In this interview, Kirsten Gerdes tells us about how she uses Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Twitter as a way of engaging students about sexual ethics and religion.
1. Tell us about the hashtag. Describe the project.
At California Lutheran University (CLU), I teach a class on sexual ethics for the religion department, and this “Twitter Project” (#clusexeth) accounts for a significant portion of students’ grades. Since it’s a seminar-style class, it requires active participation in each class session. I’ve adopted Twitter as a medium through which to discuss classroom topics parallel to the live, face-to-face discussion we’re also having. The project unfolds in two parts: the first is a reflection on issues raised in class from the readings and lectures; the second is a live tweeting of all 13 episodes of the first season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black (OITNB), which we screen each week over the semester. As I explain to my students on the first day of class, OITNB is a required text for the class, just like the books and articles are. We treat the show as a literary text, using the hermeneutic lens of gender and sexuality to read the plots, characters, and themes represented.
For every class session, students are required to tweet twice in response to the (primarily student-led) discussions on the printed readings, and if an episode of OITNB is screened in that class session, then they must also tweet twice in response to the show. I encourage students to raise questions, engage each other’s tweets, and link to relevant articles or websites they’ve found.
2. Who or What sources informed the project.
First of all, I must give credit for the idea of using both Twitter and OITNB pedagogically to a colleague and friend, Tracy Hawkins (Twitter: @tracylhawkins), who pioneered this project at CLU as an adjunct before moving into her full-time position at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Other sources that inform the classroom use of social media and popular culture include cultural theorist Stuart M. Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding,” [in Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, 2nd ed., eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner (Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012): 137-144], and bell hooks’ Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992). In “Encoding/Decoding,” Hall argues that the meaning that television audiences glean from programming is dependent on each individual viewer’s specific social context (such as their background, socioeconomic status, beliefs, education, etc.). In her book Black Looks, hooks analyzes popular culture as a way to theorize Black experience – especially Black women’s experiences – and highlight the ways popular culture perpetuates the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. Media and cultural studies methods are ways to turn a critical lens on one’s own culture in order to uncover and potentially understand the structures and institutions that can remain otherwise opaque to us.
3. What did you intend for your students to learn?
Using Twitter beyond the foodie pics and social engagement with friends has both intrinsic and instrumental goods for students. Instrumentally, it helps them navigate building an online presence that a future employer may find valuable. Intrinsically, it can bring them into contact with a diversity of people and views they might not otherwise encounter, including experts and scholars outside our institution, which ultimately enriches their educational experience beyond what I alone could offer them.
Additionally, I teach my students to critically consume media such as film or television because I believe it makes them aware of how narratives can either negatively or positively affect us without our realizing it, and then it empowers them to begin to accept or reject those narratives.
4. What did you observe them learning?
Following Hall’s theory about the importance of social context in meaning-making for television audiences, it’s super interesting to watch how a diverse student population differently interprets the same episode of television, especially in light of the range of topics we discuss that address issues of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability. While many students begin the semester struggling to critically analyze OITNB in their tweets, by the end of the semester, I often have students pointing out to me things I’ve missed despite repeated viewings. They connect the issues the show raises with the readings we do in class, and those who tend to be more reserved in class often are very vocal on Twitter. It becomes a collaborative effort of understanding and critique.
5. What did you learn about your own pedagogy in carrying out the project?
Once I started seeing how many people had thoughtful and insightful things to offer the Twitter discussion, I realized that the dreaded silence following a question posed to the class was not necessarily because students weren’t engaged or hadn’t completed the reading. Rather, it helped me recognize that some students needed more time to formulate responses, and others felt more comfortable tweeting about something than saying it aloud. This in turn has helped me rethink how I structure class discussion entirely.
6. What advice would you offer to anyone wanting to do this project in their own class?
There are software tools to help make using Twitter less of a pain for grading (Zapier is what I use to automate tasks between Twitter and a Google spreadsheet for each student). Starting small – such as live tweeting a film watched during one class session – can be a way of testing the waters to see how it fits for your own style of teaching and subject matter. I understand that many professors are reluctant to allow students use of technology in class, and for good reason. There’s a lot of data out there that indicates allowing it in the college classroom hinders students’ ability to concentrate and engage. However, I believe that if it is used in a focused way, such as in a Twitter Project, and it’s monitored closely, it can be an incredibly powerful and empowering tool.
Kirsten Gerdes PhDc is completing her doctoral work in Women’s Studies in Religion and Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She is Senior Adjunct Professor at Azusa Pacific University and Adjunct Professor at California Lutheran University. Follow her on Twitter @Kirst2Wander.