition. Students were thus able to generate foundational understandings of writer’s block on which they would later build arguments and interpretations.
  2. A digital or physical resource for blocked writers, and a pitch to a magazine or website editor for an article about that resource. Teaching at Georgia Tech, I often leverage students’ interests and proficiencies in engineering, coding, and design. This assignment encouraged students to exercise those skills in accordance with the theories of writer’s block they developed in their encyclopedia entries. Then, in writing pitches for articles describing the utilities of their resources, students articulated the ways in which their products might assist blocked writers where others have fallen short. In doing so, students took a first step toward making discursive interventions in response to ongoing dilemmas.
  3. A 10-minute podcast, examining a blocked writer-character in American fiction, film, or television, produced in teams of five. In this project, students were asked to consider why writers or directors continually return to the subject of writer’s block, and then to argue that a particular blocked writer-character represents more than just the difficulty of creative labor. Characters interpreted by students ranged from the The Shining’s (1980) questionably productive Jack Torrance to the procrastinatory Spongebob Squarepants.

While undoubtedly productive, students made it clear in their reflections on these assignments that they had not been liberated entirely from blockage. Far from it, several students found themselves grappling with writer’s block even while examining the subject. As one student noted late in the semester: “the ironic thing is that I would usually still be undergoing writer’s block as I wr[o]te about overcoming it.” At the same time, however—and in spite of their continued experiences of writer’s block—my students gained a consistent and considerable wealth of material for defeating it. The key lay in method—that is, in treating their likely (or even inevitable) frustrations as objects of analysis.

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from Stanley Kubrick’s  The Shining

Because the course assignments fused the experience of writing—or failing to write—with critical thinking, students never found themselves without a compositional foothold; their experiences of blockage could always lend themselves to the assignment at hand. One student, for example, reflected on how when scripting her podcast, which examined the blocked writer Karen Eiffel from Stranger Than Fiction, her own battles with blockage allowed her “to see inside Karen Eiffel’s mind,” and thus equip herself to make meaningful interpretations. So while not a panacea, “[s]tudying writer’s block,” as another student described, “created a sort of placebo effect when attempting to communicate my ideas.”

While I am not recommending that every composition course center on writer’s block, I do believe that blocked students, both in composition and in other humanities disciplines, can benefit from sustained and nuanced meditations on the experience of blockage. By transforming writer’s block into a topic of pre- or mid-assignment exercises, students can probe the academic, social, and personal contexts from which writer’s block emerges, and in doing so gain insights into what it might take to reclaim their compositional capacities. Instructors can ask student to write as specifically as possible on questions like these:

  • What does writer’s block feel like? Is it physical? Emotional? A mental state?
  • Where do you think your writer’s block comes from? Is it a product of the assignment? Of the sources you’re writing on? Is it a personal issue? A combination of these things?
  • What does your writer’s block sound like? Is it a critic who says your ideas are no good? Does it assure you that writing will happen, only later—like the night before the deadline?
  • Do you feel that you’re missing something essential to your writing process? If so, what is it? A main idea? A link between ideas? The perfect passage to dig into? Motivation?
  • Recall the last time you wrote unblocked—what did that experience look and feel like? How long did you write for at a time? What gave you motivation? Did you start writing with ideas already prepared, or did your ideas arise as you wrote? How did you find your ideas?
  • Imagine that you’re interviewing a future version of yourself who has finished the assignment. What did this person do to get back into the writing groove?

The difference between this technique and the plethora of articles and books on overcoming writer’s block is that it approaches blockage from a topical rather than procedural angle. Instead of recommending that students take walks or try out stream-of-consciousness prose, it suggests that they write both descriptively and critically about the very writing they’re failing to accomplish.

Ideally, prompts like these will nudge students to identify the questions or personal/motivational issues they need to confront in order to jumpstart their writing processes. But even without such realizations, an added advantage of this exercise is that it demands the same procedures of critical thinking that most writing assignments depend on. That is, even if students do not achieve the mythical “flow state” of writing—where ideas pour forth as if given by a muse—reflecting on writer’s block can bring students to prime the very intellectual muscles they’ll need to exercise in their assignments. So, in getting those first words about writer’s block onto the page—even if they are seemingly tangential to the main assignment—students take a crucial, and analytical, first step to beating writer’s block.

Contributor Bio:

IMG_1544Aaron Colton is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he has recently taught courses on writer’s block as a cultural phenomenon and sincerity and irony in recent US culture. His research on 20th- and 21st-century US fiction has appeared in Studies in American FictionCollege Literature, and Postmodern Culture, and his current book project examines the representation of writer’s block in postwar American literature.