Incorporating social media into Black (Pop) Culture & Politics

In the Spring 2014 semester, I taught AFAM 220, Black Popular Culture and Politics, for the first time. In this course, we examined how black popular cultural modes of expression (including music, film, televangelism, and reality television) participated in “the making of black politics.” That is, we investigated how cultural artists and their works influenced formal politics (legislation, public policy and voting) and informal politics (cultural representations, discourses, and ideologies). We were especially attentive to the fact that black people, because of their historical exclusion from formal politics, have been disproportionately represented in informal politics, an area of political activity that has also been marginalized. Through our study, we aimed to complicate this marginalization of informal politics by demonstrating the continuities between formal and informal politics, and by revealing the importance of informal political activities as central to the grassroots consciousness-raising necessary for formal politics to cohere.

Social media (facebook, twitter, instagram, youtube) is an important tool in the lives of Americans more generally and college aged students in particular. More generally, politicians (think of Obama’s campaign) have grown increasingly more cognizant of the need to use these platforms to reach broader audiences, and my ITEL project aimed to place students in dialogue with broader communities to extend our class discussions. That is, students had to post to twitter (or facebook, or a blog, or another agreed upon medium) a comment from class, or the reading, or from popular culture, that they felt warranted further discussion and that is important to the making and remaking of black cultural politics. The mixture of students in the class further enriched the project, as some students had wide social media networks that gave “non-academic” yet important perspectives on the issues. This point is important to note because it was these students in particular who had to “translate” and “be translated to” in so far as they could not presume a common audience or understanding. These students’ experiences directly contrasted those who had more insular social media networks that consisted primarily of other students (many of whom were in the classroom) who were participating in the debates already. Regardless, the project wanted students to bring the classroom to the “wider world,” and consequently, the “wider world” to the classroom.

Social media, to my mind, is a form of technology, and this project wanted students to use social media in a more formalized way to engage their academic studies. My sense prior to formalizing this assignment—and based on conversations I have had with students—is that they are already using social media as a way to have important conversations that are directly related to their academic studies. These conversations often build upon issues that arise during class and warrant further engagement. Unlike the assignment, which I describe below (and excerpted from the syllabus), these conversations were much more informal than my assignment—and did not necessarily require the students to engage with the people with whom they were having a conversation, explaining their point of views.

“Twitter Posts and Analysis (10%): This course is part of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship using technology to educate the whole person initiative. In order to fulfill this aspect of the course, it will be necessary for you to “tweet” for this class. You may tweet a line from one of the readings or a comment made in class, or a connection you made to the readings and something in black popular culture. You should tweet at least once per week and then engage in substantive exchange with people who respond to your post. Before the date designated on the syllabus, you will then choose two twitter exchanges and explain why you think those two exchanges best exemplify (or do not) your engagement with course materials. You might, for example, focus on how information is misconstrued, the gap between the readings and how people experience black popular culture, or an argument that ensued. You are to write a one-page explanation for each exchange and attach a truncated version of the exchange to paper. You will submit two of these exchanges.”

This assignment was especially designed to hone critical thinking skills, as well as the abilities to synthesize and explain complicated and sometimes dense ideas. In addition to these skills, the assignment wanted students to engage in critical reflection on the exchange and its significance. In other words, I wanted the students to think energetically not only about the claims they were making, but also about why those claims are significant.

Throughout the semester, I engaged the students to consider their opinions on the effectiveness of the assignment. On the one hand, many students seemed happy to engage their social networks to discuss the issues, even when they found the responses or broader engagement less enthusiastic than they would have hoped. On the other hand, some students saw the assignment as either another “task” they needed to complete, or as a burden because of their lack of social media engagement. I did wonder whether this latter criticism might be reflective more of students’ general dislike for assignments than for a technology-specific assignment.

The survey administered at the end of the semester is helpful not only because it presents the opinions and assessments of the entire class, giving a somewhat representative view of the class’ attitudes toward the assignment. The results from the survey, as I expected, were pretty mixed and displayed the students’ disdain for feeling forced to use social media, or for my assumption that “everything relates to learning.” I was somewhat surprised by the number of students who wrote they felt it “unfair” to have to complete this assignment, though it was not totally unexpected because throughout the semester some students did not complete the assignment as it was outlined and expressed their chagrin regarding the use of social media. What was particularly interesting, though, is that this data doesn’t negate the fact that they did think that the course/assignments achieved cura personalis in so far as several students noted that the course was “worthwhile” in fostering conversations that are important to the “whole person.”

The responses to the survey further demonstrate how a more sustained conversation regarding technology needs to be fostered on the campus—not only among faculty, but between faculty and students. For example, students did not necessarily think of social media as a form a technology, and instead commented on the use of other forms of “technology” (power point presentations, etc, that we were also simultaneously using in class). A conversation about technology, including how it matters, why it's useful, how might we better use technology, or should we desire to use more technology would be useful, and if I were to teach another course using technology I would ask these questions to the students once pre-registration is completed. I would do so to achieve the goal of educating the person without necessarily causing students the level of discomfort that this assignment might have engendered. As other faculty plan courses that utilize technology, it would be useful to have a flexible plan to achieve the goals—which in this case was to educate the whole person. Even though I recalibrated the assignment throughout the course, I did not question the assignment itself regarding its effectiveness to achieve the goal. In retrospect, such a reflection might have proved useful.