Five lessons learned from teaching a college course on social media

Until recently, my teaching background consisted of a chaotic seventh-grade Sunday school class, and a volunteer gig as an English-only assistant in a Spanish-only adult computer course.

So when my friend Jesse Littlewood asked me to co-teach a course on social media at Tufts University’s Experimental College this fall, I felt totally qualified. Beyond my rigorous experience, I’d presented in his previous class with no ill effect on student evaluations. Why not push my luck?

As a social media manager, it’s my job to stay on top of trends that seemingly change every few days. This course offered a chance to move beyond the marketing blog echo-chamber (2016 is definitely going to be the year of Google+!) and spend thirteen weeks digging into the perspectives of digital natives whose every attention shift helps to shape the future of the social web. There was also the prospect of some extra income, but as any adjunct can attest, if I were in it for the money I’d likely be better off moonlighting at Trader Joe’s.

Our survey course, “Social Media: Participatory Culture and Content Creation,” pushed students to take a step back from the platforms they use every day to consider the larger context of their actions and their impact on relationships with peers, institutions, and society at large. It was one of 50 seminars on the ‘ExCollege’ fall schedule, competing for attention against diverse topics like Argentine tango, The Weather Underground, white supremacy, and improv.

Twenty-two undergraduates from a range of majors signed up, and from the first class it was clear we were all in for a ride. Racial inequity, gender identity, privacy, algorithms, filter bubbles…all of it came up within twenty minutes.

I’ll avoid the cliché of “the students taught me more than I could ever teach them,” but I did learn a few important lessons from the experience.

“Social” means more than interactive.

Recently, NPR hosted a focus group to understand the marketing that worked for millennials. The conclusions resonated with our students, especially the idea that brands should have a strong social conscience. Students not only wanted companies to care about the issues they deem important, they had a strong response to all potential insensitivities and biases, from obvious misogyny and racism to more subtle slights.

Even the class syllabus was not free from scrutiny. At the suggestion of one student dissatisfied with the diversity of perspectives in our chosen readings, we added Aditya Mukerjee’s “I Can Text You A Pile of Poo, But I Can’t Write My Name.”

Social media companies aren’t fooling anyone.

During a class debate over anonymity on the web, several students called out the founders of Yik Yak for claiming to represent the “disenfranchised” with their messaging app. Our discussions on Facebook’s data collection took a similar turn — while students may not have known all the terms and conditions they signed up for, most were well aware that their every action was being tracked for someone else’s gain (for those who weren’t, an in-class activity targeting Facebook ads to their peers drove the point home). Small sample size notwithstanding, these students had been withholding information online and ignoring ‘native’ promotions for years.

Civic engagement is not dead.

Of all the theorists and commentators we read during the semester, the hardest hit were Malcolm Gladwell (“Small Change”) and Robert Putnam (an excerpt from Bowling Alone). While students acknowledged the limits of the internet’s weak ties, there was no lack of optimism over the role that online movements and virtual relationships could play in creating real change.

Black Lives Matter Boston lead organizer Daunasia Yancey inspired the class with a behind-the-scenes look at her group’s actions, and students responded with creative ideas for the group’s#RaisetheDebate campaign. A few weeks later, the terrorist attacks in France and Lebanon brought clicktivism (and media bias) to the forefront again. Not one class member felt that changing a Facebook profile picture was a sufficiently meaningful response to an international tragedy.

Digital natives aren’t superheroes.

There’s a tendency to think that anyone under 25 will instantly understand any new technology or social platform. While most of our students could school us on the finer points of Snapchat and Instagram, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of memes, not everything came easy.

We hosted our class site on Medium to emphasize the public nature of social participation, asking students to post short reading responses each week. The posts themselves were great, but some didn’t fully figure out how to publish until the final class. Each student also delivered a short “lightning talk” on a relevant topic, and technical issues invariably added a few minutes to the running time. We may not listen to the same music or use the same hashtags, but we can all agree: PowerPoint + YouTube clips = recipe for disaster.

The future is bright — and I’m a little worried about my job security.

Students impressed me with their analysis throughout the course, and especially with final projects that ran the gamut from social media plans for businesses and not-for-profits to social startup ideas already getting seed funding. Students posted artifacts related to their projects on the class site. Maybe this is more reflective of the state of the industry than anything, but the level of thought and execution was often not far off from some social media consultants I’ve come across. To paraphrase LCD Soundsystem, the kids are most definitely coming up from behind. This is a good thing.

If there’s one big takeaway from the course, it’s a confirmation that the world of social media is confusing and full of tough questions that require fresh perspectives, whether we’re talking the ethics of doxxing, the best way to approach comment sections, or something we haven’t yet encountered or even considered. This is one syllabus that will inevitably look different next year.

(This is also posted on Medium here: https://medium.com/@ben_rubenstein/what-i-learned-from-teaching-a-college-course-on-social-media-f717f42ccdfc#.hllpq6plm)

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