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What Are Students Tweeting About Us?
September 8, 2013 - 9:39pm

Last week, a colleague of mine on Twitter, Matt Thomas, a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Iowa completing a dissertation on life hacking, started retweeting tweets from students where they were talking about “my professor.” The results were both hysterical and disturbing. It provided an insight into how students see us (or at least some of us) and how comfortable they are sharing those thoughts. It certainly decreased the productivity of many a professor towards the end of the week as we all started searching and retweeting “my professor” tweets, often inserting out discipline in the search as well.

Bill Wolff has a great rundown of the tweets, including examples, an archive, some visualization, with links to some other projects professors have already done with the search. Alan Jacobs weighs in on the reliability of the tweets, while V.C Pasupathi provides a must-read post in terms of the embodiment of the professor. Mark Sample has a TwitterBot that manipulates the “my professor” tweets. I have some thoughts, but I mostly I was inspired by the simple idea and how it spiraled into something bigger. I wanted to ask Matt some questions, and he graciously answered them and gave permission to include the conversation here on my blog. 

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What inspired you to search “My Professor” on Twitter?

On Wednesday, September 4th, I noticed my friend @inessentials retweeting various students' "my philosophy professor" tweets. That gave me the idea to search first for "my American Studies professor" (my home discipline) and then, after not finding much there, simply "my professor." What I found was a veritable goldmine of commentary – thousands and thousands of tweets. I quickly realized I was seeing students' unvarnished, if perhaps exaggerated and mixed-up, reactions to their professors and classes during the first week or so of the fall semester. Then, partly inspired by @saragoldrickrab’s retweets of students' tweets about their problems with the FAFSA, and the sly political commentary about the mess that is American higher education inherent in such an act, I started retweeting them, haphazardly at first, then more purposefully.

What kinds of Tweets did you choose to RT? You mentioned "weirdness, insight, and juxtaposition" – could you elaborate?

A lot of the tweets I was and am seeing were and are pretty banal, e.g., "I love my professor" or "I hate my professor." But those are boring. Twitter is partly about novelty. So I tried to retweet things that made me laugh, made me shake my head, made me ponder the state of contemporary academe, made me go "What?" Tweets about students having crushes on their teachers. Tweets reporting cringeworthy things professors were saying to their classes. Tweets about gimmicky things professors were doing. Professors' wildly inappropriate comments. There were lots of "I can't understand my professor because he/she is foreign" tweets, and "I have no idea what my professor is talking about tweets," but I tried to ignore those on account of them often being (borderline) racist/ xenophobic and/or boring. A big part of college is trying to figure out what other people are talking about. Simultaneous repetition and difference à la @GooglePoetics interests me, so I started looking for patterns – students' tweets about their professors not emailing them back, about their professors being late to class or letting them out early, about their professors talking about twerking – and retweeting those.

What do you make of the reaction to these RT? It has generated quite a lot of interest and discussion on Twitter, so what are you learning from that? Is there a difference between the professor who tweets and the professor who is tweeted about?

I am a little overwhelmed by the response, to be honest. The things I tweet that I think are clever and the things I tweet that people favorite, reply to, read, and retweet aren't always one in the same. I've been blocked by a lot of prickly academics for little more than rubbing them the wrong way. What's been interesting to me about this whole thing thus far is how much other academics seem to like these tweets. A few people have expressed apprehension along the lines of "I worry about what my students might tweet about me!," but for the most part, professors seem to relish these tweets as a sort of window into students' minds and the wackadoodleness of other professors. (It's worth remembering that most professors don't spend a whole lot of time sitting in on other professors' classes.) It's interesting to me that professors like them because in some way my retweets are intended, insomuch as authorial or artistic intent enters into this, as a critique of the emphasis on research over teaching at most universities, i.e., if we judged professors more on their teaching, would we be seeing as many comments like this from students? Additionally, as someone who really does believe good teaching requires a dose of showmanship (see http://submittedforyourperusal.com/2008/04/24/teaching-is-a-form-of-show-business/ and http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/6865060237), and puts a lot of time and energy into his own teaching (sorry for the third person here), I am dismayed by how bad many professors seem to be at, well, professing. Among other things, these tweets would seem to suggest professors need to be more conscious of how they're presenting themselves. This involves thinking about things like appearance and performance and style – things many professors, let's be honest, think of as superficial. And needless to say, I think professors, if they're so inclined, should be on Twitter. This isn't to say, of course, that the students I'm retweeting come off as angels, or that their tweets should be taken at face value, or as representative of the quality of college teaching across America, etc., but they do seem like they're telling us something. Besides, what could it hurt to puncture our filter bubbles and listen in on what other people are saying about us once in a while? Who knows, we might learn something.

There was some discussion on Twitter about if many of these professors were actual professors or if they were adjuncts/non-tt faculty. What do these tweets, if anything, say about those who are tenured vs those who are not? Is this what academic freedom means?

Hard to say who these professors are in a lot of cases, though in many it wouldn't be hard to find out. My bias, based on my sense of how little teaching evaluations seem to matter in tenure and promotion in the publish or perish paradigm, is to suppose that all the professors students are complaining about are tenured, and all the professors students are complimenting are not, but that can't possibly be true. Lots of tenured faculty are amazing teachers. I don't want to tar every one of them with the same brush here. I've had lots of great professors. What we can probably be more sure of is that tweets critical of a non-TT faculty member are potentially more damaging to them in career terms than tweets critical of a tenured faculty member. If this whole Hugo Schwyzer imbroglio over the past few weeks has taught me anything, it's that tenured profs can basically get away with actual crimes (though it appears he may finally be fired from his school), while all a non-TT faculty member need do is, say, forget to respond to an email in order to lose their job. The gap between these two things, as so many things do, strikes me as incredibly unfair. One thus must not only watch what one tweets, but what others tweet about them.

Maybe go into a little more detail about showmanship versus providing "edutainment." Do you think maybe this is all in search of the all-mighty high student evaluation score? Or perhaps misguided attempts to seem cool? Or something else?

No one, especially no professor, should try to be cool. Trying to be cool is the one sure way not to be cool. Great professors are beyond cool. If a professor is trying to drop lingo like "twerking" to prove how "hip" they are, they're doing it wrong. That's not to say twerking isn't ripe for academic engagement, but if the tweets I've seen are any indication, professors aren't referencing it to interrogate it so much as to seem "with it," and in the process coming off as creepy or worse. These questions get us into a larger conversation about teaching philosophy, but I don't think teachers should be trying to game student evaluations either. The questions that must be asked of evaluations are the same questions one should ask about any standardized test: What does it measure? Why? Who is doing the measuring? Etc. That said, if a student tweets something about you on Twitter, even if it seems disparaging, it's probably not that big of a deal. It might even be a good thing. Professors have lives too. Professors watch the VMAs. Professors say the wrong things. Big whoop. We can extract a lesson from these tweets without falling apart. At the heart of good teaching, in my view, is a paradox: One must be attentive to how one is presenting one's self, and at the same time not really care what students think about them. My friend Zaheer Ali calls this "careless awareness." Bill Cosby has a line about how the sure path to failure is trying to please everybody. I think it's important to try to at least be aware of this paradox. It's certainly a healthy view to have if one is to step into the agora that is Twitter. I do think it's possible to approach teaching with love, with a sense of calling, and be both interesting and entertaining, as well as relevant. This is easier said than done, of course, but no one said being a great teacher was easy. Being a great teacher is really hard. But that's no reason not to try.

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I have more to say, but I want to know what you, readers, think about this. 

 

 

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