A Problem With Edu-Twitter

I’ll begin with a confession: On the first day of school, I will hand out my “syllabus”, and discuss it with my students. It will be among the first things that I do with them this year, as it has been for the past 12 years. I will make sure there is enough time allotted to this introductory moment in my course so that all of the students in my classes have as good an understanding as possible of what my expectations are for them, the course, and all the rest of the things that a syllabus typically covers.

Perhaps the above paragraph confuses you. You may look it over and think that what I am describing is a typical “first-day” class experience, with nothing all that controversial included. In which case, your social media is somewhat different from mine. Because in my world (and particularly in that part of my 1500+ person twitter-stream that I have come to label “edu-twitter”), I am apparently describing an experience that is completely anathema to teaching “today’s students,” and toward fostering a “student-centered classroom.” If edu-twitter is to be believed, I should be doing something — anything — other than having a conversation about how a course, where my students are about to spend large tracts of the next 181 days, is going to work.

Twitter is an interesting thing for teachers. In many ways, it’s revolutionary, allowing for an exponential expansion of one’s professional network. I can easily remember how amazed I was to discover that such a thing could exist when I first really “got it” back in 2009. It’s pretty great, and it is without a peer. But as I’ve spent more time on the platform, I have increasingly come to realize that it has problems. In talking about problems here, I don’t mean the inevitable structural issues of talking about the complex work of being an educator in a 140-character medium. What I mean are problems with the philosophy of edu-twitter, issues of argumentation and logical coherence. And it’s these issues that I think are the most problematic for teachers on twitter (or at least for me).

There are several, but the one that’s most galling to me recently is the seeming lack of room for doubt. The recent theme in my edu twitter-stream about moving away from a traditional first-day classroom experience is only the most recent example I can point to. Clearly, there may be virtue in doing something “different” from the traditional structure on day one. But the key word in that sentence is may. Different teachers are going to do different things on the first day for their different groups of students. Different students are going to want/need different first day experiences. With that in mind, is it really so difficult to accept that a wide variety of approaches to setting up a class can be employed by a wide variety of teachers? In the same way that someone can think that something different from the expectation should be done on day one, can’t someone else think there is value in meeting that expectation? It shouldn’t be hard to hold both of these thoughts in a cautious teacher mind. And yet, edu-twitter suggests otherwise. If your edu-twitter stream looks like mine, it’s largely tweets decrying traditionalist approaches and making breathtakingly wide claims about what any one group of students will or will not be receiving in total from a teacher, based on the choices made for the day one experience. There is no room in this space for even a cursory nod of the head to other ways of being a teacher, much less any real willingness to engage with folks who feel differently.

This is not a problem localized to discussions of how we should or should not start our classes. I see the same themes of overly grand declamations, and little room for doubt around many of the conversations that happen on edu-twitter. I don’t see a lot of reasoned discourse, just a lot of insisting. More often than not, edu-twitter seems to be a place of binary alternatives. We are told that we must choose one path or another, but we can not live in the space between them (as if we all did not spend all of our teacher lives living within that space).

What makes this all the more frustrating is that the behavior of edu-twitter is not the fault of any one person, or even a handful. It’s an emergent property of the system. In the same way that the behavior of an ant swarm results from countless tiny actions of individual ants, so do the themes of edu-twitter develop from the countless conversations occurring on the platform. It’s the sum total of innumerable blog posts and retweeted teacher memes. In other words, it’s no one’s fault but our own. That being the case, perhaps the best thing we can all do is take a moment now and then to acknowledge that ours is not the only valid perspective on a particular practice in this complex field, and that all of us are trying to do the same thing, however different our approach.