One of my favorite low-stakes assignments in my lit classroom is the commonplace book. Sometimes I give a really formal commonplace book project–I give them the common heads, and ask them to keep track of passages and themes that correspond to them. Other times, I just ask students to record the passages they are interested in, without requiring them to have them correspond to categories (since we do this on blogs, they still have to tag them with potential categories, but they tend to be less consistent). They usually, by the end, have at least a few categories that have become recurrent, but getting them to realize those patterns at the end of the semester usually takes a project of its own, where they are required to (and some students who have been doing the commonplace project perfunctorily rather than in the true spirit of the thing, find they don’t have many interesting patterns at all, and end up having to re-read and do the work they avoided at the beginning!).
For the past week or so, I’ve been using my Twitter account as a kind of commonplace book as I’ve been re-reading a few select pieces (read: novels) from the Vorkosigan Saga. I’ve done two novels so far, The Vor Game and Memory (the latter being my favorite of the entire series). I’ve done this kind of common-placing before, but only on Facebook, posting my favorite quotations as they strike me, often in ways that are personal or powerful or that just seem true. Doing it on Twitter, however, produced a distinctly different result for me. First, my followers on Twitter are clearly not as engaged with the Vorkosigan Saga as I am, at least as evidenced by fewer “favorites” compared to “likes,” fewer retweets and replies compared to comments and additional quotations. That might be a result of being fairly new to Twitter, versus established on Facebook, and having far fewer followers than friends–which is not a problem at all, but it did make the tweeting feel more solitary.
The other thing I observed is that the 140 character limit pushed me to really narrow my focus. I was choosing soundbites, not the larger, more emotionally dramatic moments of whole paragraphs or even series of paragraphs from Bujold’s prose that I usually posted on Facebook. (I will admit, I gave in and posted a few on Facebook because they are so brilliant.) But those soundbites proved crucial; I paid more attention to sounds and words, and the way those words were repeated over and over again. This was especially the case as I came upon my favorite passages, and was forced to choose just a single sentence to represent the whole passage. Suddenly, I became much more attuned to the recurrence of the questions of freedom and choice, games and winning that permeates Memory and evolves over time.
I had been suspicious of using Twitter in the classroom; my own prejudices are for longer engagement, not shorter. Not being able to post more than 140 characters (and needing to hashtag “#vorkosiganreread” at the end of each tweet!) twisted my heart. But this has convinced me, at least in part, to try tweeting in the classroom. I’m not entirely sure what form it will take, whether supplement/complement to the commonplace book, or something else. This might–or might not–work for a writer like Milton, whose sentences and even phrases sometimes go beyond the length of what Twitter can handle. But for other writers, while Twitter might not have much room for the depth of analysis that I want from students, it does possess power that might help students see different patterns than what they can see in the commonplace assignments I usually give.