Tweets and Twerps for Learning: “Twitter Humour for Education.” By Kenna L. Olsen and Samantha Purchase


Tweets and Twerps for Learning

Kenna L. Olsen

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues well into the Fall 2020 semester, many of us are experiencing our lives — our work, our play, our socialising, our reading, our watching — virtually. Several of us are teaching and learning virtually, and the internet and our inboxes abound with tips for teaching, debates on “synchronous” versus “asynchronous,” and tips for managing virtual breakout rooms. Educators share thoughts with one another on how to maximise student engagement while trying to not feel as though they are talking heads on a Google Meet, while students try to connect with their colleagues through a monitor.

The concept of connection is an important one for teaching and learning. Students must feel connected to the material, and while individual connection is a necessary goal, a connection via community is crucial. When students can discuss, for instance, the nuance between the tenets of guilt or shame in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with one another, their professor, and other scholars, they gain various perspectives that encourage their own critical queries and arguments.

But how does one find, and sincerely engage with various views and voices, when our modes of connection are now necessarily mediated via individual experiences and machines? Before the pandemic, I experimented with using Twitter in and out of my classes, both to support teaching and learning of course material, but also to encourage conversation. I am aware that students engage and learn medieval texts on my course syllabi via (mostly) my own perspectives, and I wanted to encourage my students to engage with my colleagues, beyond reading polished, researched, work available in peer reviewed journals and books. I started asking students to find academic conversations on medieval topics and texts on Twitter. I found ways of incorporating Twitter to support learning medieval texts. And students became (for the most part!) excited. Excited learning is, I’m convinced, successful learning.

Below, you’ll find Samantha Purchase’s (former honours student, and current Research Assistant extraordinaire) thoughts on the benefits of using Twitter for learning. Samantha has incorporated Twitter into much of her university learning, and she offers some provoking thoughts on how such modes of “modern” culture can enhance our experience of textualies and critical engagement.

Twitter Humour for Education

by Samantha Purchase

Twitter has become a staple of my academic process. Whenever I am interested in something, whether it be medieval or contemporary American Literature, I am almost guaranteed to find someone else engaging with a given text on Twitter, usually with humour. For my own English Honours thesis, I used this tweet as an essential provocation for my project, using it to situate my thoughts and theories on Game of Thrones and memorialization:

Although facetious, this Tweet posits an interesting connection between the products we consume as entertainment and how historical periods are remembered in the collective conscious. Its humour provides an accessible way into having an in-depth conversation about the nuances of texts, without the typical paywalls or inaccessibility that is associated with academia. Some of the greatest academic minds are usually accessible via Twitter, allowing conversations about texts, articles, news and crucially, current events to be discussed more freely and with far more humour then one finds in traditional scholarship. It can also offer an introductory glimpse into the many fun things about medieval studies, such as the very strange and usually incredibly humorous art: 

Since I follow a plethora of medieval scholars, there is usually an abundance of Tweets about medieval texts utilizing whatever meme format is popular at the time. For instance, last fall there was a popular trend in listing memes, where someone writes a comparison between two things who seem dissimilar for comedic value. Medieval Twitter went wild for this format, of which this is my personal favourite:

What memes like this do is to encourage discussion about texts—some of which are considered archaic, inaccessible, like medieval texts—in a comprehensive and obtainable way in which students, scholars and non-academics alike can enjoy. Someone who is not familiar with Grendel or Beowulf could be interested in finding out more about it after viewing a Tweet like this. For myself, the Tweet’s conclusion about Santa Claus and Grendel provoked a beguiling connection to environment in the text that I had never considered before. 

​Twitter meme accounts also encourage creativity; one can follow Margery Kempe (@RealMargery), and Chaucer (@LeVostreGC) who both type in Middle English, often times commenting on current events or reciting song lyrics.  I am always happy to see either one of those two on my timeline, as it keeps my Middle English translation skills sharp and is terrifically funny: 

Twitter has the potential to become the great equalizer for academia, allowing individuals to become immersed in texts and culture beyond papers and journals. Dr. Kenna Olsen’s Twitter projects for her classes gesture to this point; to date she has had students tweet both King Horn and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Students had fun using Twitter and internet language to illustrate their points, while also learning to contextualize texts in a concise and nuanced manner. When I tweeted King Horn in 2018, I learned a great deal about writing concisely, a skill set that is fundamental in university writing and beyond. Projects like these encourage students to approach texts in new and immersive ways, emboldening creativity and generating conversation, while also developing skills that are indispensableto student’s futures, no matter what field they choose. 

As we sit on the other side of the socially distant reality, Twitter has grown in its urgency. Amongst all the “doom-scrolling” I do on a daily basis, I am also happy to see humour being used as a way into learning. While medieval studies continues to work through both the realities of living through a pandemic as well as shedding the racist and outdated terminology that date the field, Twitter continues to be the cutting edge source for comedic—and crucially, informative—commentary.

Since everyone is at home, Twitter has become the place to go if one is seeking deeper and meaningful information on current events; current events that also directly impact the future and sustainability medieval studies. The ongoing struggle against the co-option of medieval runes and symbols by white supremacists has reached a new fervour in light of the protests surrounding George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths (among countless others) worldwide. Counter-protestors have been spotted wearing medieval inspired armour, with flags emblazoned with symbols found on medieval manuscripts. Medievalists have been actively refuting many white supremacist’s misappropriation of these symbols in real time, using Twitter as a tool for political activism and critical engagement. 

As the social internet continues to impact daily lives, so too will it impact education. Twitter is a tool that can be used to engage with texts in new and exciting ways, while also sharpening communicative and writing skills. It can also act as a tool against misappropriation that threatens to darken the field. Through humour, students can find medieval texts more accessible, exciting and ultimately, sustainable. Meme culture becomes a conduit for students and academics alike to share their thoughts in a creatively challenging and concise way, while also giving the benefit of a good laugh.