Syllabus: History Meets Social Media Age: #lawsocialjustice

By Rachel Wallach

History, of all things, is a field where a lot of important conversations, developments, and analyses are playing out in the sphere of social media these days. Which means, says Johns Hopkins historian Martha Jones, it’s just as important for professors to teach students social media savvy as it is to teach them content, or research and publishing skills.

So last fall, six sessions of Jones’ History of Law and Social Justice course took the form of Twitter chats. Over the period of an hour, Jones posted 10 questions related to that unit’s reading, and students—along with anyone else who happened to drop in on the chat—responded. The chats were a central element in the course and determined 30 percent of a student’s grade.

“Students are spending increasing time in social spaces online, and I wondered what we were doing to prepare them for this environment. The chats are for exploring the space, to develop a sense of the medium and how it works, and a sense of their own voice and demeanor,” says Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor of History.

The format definitely made for a different learning experience. Instead of gathering in a classroom, students signed on from wherever they were. The questions were rapid-fire, with a new one popping up every six minutes. Students were required to answer each question, which meant that responses often overlapped, but also that all 20 could fully participate in a way not always possible in a traditional class setting. Responses were limited to Twitter’s 240 characters, which encouraged students to distill their thoughts, though many also learned to “thread” their responses to allow for greater depth. And you never knew who might be listening in, or commenting on your response.

“The coolest thing was to engage with experts on particular cases or to look at sources we hadn’t had a chance to; it brought a different perspective to the material and how we analyzed it,” says senior Juliann Susas.

Before each noontime chat, Jones tweeted an invitation to her more than 8,000 Twitter followers, encouraging them to join her students “for lunch” and including links to the preclass readings. Over the six chats, 34 non-Hopkins affiliates did join in, with engagement ranging from “liking” tweets to gently challenging students. New angles were particularly welcomed by both Jones and her students; during a chat about the Amistad case of 1839, historian and author Jonathan Bryant offered insights from lawyer John Quincy Adams’ personal diaries, which the class had not read, and went on to respectfully prod a student to sharpen her assertions.

For some students, Twitter itself was unfamiliar; only about one-third of the class previously used the platform, mostly following news or culture. Aside from the learning curve of keeping up with the chats, students discovered an untapped resource. “It’s a way to meet people like professors, or others interested in topics I’m interested in, that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” says senior Elizabeth Duncan.

Since the chats followed several sessions of class discussion around the unit’s reading, some students viewed them as a kind of quiz. On chat days, junior Miranda Bannister woke up early to reread her notes, and then organized them into paragraphs that could answer Jones’ possible queries. “Then when the chat happened, I had fully formulated thoughts,” Bannister says.