The doctoral teacher on twitter



A workshop on social media for doctoral researchers. A question.

I’m teaching undergraduate students. I’m part of a team. The only (young) woman in the group. I’m on twitter, and lots of the students have followed me. The others in the team are on twitter too. They engage in a lot of pub-like banter online, and sometimes the students try to talk to me in that way too. But I don’t feel comfortable relating like that. I think it will undermine my authority and I want to keep a more formal relationship. But the men don’t seem to have the same problem. So I look like …  Should I just not be on twitter? What should I do?

I opened this question up to the group. All of us recognised the problem. The young teacher facing the dilemma of how to relate to students. Buttoned up compared to her male colleagues. What’s appropriate? How to be friendly but not familiar? The teaching team differences public to everyone. And, were negative  comparisons being made between the chatty informal teachers (all young men), and the one woman who didn’t feel comfortable with this kind of interaction?

The advice that was offered was two fold – Stay on twitter yes. Then  (1) ignore the students who try to involve you in the banter and maintain the communication mode that you’re comfortable with, and/or (2)  explain how you like to interact generally and on twitter at the start of the year, and why, and then maintain that mode.

Now you may have some other advice. I’m sure that the particular doctoral researcher – and others in her situation as I’m confident she’s not alone – would be happy to hear any other ideas. She really needs strategies that will help her have a consistent, and not too matey, pedagogical relationship face-to-face and online.

Of course, we all have to find our own ways of interacting on social media regardless of who is following us. The bulk of what Ive seen on line about teaching and social media seems to suggest that ‘professionalism’ in interaction is best. The university teacher can use social media to build community and develop new hybrid pedagogies, but they still need to maintain a formal stance. However, this good advice doesn’t quite deal with this particular situation: being part of a team which seems to have quite different ideas from you about what professional in a pedagogical relationship actually means.

And of course, there are always issues for beginning teachers  – in any sector, from schools to universities – in establishing their way to interact with students. Setting interactional norms and sticking with them are crucial to getting on with the real work of teaching/learning. But very often, in classrooms, lectures and tutorials, the nature of the pedagogical relationship is established behind closed doors. When the task spreads to social media, and setting norms in public and not alone, new considerations apply.

On social media, a team of doctoral or early career university teachers may well publicly interact with the larger cohort that they are jointly teaching, as was the case for the young woman in my workshop. This produces different kinds of pressures on the task of building a pedagogical relationship. If you are not prepared to joke around, do students see you as less accessible? less fun? If you do joke around, do the students see you as lacking in gravitas? How does the difference play out in teaching evaluations? These are important in the job getting process. Gender and age are not incidental issues here, they are deeply implicated in a range of decision -making processes, as we have seen in recent studies of gender bias in employment and in student evaluations of teaching.

The workshop question did remind me that the usual discussion of social media held with doctoral researchers is most often about building a profile or “brand” (ugh); networking; sharing information; building knowledge communities; reaching publics; reflection. It’s occasionally about blogging and academic writing. its not about teaching. But there is also of course a wealth of material about using social media as part of the curriculum. But the actual teaching relationship established through interactions on social media is most often left to one side in both discussions. And yet it’s a crucial issue for many who are teaching for the first time, part time. as part of their doctoral programme.

The question I’ve reported is also part of discussions about the ways in which the self we offer on social media is deliberately manufactured, and not entirely in isolation. We have  to consider our online persona very carefully. What we choose to reveal, and how we to choose to interact, are questions that go beyond profile, networking and reflecting. And they are questions loaded in particular ways for doctoral and early career researchers and university teachers and perhaps they need to be discussed a little more often.