Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writing Centers, Twitter, and the Creepy Treehouse

Image by Lisa Jarvis
This is not our goal. 
As a writing center professional whose educational background is a strange mélange of comp/rhet, technical writing, and graphic design, I am frequently our writing center's go-to person for all things tech-related. I am fascinated by emerging media, and I am constantly seeking out new ways to use those media to enhance the Writing Center @ PSU's online presence, and more importantly to enhance our students' experience. Recently, it was decided that our writing center needed a Twitter account, which we would use not only to network with other writing centers, but also to provide our students with a new space in which to interact with us. I knew that there was great potential to reach our target audiences; I also knew that there was great potential to really mess this up. 

The benefits of Twitter seem obvious. One tweet can potentially be seen by the entirety of our audience and quickly passed along. As I went through the process of creating our Twitter account, I visualized tweets about events in the Writing Center being retweeted from student to student, links to our scheduling system being disseminated across campus via the smartphones and tablets of the people we most want to reach - students. It was only when I began to actually compose tweets that I realized just how difficult this was going to be. 

I was paralyzed. I stared at the computer for the next 20 minutes, struggling to find a tone somewhere between friendly and formal, unable to strike a balance. It was clear to me that my usual sarcastic and silly online persona wouldn't do; at best we would look foolish and at worst like we were attempting a terrible imitation of student-speak. At the same time, it was equally clear that tweets written in stodgy academic language would lead to no retweets, no followers, and no benefit to the students. 

The problem of content was no less difficult. What exactly is a writing center meant to tweet about? What did PSU students want to hear from their writing center? Did PSU students want to hear from their writing center? In defeat, I stuck mainly to retweeting offerings from other writing centers and resolved to ask the experts: theorists working with emerging media, and my students. 

It turns out that my fears were justified, or at least echoed, by other people within the academic community. Jeffrey R. Young writes in the Chronicle of Education's Wired Campus blog that there are "technological innovations by faculty members that make students' skin crawl." This phenomenon is rather amusingly described in Young's post and elsewhere by the phrase "creepy treehouse," a phrase that has been defined by Jared Stein on his blog and is used to refer to an online space characterized by an unwelcome "adult" (or faculty) presence that seeks to lure "children" (or students) into the space. It is true that many students feel far more comfortable online than the students of previous generations; it is also true that the relative lack of perceived authority figures in those spaces could be a big reason for that comfort. When I asked my students, undergrads enrolled in Pittsburg State's introductory research writing course, if they would follow the Writing Center @ PSU on Twitter, I was met with an uneasy silence. Finally, one brave student asked, in tones of utter horror, "The Writing Center wouldn't follow us back, would it?" 

Clearly, students aren't entirely comfortable with what they see as the usurpation of "their" space. Further conversation, though, showed that they could be convinced to follow a writing center on Twitter, but only if certain standards of quality (and quantity) were maintained. My students were unanimous in their aversion to being followed, retweeted, or tweeted at by @WritingatPSU, but conceded that they would follow us if we tweeted information they perceived as useful such as appointment availability, special events, or writing tips. Several students claimed that they might follow @WritingatPSU on the strength of my recommendation (and at least two began following us during that class discussion) but warned that they'd unfollow us immediately if we tweeted "too much." 

It seems clear that the academic use of Twitter and other social networking platforms will require some serious thought and some social savvy. If done right, Twitter can be a powerful tool, providing a new space where students can interact with their writing center. If done wrong, though, the specter of the "creepy treehouse" may prevent students from entering that space. 

How do you use social media such asTwitter in your writing center practice? Tell us in the comments!

This post begins a recurring series on social media use in writing centers. 

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