Writing Centers and Twitter: How We Use this ‘Weird’ Space and How Students Perceive It

Jennifer Marciniak, Assistant Director, University of Louisville Virtual Writing Center

When I use Twitter, I use it for a wide variety of information. My interests are varied, and, therefore, my Twitter feed bounces from what’s going on in higher education to the latest trade rumors in Major League Baseball.  I get the Groupons and other “slick deals” of the day, as well as headlines from oil and gas industry newspapers and blogs that commiserate with one another on the newest objections to hydraulic “fracking.”  You’ll even find Usain Bolt tweeting photos of himself at post-Olympic parties alongside updates regarding The Walking Dead and Grimm.  Yes, my Twitter feed is eclectic, to say the least.

However, interspersed among all these posts are those from writing centers at other universities. My position in the Virtual Writing Center at U of L demands I keep up with what’s being discussed in terms of online writing and writing centers as a whole, and for someone who is a perpetual headline-skimmer like me, Twitter is hard to beat. In terms of writing centers, there are the regular business-oriented tweets like University of Wisconsin –Madison’s call for students: “New badgers: stop by the UW-Madison Writing Center for individual writing instruction, group workshops & more!” Then there are “emergency tweets,” like University of Central Missouri Writing Center’s last minute change in plans that was cross-posted to UCM’s main Twitter feed for maximum effectiveness: “@UCentralMO writing center has temporarily been moved to Humph 119 Conference Room. Hopefully we will be back in #humph116 later today.”  These types of Tweets are basic bits of information that students need to know in order to find and understand the Writing Center’s “place” at the University.

While most writing centers use Twitter to get the word out, there seems to be only so much a Writing Center can do to get people to follow their feed, or in terms of Facebook, “like” their page. Even when considering how the Uof L Writing Center could benefit from Twitter, I really couldn’t think of anything past the above UW-Madison and UCM examples. But further research shows that some writing centers are starting to push against the business-oriented Twitter post, and are starting to get more creative with what they tweet.  West Virginia University uses Twitter to post helpful blogs and videos like this one for students to refer to once they leave the writing center: “New blog post about interpreting instructor feedback.” Others are using more visual forms of marketing to promote their services. The University of Kansas sometimes uses internet memes to market their center, such as this most recent one with a viral photograph of a marathon runner: “Even Ridiculously Photogenic Guy knows the power of the Writing Center.”  The meshing of academic and social discourse arguably shows the writing center’s willingness to reach into dimensions utilized and accepted by the demographic toward which the center needs to market.  Writing centers can also do more than just report available tutor times and promote writing workshops. Memes are visual and often shared and/or retweeted across the social media genres. Because the University of Kansas meme was also cross-posted to Facebook, the University of Kentucky Writing Center, a “friend” of the University of Kansas Writing Center, shared the meme with social media friends and followers, who will most likely share as well.  I just retweeted it myself.

Some of the most remarkable writing center tweets are not even by the writing centers, but instead the students themselves. Student voices are by far the most heard on twitter when searching the key term writing center, out-tweeting writing centers 2-to-1.  Many are positive, giving props to what the center has to offer. One student, Michelle W, tweeted of her writing center experience: “Coming to the writing center and there’s candy, play dough, and markers on the tables #lovecollege.”  Another said, “The writing Center about to be My bff today.” Sometimes, though, student tweets show us that as Writing Center personnel we need to be aware of our actions and comments. Chelby KC tweeted about her not-so-hot experience in her writing center: “I love how there are a ton of people on the walk-in waiting list for the writing center and there are 5 staff members standing around.”  Others, like this tweet by Scuba Steve, are just a bit more in need of interpretation: “Idk why my Professor wants us to get our papers checked by the Writing Center…we’re in college for a reason #smh.” There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? Okay, well, publicity that displays a multi-faceted response to the Writing Center’s necessity to student learning, anyway.  And while you would never hear me advocate Team_Marti’s choice to my students, the value of one-on-one assistance sometimes warrants some balancing of priorities: “I shoulda skipped this class x went to the writing center. Tuh !”

This is just a sample of how writing centers use Twitter and what people are saying about writing centers on Twitter. While it does give us an idea of how we can use this particular social networking site to market our writing center services, it is important to consider questions of oversaturation and too-much cross-posting, as well bordering on “creepy treehouse” syndrome. Another question to ask is do we even need it? Will it be another social networking tool that fades into the ether? Some writing centers have not updated their Twitter feeds in months, begging the question of whether or not it was deemed effective or possibly not used as effectively as it could have been, and therefore abandoned.

I know what I use Twitter for. If you use Twitter, I would like to know your thoughts on how your university programs, office and services (like the writing center) use Twitter. Do you think it is effective or intruding on your personal space? What do you wish the University would use it for? If you do not use Twitter, I would really like to know about your aversion to it. The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 2010) describes Twitter as a “weird space” – that people either do not use it, or they go “all in.” That’s a pretty spot-on description, in my opinion. On my Twitter feed today actor Neil Patrick Harris was tweeting pictures of his dinner while mere seconds prior a digital media scholar posted an expletive-filled retweet about hating Blackboard. And that was about five minutes after Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps tweeted yet another picture of him holding a huge fish on some island in the Indian Ocean. “Weird” is right.

Jennifer Marciniak is a 3rd year PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at U of L. She is the Assistant Director of the U of L Virtual Writing Center. You can follower her on Twitter at @tululoo.

4 thoughts on “Writing Centers and Twitter: How We Use this ‘Weird’ Space and How Students Perceive It

  1. Hi, Jennifer. Thanks for this post! It is just what I’ve been thinking about. Because I work for an online writing center at an online university, Twitter seems a natural extension of the classroom space. Therefore, we try to move beyond the necessary announcements and links to a place of instruction. I have this vision of Twitter as a classroom in and of itself–with an ongoing conversation and exercises in concision, funny “grammar mistakes in real life” pictures, and other tidbits.

    We are not really there yet. Students don’t always react the way we think they will and sometimes there is no reaction at all, which is disappointing. I think we need to tweet at precisely the right time and even offer a bit of Twitter instruction. I know it took me a while to understand the hashtags and the @mentions. Twitter can be a confusing world if you did not grow up with social media–and most of our students are in their 40s. Our Twitter account is https://twitter.com/WUWritingCenter if you are interested.

    Hillary Wentworth
    Writing Specialist
    Walden University Writing Center

  2. Thanks for sharing this.

    Re: “basic bits of information that students need to know”
    You might be right there, but I can’t help but wonder: How many of your students actually use Twitter for learning and professional development? Do you know about empirical data on students’ use of #edtech in such a way? I am most curious. All I can say about my immediate context at the University of Hamburg, Germany is: students don’t use it, neither for getting the latest update on Lady Gaga, nor for being in touch with their peers, let alone the world. Rather than that, they are often sceptics of digital communication (which is not a bad thing), some are even afraid (which I think is quite bad) – especially of making mistakes the whole world can see.
    And from a user perspective: Tweets about the daily business of a #writingcenter, I guess, will hardly foster a professional dialogue about what we do. To be a bit more precise: As a global reader I don’t care much about which room a writing center in Rhajastan occupies for the next two weeks and to which rooms they’ll be moving after that. It just doesn’t refer to me, so for me tweets like that are spam. This means that for me to “follow” a writing center on Twitter, this center would also have to post many other tweets that get to me, Tweets of a more substancial nature than daily announcements. Only then a writing center shows that it is really interested in it’s mission – a mission that, in the face of the radical changes in the ways in which we communicate, cannot just focus on academic writing as we know it.

    The arrival of G+ has truncated my use of Twitter to quite some extend. Especially if you want to have discussions, Twitter oh so often feels like a crutch. G+ doesn’t.
    To attempt a reaction to one of your questions: surely social media invade my personal space. To a certain extend they maybe have to, because what I do and how I do it is probably strongly connected to who I am. I just want to make sure to keep the major parts of my individual, private being out of the web and as long as I post consciously and responsibly that may be possible.

    The “creepy treehouse” shouldn’t prevent us from connecting with each other on a professional basis. If the #writingcenter community would epitomize a connectivist community of practice subscribed to certain views of writing, learning and technology, students might learn much more from us than just how to structure an argument and how to quote from a paper.

    Let me round this up by pointing you to an experience I had at a conference where writing center people from a German background met and I dared to tweet during the conference:
    As sad as it is, I believe we are not quite there where we could be…

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful mulling of a complex writing context, Jennifer! One of the critical issues you and Daniel point to is Twitter’s mixed audience.

    When Neil Patrick Harris tweets about Las Vegas, he knows that he is writing to a unified readership: People Who Love NPH. When writing centers tweet, we are addressing a highly diversified crowd:
    * an international cohort of writing centers and their instructors
    * local campus institutions
    * students who have never used the writing center but fully intend to some day
    * students who came to a workshop but have never made an appointment
    * students who only heard about us that morning
    * students who are regular users of the writing center but new to Twitter
    * students who are experts at Twitter but new to the writing center

    … and so on.

    Antithetical forces drive us in two directions: writing centers are rewarded for a larger followership with increased campus recognition (and increased Klout), but a larger followership means more of our readers are likely to find any one tweet unhelpful to their daily lives.

    My suspicion is that the strongest institutional Twitter feeds find a way to define a single audience and craft their tone to address that audience alone. Madison’s main feed — twitter.com/uwmadison — is writing to a wide swath of readers (undergrads and grads, alumni/ae, faculty and locals) but identifies a single shared characteristic of their 30,000+ readers: a love of UW–Madison.

    If writing centers can identify the characteristic that defines their whole readership, we may be able to become our own Neil Patrick Harrises of our own campus.

    – Mike • @uwwritingcenter

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