Facing Up to Facebook in Literary Studies

Social Media Is Not the Enemy!

The modelling of best practices outside the classroom and the normalisation of private reading. Vulnerability inside the classroom and peer-to-peer relationships as the key to improving students’ engagement with literature. These are all ways of addressing the classroom ghettoisation of literature and its consequences on students’ reading practices and habits, but there’s also another, perhaps unexpectedly successful way of doing that.

First, in the classroom, I introduce my students to a group discussion structure known simply as “Yes/No/But.” In somewhat the same way that my teaching persona encourages students to challenge or correct him by making broad, sweeping statements, I begin the discussion with a blanket proposition that is up for contention. When I’m teaching Shakespeare, for example, I might start with something like this:

Othello’s suspicions of Desdemona are motivated much more by his private insecurities than by the jealousy stirred up by Iago.

In any event, the statement usually makes a claim relating to the relative value of two things placed side by side, as insecurities and jealousy are placed side by side in the above instance.

Next, I tell my students that they can respond to this statement in one of three ways. They can take the easy option and agree with it (“Yes”) and point to some textual evidence that supports it. They can take the slightly more difficult contrary position and disagree with it (“No”) and point to some textual evidence that undermines or invalidates it. Or, best and most difficult of all, they can qualify it (“But”) by suggesting that it is partly valid but not wholly so, or by suggesting that it is wholly valid but only up to a certain point, and by supplying evidence to support the qualification. I then tell my students that I will be keeping track of their responses with a points-based reward system — one point for a “Yes,” two points for a “No,” three points for a “But” — and then I explain that there’s a slight catch to the way the discussion must flow. Only the first responder can respond to my initiating statement. The second responder has to respond to the statement of the first responder with a new “Yes” or “No” or “But,” and the third responder has to respond to the second, and the fourth to the third, and so on.

It’s a lively discussion format intended to achieve three simple aims. It should, firstly, help to make students comfortable with simple “point-evidence” argumentation strategies. It should also accustom them to anticipating possible objections to the judgments they make, and ultimately — ideally — it should lead them to accept and internalise a multiplicity of competing views on any given point of contention. And since everyone has an opinion on almost any subject you care to name, even if they don’t know it at first and especially when a discussion veers towards consideration of right and wrong, it doesn’t take long for me to step back and watch the claims and counterclaims start flying around the classroom.

What’s really great about this discussion format, though, is that it so easily serves as a tool with which to take literary studies outside of the classroom. If it’s the case that peer-to-peer networks improve learning outcomes insofar as they involve the modelling of best practices in the social sphere, and if it’s the case that students themselves maintain these networks outside the classroom, then integrating a “Yes/No/But” discussion into the conversational flows of those networks should give it the extracurricular presence necessary for students of advanced literature. But where exactly do students maintain a network into which it might be integrated? The answer, clearly, is Facebook.

Here’s what I do. At the start of a new academic year, I create a Facebook page for my group of students and I require all my students to “like” it. I don’t get myself personally involved in any way, leaving my personal profile out of the entire process and simply establishing myself as the administrator of the group page. Then, after I have familiarised my students with the “Yes/No/But” discussion format, I move homework online and use the Facebook page to post discussion prompts. As is the rule in real life, only the first responder can respond to what I write, and everyone who responds thereafter must build on the comments of the person who responded before them. If the time between the posting of one discussion prompt and the next physical class is short, I’ll make it a requirement that everyone must post one or two comments, always with textual evidence. If there’s a long time between the prompt and the next class, I’ll require everyone to accumulate a certain number of points and then I’ll let them take the gamble: lots of simple, unqualified responses, or just a handful of nuanced ones.

The true beauty of this setup is threefold. First, given the way that posts on Facebook pages tend to operate, each new comment will push the post back to the top of the feed of everyone who likes the page. Most students will therefore see one or two new contributions to this unfolding conversation each and every time they log into Facebook, so that the analysis and appreciation of literature has truly hacked their life outside the classroom and collapsed the boundaries between the academic and social spheres. Second, students seeing these contributions will not be engaging with a work of literature directly or alone, but will instead be engaging with their peers in a conversation about a work of literature. This means that engaging with literature in a social context is effectively normalised and that each student’s peers are involved in the process of its normalisation. Third, and best of all —

— this exercise isn’t even really about ensuring that students engage with literature in this way. What it’s really about is using the additional capabilities of the Facebook page to further normalise literature and engage students with it. When someone “likes” a Facebook page, his or her Facebook feed lights up with whatever is posted to that page, and I make it a point to post much more to my Facebook page than just discussion prompts. I also post excerpts from and links to recent reviews of contemporary literature, and I post alerts for extracurricular literary events and discussions, and I repost the posts of local and international reading and writing groups. In essence, I co-opt the work of people for whom engaging with literature is an essential part of their private lives, and I put it right in front of the eyes of my students. I do this recurrently, repeatedly, day in and day out, in an online venue that looks nothing like a structured learning environment — a venue that students access habitually during their social time — in which it is also embraced by their peers in a way that gives it social value above and beyond its academic value.