Contributor: Elaine Childs
School Affiliation: University of Tennessee
My English 101 class at the University of Tennessee is called “‘It Was Like That When I Got Here’: The Simpsons and Postmodern America,” and I’ve taught it three times so far. This year, in order to standardize first-semester composition at UT, the English department established a sequence of required assignments that emphasize rhetoric. This change created a need to update my course requirements to reflect the new emphasis, and one of the ways I did this was by making use of the social-networking website, Facebook.
One of my biggest concerns with the new format was how I might make the practice of rhetoric accessible and familiar to my students so that they would recognize it as something they do, not merely an artificial exercise deployed in order to earn a grade. I wanted to create an informal online network through which students could communicate with me and with each other in a comfortable, quick-and-easy medium; I wanted to take rhetoric out of the classroom and locate it in their space. Blackboard seemed too impersonal and “academic” for my purposes, so I created a group on Facebook.com called “English 101: The Simpsons and Postmodern America.” Facebook is the seventh most-visited website on the Internet (http://www.facebook.com/about.php), and that kind of familiarity was what I was hoping for. Many students have also told me that they check Facebook more often than their email and that they spend a lot of time there, so I expected an arena with a high degree of attendance.
Facebook membership is no longer limited to high school and college students, so anyone can join. Facebook groups can be made by any member, and the membership of these groups can be regulated by the creator. Each group has its own profile site that has a description of the group, a discussion board, and a bulletin board-like “wall” on which members may post comments. This wall is immediately visible when the site is accessed (i.e., it isn’t divided into discussion threads). Also, group members have the option of sending a message to all group members at once with one click instead of going through the series of menus that Blackboard has. This was a time-saver for me and, although few students used this feature, they used it more frequently than I have ever had students use the Blackboard email system.
I had intended to use the site primarily as a discussion board; I created a topic each week and required my students to post at least once a week. I asked questions intended to create a meta-class discussion or to apply course concepts to everyday life, like “What’s one example of a rhetorical appeal that you noticed in your daily life this week?” I also made topics that announced new assignments or provided useful websites about The Simpsons. I had hoped that the discussion board would take on a life of its own and that students would create topics that asked questions or created a horizontal discourse among students, but that didn’t happen.
Although I often incorporated the discussion board in face-to-face class discussions, I don’t think I gave students enough encouragement to start their own topics. Also, I didn’t provide sufficient motivation for students to visit the group’s site more often than their required, once-weekly post. Next time I use Facebook in a class, I plan to have a weekly “Facebook hour,” so students will know when I’m accessible. I believe that students will cohere around that hour and that this will help instigate the horizontal communication that I was hoping for.
The most successful aspect of the group was the wall. Students posted informal comments and questions there and, because it was the most visible communication-function on the group's site, I was able to answer these questions publically instead of responding to multiple emails. Occasionally students even answered each others’ questions, so the wall had a degree of informal, horizontal exchange. For example, one student used the wall to ask, “Since class was canceled today, do we still need to do the homework for Tuesday?” I replied that they should do the regularly-scheduled assignment for Tuesday, and a different student asked, “What assignment?” Before I could tell him to check his syllabus, the first student said, “Read the syllabus. It tells what you need to do.”
While not a specific feature of the group, Facebook’s messaging system struck me as being far more student- and teacher-friendly than email. Students could contact me through the group site by clicking on my name instead of looking up my email address, and Facebook messages do not get “lost.” Moreoever, since the students are on Facebook so frequently and they can actually see my picture when they message me, messaging seemed to make me far more accessible, and I was able to address issues about extensions, good sources, etc. with much less formality.
I am convinced that placing course material in students’ social space promotes the demystification of writing, the university, and the instructor. Facebook’s informality led to bad manners and disrespect very infrequently and certainly not more often than occurs in email exchanges. Moreover, those issues may be dealt with more productively on Facebook because discipline becomes less an exercise of power and more of a gentle reminder about social codes and recognition of expertise. Of course, it is foreseeable that students might misuse Facebook’s informality, as one student did when she messaged me to say that I had “overreacted” by failing her for transgressing the university’s plagiarism policy and that she didn’t think I should report her. Like any variety of innapropriate student conduct, however, excessive informality on Facebook may be managed by creating clear boundaries and firmly maintaining them. All in all, my experience with using Facebook as a teaching tool was unequivocably positive.