Social Media, Public History, and Higher Education: An Instruction Manual for a Twitterseminar
User Guide: An Introduction
A month ago, I went to Paris to discuss digital history in higher education. Sounds boring? Far from it! A dedicated group of twenty (digital) historians gathered at the German Historical Institute to learn more about “Teaching History in a Digital Age” (program as PDF-file).1 At the workshop, I presented the class “Bielefeld University turns 50. We‘ll twitter!” a.k.a. #Twitterseminar. You’ll find more information (in German) on the idea behind this teaching experiment in the first part of this blogpost series (Historisch) Twittern lernen – und lehren. The following blogpost is a slightly modified and abridged version of the paper I gave in Paris.
Maintenance: Basic information on the Twitterseminar
Against the background of Bielefeld University’s fiftieth anniversary in 2019, the students of the Twitterseminar prepared a timeline with information on the founding years of their alma mater.2 Due to the university’s jubilee, the class was open not only to history students, but to almost every other study program. Although the seminar was planned for 20 participants, not more than five students participated. In order to facilitate archival work, programming, and writing, the class took place for four hours every two weeks (instead of two hours weekly). These ‘double sessions’ were necessary to include a workshop on the software, an introduction to the university archives, and to have more time for teamwork, collaborative writing, and peer feedback. Teaching this seminar, I pursued three main goals: linking 1) archival research to writing, 2) to Public History, and 3) to Digital Humanities. For an outline of the class, please consult the first blogpost or the syllabus (PDF-file).
The account @UniBielefeld50 started tweeting in February 2019 and has sent almost 200 tweets so far (July 2019); two-thirds of the tweets were written and prescheduled by the class, one-third supplemented by retweets as well as by the student assistant or me. The account has about 320 followers. Over the last weeks, the nearly equal gender balance shifted to 67 per cent male, 33 per cent female visitors. With 88 per cent, the followers predominantly come from Germany, but also from other European countries.3 In a recent analysis of academic twitter, Isabelle M. Côté and Emily S. Darling show that academic accounts up to 1.000 followers are mainly followed by other academics, including students.4 This also applies to @UniBielefeld50, an account mostly followed by scholars, students, and alumni.
Functions: Main ideas behind the Twitterseminar
Why use Twitter or another social media platform in history? In general, social media is attractive to researchers, writes Isabelle Peters, because social media “make it possible to create, publish, forward and exchange information with other users […]. […] [E]veryone can contribute […]”.5 More specifically, Twitter as a microblogging platform, states Jet-Sing M. Lee, allows academics to “make research visible and understandable to the wider community”.6
Next to these considerations, Twitter can be useful for Public History,7 because:
- it is text-based (not image-based like Instagram—an important aspect regarding the historical material used),
- it is easy to use even for a newbie (unlike more elaborated tools as presented during the workshop in Paris or in the blog carnival #dhiha8),
- it is user-friendly, since you can read the tweets on the web interface (much better than on Facebook, a platform requiring a personal account),
- in generating a timeline, it corresponds perfectly to historical research,
- the timeline will be visible after the project’s end (unlike a ‘classic’ exhibit).
Troubleshooting: Planning early
In a teaching project such as this, I would highly recommend cooperating closely with colleagues and other university institutions. In order to plan my own class, I looked at similar projects and their experiences. It was important, too, to secure the support of the university archives as well as to establish a close contact with the university’s public relations office to facilitate further publicity through the university’s blog, newsletter, showroom etc. I also applied for funding to hire a student assistant who now manages the account, and to invite Jürgen Hermes for a workshop on Digital Humanities in general and the software autoChirp in particular.8
Warnings: Things that did not work out as planned
Yes, the Twitterseminar took a lot of time to prepare—and it still is time-consuming, even a semester later (this aspect is especially relevant if your employment contract ends, if you are finishing your PhD or a book). Hence, like Frédéric Clavert in his blogpost, I think it is helpful to discuss the things that did not work out as planned. On the subject level, I was not able to place Bielefeld university’s history within the wider context of West Germany’s contemporary history—for lack of time. The planned interdisciplinary perspective could not be fully realized, because only one student of another department than history joined the class, probably due to the different study regulations of the various BA and MA programs. Most likely, the biweekly double sessions resulted in the small number of participants, even though the five students present highly appreciated the four-hour units. Finally, regarding the target audience, historian Hedwig Richter hit the nail on the head: “And the students? […] They didn’t show up on Twitter.”9 Students apparently prefer other social media. Depending on the topic of a Digital and Public History class, other platforms might be better suited.
Guarantee and Service: Some concluding remarks
After these warnings, I will end on a more positive note. The extremely high level of commitment shown by the participants made it a lot of fun for all of us. What is more, the students’ evaluations were very positive: they were enthusiastic about the small seminar size, the cooperation with the university archives, and their independent research work. One student wrote:
In this class, I learned how to combine social media and the [historical] sciences. And, of course, I also learned more about the history of Bielefeld University and about university history in general. What impresses me most is that tweets written by us are now actually published and that there are interested people who react to them. The cooperation with the university archives, too, was a particularly positive experience.
The Twitterseminar, of course, is only one possibility to work digitally in history. Regarding the question of how to teach history in the digital age, I would like to share some observations. A project like this fills several gaps in academic work processes, because the Twitterseminar makes “research results and research public”, documents “communication about scientific results, thus making research processes transparent,” and offers “manifold possibilities for exchange”.10 And students truly enjoy producing relevant research—as other papers at the #dhiha8-workshop have shown, too.
Marshall McLuhan’s principle the medium is the message comes true for this project inasmuch students researched historical sources (a ‘classic’ historical skill they have to acquire during the BA program), but they did so with the specific form of the output—Tweets—in mind. Students learned to communicate their own research findings to the public by connecting historical content to social media. As a result, “[d]igital public history raises questions about historians’ use of the narrative form”.11
Even if teachers and professors might think that students are experienced social media geeks, this is not generally true. Consequently, teaching history in the digital age does not only imply teaching history, but also teaching technical and practical knowledge. This adds another layer to the class: Learning to apply social media to their studies, students also became aware of their private social media use. Furthermore, it might be necessary to shift the perspective of teaching history in the digital age to the teachers and professors as well—we need to train the trainer. By teaching the Twitterseminar, I gained knowledge about both digital history and teaching digital history.
- Sune Bechman Pedersen’s blogpost provides a summary of the workshop. Or read the tweets on #dhiha8.
- Here’s information in English on the history of Bielefeld University.
- Data compiled by Gianna Mai, using Twitter Analytics.
- Côté, Isabelle M. / Darling, Emily S.: Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the Choir or Singing from the Rooftops?, in: Facets (2018) 3, 682-694, 689. Only beyond this threshold, tweets reach a more varied audience, e.g. @digitalpast with more than 10K followers.
- Peters, Isabelle: Science 2.0: Was hat die Wissenschaft vom Social-Media-Prinzip?, in: Forschung und Lehre 25 (2018) 1, 10-13. Quoted here is the longer PDF-version of this text. All translations by LH.
- Lee, Jet-Sing M.: How to use Twitter to further your research career, in: Nature (2019).
- Cf. Oetzel, Lena: #dhiha8 oder Von den unendlichen Weiten des Internets, in: Digital Humanities am DHIP, 12.06.2019.
- Cf. Hermes, Jürgen: Twitter-Projekte mit #autoChirp, in: TEXperimenTales, 26.10.2018.
- Richter, Hedwig: Geistesblitze für alle, in: Die Zeit, 16.05.2019, 21.
- Quoting Isabelle Peters, see above.
- Arguing with Digital History working group: Digital History and Argument. White paper, 2017, 1-29, 10.