Three years ago, I redesigned the composition curriculum at my university. I needed a model writing project for our Composition II course that would meet our outcomes and help other faculty members teaching the course engage their students. I chose a social media project. As an instructor, I was drawn to the possibilities social media offered for my students to directly and meaningfully communicate with their audience. As an administrator, I was also concerned with the kinds of responses students might receive from their audience on a social media platform.
I piloted an approach to social media that was, by definition, a project-based learning approach in my own classrooms. Students would research a specific audience, develop a research question that they thought had a direct impact on that audience, and then create a social media account to use as a platform to reach their audience. In their social media account, they would use their research to advocate for or inform their selected audience, with the hope of garnering actual responses. I decided that the rewards outweighed the risks, and I built a model assignment structure for other instructors to use. That assignment has become a hallmark of what we are trying to do with our writing program, and instructors have reported that students are more likely to choose meaningful topics and audiences with this assignment than the more traditional essay it replaced.
I chose this approach because it helps students and instructors see the assignment as what Ann Feldman calls a “situated performance” (1). That is, the assignment is not just for the instructor, it is clearly directed at an audience outside the classroom. In Making Writing Matter: Composition in the Engaged University, Feldman argues that “[w]hen students see writing as a situated performance, they see themselves as agents called to action; writing becomes something other than a means to demonstrate to the teacher that the student has learned something” (1). Students are able to choose and research audiences that they want to engage with. They can strategize about what they should make that would best reach these audiences. They can then hone topics that are relevant and useful to an audience they are invested in. “What matters to you?” and “How can you make that matter to an audience you value?” are not bad opening questions for a composition course.
Used this way, social media becomes one more tool to make writing projects meaningful to our students. All writing instructors know this is an important element of crafting assignments, and Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner have documented this fact, by surveying over seven hundred students in The Meaningful Writing Project. They conclude that students want to have “the satisfaction of knowing the work they produced could be applicable, relevant, and real world” (4). While we sometimes contrast the real world to the online one, teaching students to reach an audience is important for engaging them in writing projects and making writing matter to them.
If you are considering social media as a means of teaching writing, I believe a research-based approach has a lot to offer. At the same time, instructors in our program are now using social media for a wide array of purposes. Here are some tips to guide your work.
- Experiment with social media on your own while reviewing the academic literature. Although I was already on social media, it still took me some time to gain greater familiarity with all the platforms my students would be using. Understanding how different platforms work is an important part of seeing possibilities and pitfalls for your students. If your students are choosing between platforms, you need to be able to help them see how each platform can reach different audiences. Articles like “Integrating Social Media in the Classroom Curriculum,” by Paige Abe and Nickolas A. Jordan, can help you experiment, and I also recommend Megan Poore’s book Using Social Media in the Classroom: A Best Practice Guide.
- Start offline, and then move online. Your students can become comfortable with the idea of posting online by building posts outside social media platforms. I have a number of instructors who enjoy using Twitter’s character limit to help students build summary skills. Similarly, your students should not go live with rough drafts. You will, most often, want to have a space for them to draft and build before they post. I like to use a shared Google Doc for this purpose. You can then incorporate an approval process for posts, if you choose.
- Be prepared to introduce social media—with all its warts. Enough has been written about the term digital natives for all teachers to know that our students can be both native to digital tools and naive about them. While some students consume social media with a critical eye, others do not. Social media is not just another genre students can be introduced to abstractly. Students urgently need to know the risks that come with social media and why it’s controversial. In my classes, the increased awareness about the impact of social media has been one of the benefits of making it part of the curriculum.
- Curate and create lots of examples. Students will need to see good and bad examples, and they will often need to learn etiquette about citing and reposting. I have found that a lot of my students lurk on social media but do not post or make their posts public. In these instances, instructors have an opportunity to build confidence without downplaying the risks of social media. In fact, you might incorporate social media into your classroom to address the digital divide between students who have a long history of consuming and using social media and students who have only recent exposure. The need to be able to represent oneself digitally is an increasingly important skill that may not be addressed elsewhere.
- Decide on a level of public engagement. I have all my students create a new social media account for my class, and I allow them to decide just how public they want to make it. Make some of your own posts public, gauge the controversial nature of your students’ material, and help guide them toward good decisions.
- Create an extensive scaffold. As I have mentioned, not all students are on social media, and no matter how user-friendly these platforms are designed to be, some of your students may need step-by-step instructions to, for example, create an account or post. I used a lot of screen captures for this purpose, but you should be prepared for situations where a student’s only preexisting social media account had to be set up by a sibling. If you are allowing students to use different forms of social media, consider including genres of writing that work across platforms, like infographics. You can then scaffold smaller parts of the project, regardless of what platform your students are using. I found it helpful to break down typical social media moves for my students and then compare these moves with more traditional academic moves. I used John Swales’s work on genres for this purpose. As it turns out, summary is just as important in social media as it is in the academy. This approach also allows students to clearly see how this project directly addresses the objectives for the course and how the moves found in social media relate to the more academic writing that they are expected to produce.
- Give them a chance to review their work. I ask my students to write an editorial about their own social media campaigns. After having them research a publication that might review a campaign in the field they have chosen, I ask them to write an editorial about their own campaign from the perspective of a writer at the publication. I have found that the public nature of social media helps them address the strategies they are using to communicate and not just the surface features of the text they have written.
- Try to advocate for building social media into the curriculum. Social media is controversial, but its use in the classroom is growing. Institutions needs to be strategic about how and where students are introduced to it.
Social media is certainly not a perfect tool and requires that an instructor be adaptable to turn it into an educational one. My goals for our composition program’s foray into social media have largely been met, and with foresight and training we have been able to help our students navigate responses to their work that have been less than ideal.
My students’ ability to address an audience other than their instructor has paid off in some unexpected ways. Some of my students have found online communities and organizations that support their ideals and aspirations, while others have come to see as unsettling the number of lies and fallacies swirling around topics they care about. I have found both outcomes valuable. I am not teaching social media to advocate for the positive impact of it; I am teaching it so my students can better understand the demands an audience places on their writing. They can choose which audience they want to engage, but the situation to which they are responding can never be entirely of their own making. Social media gives them the chance to feel that they are entering a conversation with a wide array of stakeholders rather than whispering to an audience of one.
Abe, Paige, and Nickolas A. Jordan. “Integrating Social Media into the Classroom Curriculum.” About Campus, vol. 18, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 16–20.
Eodice, Michele, et al. The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education. Utah State UP, 2017.
Feldman, Ann Merle. Making Writing Matter: Composition in the Engaged University. State U of New York P, 2008.
Poore, Megan. Using Social Media in the Classroom: A Best Practice Guide. Sage Publications, 2016.
Swales, John. Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge UP, 1990.