LONDON, BRITISH LIBRARY YATES THOMPSON 10 f. 33v
Emerging Medievalisms: Twitter as Medieval Media
Kenna L. Olsen
It is that time of year – we’ve started a new semester at my institution. Faculty have met their classes, students have organized their schedules, and all have stood in a plethora of queues required for coffee and books. It’s a thoughtful time of year, as several faculty wish each other and students “Happy New Year,” all the while imagining how this time, absolutely this term, their course syllabi will be smooth, streamlined, and delightfully encouraging of learning.
As I’ve written about before, this website, Emerging Medievalisms: Method, Media, Manuscript, enables me to play with the concept of emergence in the classroom and for medieval studies. What this means, is that I’ve spent much of the last couple of years thinking about pedagogy and different teaching methodologies. The first blog post focussed on sound, within Medieval English texts, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, within the classroom, in forms of dialogue and silence, and without the classroom, especially in the form of podcasts. This blog post focuses on social media for undergraduate learning — specifically Twitter, and Medieval English literary studies.
I recently began thinking about the sustainability of medieval studies, and wondering about how various forms of media might encourage sustainability for the discipline, but also in the classroom more generally. During this time, I introduced Twitter to my senior-level seminar students. My thinking was that students, if introduced to “Academic Twitter,” specifically #medievaltwitter, students might be encouraged by the often dynamic conversations amongst and between various medievalists across the world. I’m sensitive to the fact that I am the only medievalist in my department, and only one of a small handful at my institution. By introducing students to #medievaltwitter, I felt I might expose them to medievalists of different training, background, interests, research methodologies, and more. I also felt that Twitter in the classroom might be a way to bolster accessibility for my classroom — what if some students, who might usually feel reticent to discuss their thoughts in the classroom, felt comfortable engaging via the medium of Twitter?
This experiment was an enormous success. We decided on a class hashtag (#ecomru), and some students would post during class, and others outside of class. Often the posts were specific to course material and discussions, and other times they were relaxed, comical, or even confusing. But what became clear was that the class community grew beyond the specific walls and times of the class itself. Students also tagged internationally recognized scholars, and received feedback on their term projects, building those conversations into their own learning. I swore I’d never go back.
Since then, I’ve continued to invite students to use Twitter in my classes, and I’ve even insisted that they use it for specific projects. I’ve had courses with fun hashtags: #meadhall_MRU, and #medievalschoolbus. This term’s classes have chosen #meadlounge_MRU and #mrusondryfolk. In #meadhall_MRU, students, all of us inspired by Elaine Treharne’s Beowulf in 100 Tweets, were invited to Tweet the entirety of King Horn. What several students produced — in general, they were asked to reduce 25 lines of poetry to a 240 character Tweet — was sophisticated explication and thoughtful analysis that my more “traditional” close reading assignments didn’t always generate.
I haven’t yet had a student ask me to stop with the Twitter — I’ve only heard positive, encouraging feedback. Because we are at the beginning of term, and many of us are thinking about teaching and learning, our pedagogies and methodologies, I asked a student, Tia Christoffersen, incredible BA Honours English student (and an ace person, generally!), to reflect on Twitter in the medieval classroom and to offer her perspective on its use in the undergraduate classroom.
Here is Tia’s contribution. I’m absolutely delighted to include it amongst the Emerging Medievalisms blog:
Twitter in the Classroom: A Student’s Perspective
by Tia Christoffersen
The benefits and detriments of social media are hotly debated. As our society continues to shift into a more digital landscape, a sort of stigma has surrounded the likes of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These platforms are often blamed for the “detachment” of younger generations. Most of us acknowledge that social media doesn’t just exist to circulate videos of dogs, pictures of food, and memes (although I am a steadfast supporter of all those things) because it also maintains connections with people who live in other countries, keeps people up to date with current events, and promotes businesses. However, one little-mentioned use of social media is for education, which I wasn’t aware of until I was a student of Dr. Kenna Olsen. In my experience at Mount Royal University, most professors are quick to admonish cell phone use in the classroom, meaning social media as part of the course would be out of the question. As a book-obsessed English major, I’ll admit I was skeptical of how using Twitter could enhance my understanding of medieval literature, but I was quickly converted.
In three of the classes I took with Dr. Olsen, she instructed us to use Twitter as an additional source of engagement with the course readings and themes. Both during and outside of class time, my classmates and I shared our ideas about lectures, group presentations, and scholarly articles. The platform also afforded us the opportunity to add levity to the course with clever uses of gifs and the creation of memes with medieval imagery. All of these unique forms of interaction increased the levels of student engagement. Our conversations were filtered through a hashtag made up by the class (my favourite was #medievalschoolbus) to help keep track of one another’s tweets.
This type of discussion encouraged me to express my thoughts and respond to my classmates’ ideas to a further extent than solely classroom-based discussions. I have been in classes where professors try to foster this type of continued discussion through the use of online message boards, but I found Twitter to be much more dynamic. Not only is the platform inherently social, but it also allowed us to incorporate videos, images, and links to articles. We were also introduced to the possibility of engaging with academics via Twitter; some of my classmates even reached out to a scholar whose work we studied and received a response. Using Twitter in this way was exciting and connective, deepened my relationships with my classmates, and enhanced our in-class discussions.
In Early Medieval Literature, Dr. Olsen assigned the same sort of Twitter-based exercise, but we were given another assignment in addition. As a class, we were going to translate King Horn, an early Middle English romance, to modern English entirely through tweets. I was both excited and daunted by the task at hand; using social media for such an ambitious project felt so new to me and logistically, it seemed impossible to capture a 1546-line Middle English text on Twitter.
With only two 240-character tweets to capture the essence of fifty lines, this assignment proved to be a real craft. After studying my assigned lines and determining whether my tweet would be written in poetry or prose (I think I landed somewhere in the proem vicinity), I had to closely re-read the passage to decide which features were most pertinent to include in my translation and what I thought most deserved emphasis. Writing the tweet and staying within the character limit was a unique challenge; while I managed to whittle down the descriptions and dialogue, I had to use emojis as stand-ins for some words that couldn’t fit. For instance, I used a crown emoji to mean ‘king.’ I also used a gif to provide visual emphasis for an aspect of my tweet I thought seemed too subtle. While the flourishes of social media, like emojis and gifs, aren’t necessary for translating a text, they helped to capture the nuances in King Horn in an entertaining way. Who wouldn’t want to make a connection between Dwight from The Office and the central character of a thirteenth century romance?
By the end of the semester, #kinghornmru had nearly 60 tweets, which we then read chronologically (and you can too!). Collectively re-telling King Horn via Twitter was one of the most invigorating projects I have ever completed in my time as an undergraduate student. I was encouraged to interact with a text in a manner that I have never before encountered. I relished the opportunity to take a creative approach to an English literature course, and to see how my classmates and Dr. Olsen each used different techniques for their tweets. This assignment was engaging, challenging, and fun, and I hope more professors across a variety of disciplines embrace the instructional possibilities of social media in their classes.