Twitter and the TA

by Elizabeth Gough-Gordon.

Like many people, I was initially skeptical about the practical applications of the social networking website Twitter. Other websites like Facebook already incorporate the ability for the user to post updates of varying length, so why a website devoted to limited communication? After regularly using the site for over six months, I have changed my point of view and am convinced that Twitter has the potential to be a valuable tool for graduate students in a variety of uses and applications, including teaching, networking and promotion/presence.

The premise of Twitter is simple: answer the question of “what's happening?” in 140 characters or less. Like other social networking websites, you can also set up a feed for a streamlined list of other users' “tweets” (the official term for Twitter updates). While the character limit may seem like a restriction, it can also be beneficial. I tend to be a bit verbose in emails to students, muddling the important points and leaving me wondering how many students actually read them. The character limitations force the user to be short and to the point.

If choosing to use Twitter professionally—whether for teaching or research—be sure boundaries are set between personal and professional tweets. Using your Twitter page to vent about students or your adviser may come back to haunt you in this age when information never truly vaporizes from the Internet. I resolved this issue by creating a personal account with updates only visible to people I authorize and a publicly viewable account for professional networking. If you have doubts about whether a tweet is appropriate for a professional profile, err on the side of caution and save it for your (protected) Facebook page.

What can Twitter do for you? As much or as little as you want. Here are a few suggestions for use.

Teaching
If you use a course management website such as eCollege or Sakai in teaching, Twitter probably isn't necessary as a communication tool between yourself and your students. If students are accustomed to one particular means of communication for messages or updates, suddenly incorporating Twitter into your repertoire may cause a great deal of confusion for your students. However, if you don't currently use eCollege or Sakai, Twitter may be a simple option.

One positive aspect about using Twitter is that it allows the instructor to communicate information to students outside of email. If you find that students aren't receiving your emails (or simply aren't reading them), Twitter is a possible solution to the inbox clutter. From the start of the semester, remind students to check the Twitter page for the course on a daily basis. The updates could be as simple as “don't forget—exam one week from today!” or “Johnson reading dropped for Wed class.” Twitter is also an excellent method for sharing relevant websites, news and articles with your students; if the URL is too long for the character limit, bitly, TinyURL, or Google URL Shortener will adapt the URL into a more condensed web address.

Besides being a streamlined means of sharing information, Twitter is also a way to engage students outside of the classroom. Once students sign up for an account, they can reply to your updates (as well as updates from others in the class). You may be pleasantly surprised to see that students who are normally quiet during class discussions may be more comfortable with the online means of communication rather than the traditional classroom experience.

Networking
This area may be the most controversial means of Twitter use, depending on your area of study and research. Twitter is an excellent way to connect with students and faculty at colleges and universities worldwide. One difficulty for graduate students is in connecting with others outside of conferences and meetings, but Twitter can be a solution to this. Indeed, Twitter has emerged as a great way for real-time reactions to presentations; depending on your discipline, some conferences have official and unofficial tags for searching Twitter updates, such as “ICA10” (for the International Communication Association 2010 conference).

Why is using Twitter to post instant updates and reactions to conference presentations controversial? The issue of intellectual property and social networking is still new and largely unregulated in academia. While my field of media studies is largely welcoming to Twitter as a tool for engagement and networking at conferences, other areas and organizations frown upon the practice when it comes to unpublished data. For example, the American Society for Cell Biology specifically states, “The ASCB welcomes the use of Twitter and other forms of online communication at its Annual Meeting. However, replication of data interfering with individuals' opportunity to publish is prohibited” (American Society for Cell Biology).

There is a certain level of etiquette (or “netiquette”) in using Twitter at conferences to avoid online and real-life social embarrassment; one professor recommends that you “Don’t post during talks. Don’t 'oversimplify' speakers’ remarks. Don’t make personal comments” (M. Parry 2009). While you may think that your comment about a keynote speaker's inability to recognize paragraph breaks while reading directly from their speech printout is hilarious, it may not reflect well on your professionalism.

Promotion and Presence
One frustration that I have heard expressed repeatedly by faculty is that graduate students are often shy about promoting themselves and their achievements. Modesty has a time and a place, but awards and accomplishments should also be made known to more than your committee members and buried within your CV.

In addition, graduate students cannot afford to not have a professional presence on the Internet. In fact, one of the most helpful pieces of advice that I have read was from a search committee member's Twitter page: “Tip to job applicants: If you don't have a website, if you aren't googleable, if you don't have an online presence, you don't exist” (D. Parry 2009). Twitter will not replace a traditional CV, but it does show future employers that you are able to use social networking for more than just posting vacation photos. If building a website from scratch seems overwhelming, Twitter is one method for establishing a professional online presence with ease.

As is the case with may social networking websites, many users are quickly engaged but then slowly cease using the website due to the work and effort necessary for upkeep. One significant downside to using Twitter in a teaching and professional capacity is that it is work and requires time and effort. Much like the early stages of writing a blog, you may ask yourself, “why am I writing these tweets when no one is listening?” Even if you think that you have no readers, you may be surprised at how your audience can build over time. Just as your graduate career is built one course at a time, a Twitter page is built one tweet at a time.

You can read Elizabeth's Twitter page at http://twitter.com/e_gg.