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Twitter, Teaching, and Impersonality

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You can’t swing a cat without hitting folks who criticize services such as Twitter or blogging for promoting oversharing, and who seem to relish the horrors likely to emerge if educators and students commingle on social media sites.

So it was with great interest that I read noted British academic nerd comedy hero Simon Pegg‘s comments on Twitter in a recent interview:

That’s why I love Twitter, because you can pretend to be personal, but really I never talk about my daughter and my wife on Twitter, particularly.

This notion of “pretending to be personal” is important, and not just for Twitter. I’d be the first to admit that I talk a fair amount about my son on social media. But almost none of that is directly “personal” in any particularly important sense:

Tweets

As far as I can tell, all my tweets about the 7-yr-old are linked to writing for Wired.com’s GeekDad or to life as an academic (viz.). This consistency of presentation–even the tone is pretty limited in range (literally not possible to imagine tweeting in anger)–should make clear that I filter things with some care.

But I want to make a broader point here about teaching, not Twitter. I will, not infrequently, try to make concrete something that we’re talking about in class by telling a quick anecdote from my family, broadly construed. It doesn’t take more than one or two of these stories, especially if you don’t come off that great in the story, to get a reputation for being willing to say *anything* in class. That reputation is extraordinarily useful in most respects: It helps create an atmosphere where students can think and speak freely about the texts I’m teaching. Moreover, students seem to trust me a bit more, especially when we start to get behind on the syllabus, or when I’m slow on grading (as I inevitably am).

While that reputation is useful, it’s of course not true, on the same grounds that Simon Pegg mentions above: I can “pretend to be personal,” without really expending too much emotional energy, or risking my family’s privacy. Much like Twitter, a few well-placed stories can create the effect of bonding–thus making interactions easier–without really requiring intimacy as such.

All of which is to suggest that a certain kind of sharing is actually impersonal, in that it leads not to the personal life of the professor, but into a common intellectual engagement with the material.

Bonus Pegg-related Paul links: The review at GeekDad, and Pegg/Frost’s shot-for-shot remake of Star Wars.

Photo by Flickr user ckmck / Creative Commons licensed

 
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