NU Declassified: Teaching in the Twitterverse

Hear from professors and students about the Northwestern Twitterverse, and everything that does, or doesn’t, go into a professor’s daily tweets. 

REBECCA SHAID: Have you ever scrolled on Twitter during class and cracked up because of a Tweet by the professor right in front of you?

JORDAN MANGI: I go to sleep way too many nights praying sources will call me back — “thinking about so many things, I just wish things would get better.”

REBECCA SHAID: Or realized the Tweet you just sent your friend was under the same name as the CTECs you just stalked?

MAIA SPOTO: Me, plotting how I’m going to save my friend’s kids after they move them out to the suburbs. 

One day later: Me, still plotting how I’m going to save my friend’s kids after they move them out to the suburbs. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Sometimes I like to think that social media is a young man’s game — we all know how terrible it was when our parents got on Facebook. But when we got to Northwestern, we learned that may not always be the case on Twitter. 

REBECCA SHAID: Some of our dearest professors really know how to work a Tweet. Building a brand can be really complicated. Are you supposed to be serious all the time? How do you work in a joke or two? 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Is Twitter a place to be professional or personal? Popular or private? The balance looks different for everyone. But in the weird floating cyberworld that is Northwestern Twitter, some professors have a lot to say about their own accounts — which are major pages not only on NU Twitter, but within their own career fields. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ilana Arougheti.

REBECCA SHAID: And I’m Rebecca Shaid. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive on Northwestern’s campus.

DAISY CONANT: Did y’all grow up thinking you were attractive? I absolutely did not. Thank god for therapy.

ARIONNE NETTLES: I have been able to really find the balance of that, what works for me without fear because I think it can happen where you can be a little nervous and you’re like, “If I tweet this will I get in trouble at work,” but especially if you are a journalist because we are really careful about the opinions that we share. If it’s something I don’t really know, I keep my mouth shut, but I think I’m willing to have more opinions but also have a little bit more fun.

REBECCA SHAID: That’s Professor Arionne Nettles, or @ArionneNettles on Twitter, who has been a lecturer at Medill since 2018. Before Northwestern, she worked at WBEZ Chicago. At nearly 5,000 Twitter followers and 995,000,000 tweets, Nettles’ online presence is extensive and personal. Friends, colleagues and students alike can hear all about the articles she’s enjoyed reading and writing, her pop culture takes, her self-care strategies and her reflections on raising her son. For Nettles, one of the most important things about her Twitter is the way that it honors all the facets of her life in the same place.

ARIONNE NETTLES: I’m a mother, I’m a friend, I like to go dancing a lot. Like these are things I really do.

REBECCA SHAID: Nettles said that when she was just starting out in the industry, Twitter, especially Chicago Twitter, was a very different place. There weren’t as many journalists on there, and not as much of an emphasis on using Twitter, professionally or personally.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Finding the balance between being professional and being personal on Twitter is something these professors have had to figure out. Luckily, for the sake of our laughter, they try to find ways to be who they are in front of their followers. 

ARIONNE NETTLES: You can kind of tell when people are really being themselves on a profile. Hopefully, if people only know me on Twitter and then they meet me in person, I am that same person, right, and so that is my goal: to always be that same person. Like, I don’t have to give you everything, like a lot of pieces of your life, the best parts of your life, you kind of keep close and you don’t have to share those things with the world. But what I do give, I hope that that is a good representation of me. That it’s a good, small snippet of the life that I try to live. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Professor Matthew Chalmers, a visiting religious studies professor at Northwestern, can relate. When we spoke, he didn’t even remember how many followers he had, even though his feed is famous among the students in his Christianity classes. He’s been able to find a balance that works for him in the Twitterverse, staying true to the beliefs he had before and after teaching. 

MATTHEW CHALMERS: A lot of people are not going to speak as publicly about this, because they’re worried it might hurt their chances somewhere down the line of getting a job. From my perspective, and this is just speaking personally, I would not like to compromise what I think in terms of labor in order to get a job. Right? I would feel like that doesn’t quite cohere with who I think I am and who I want to be professionally. But I totally understand why some people might be quieter, and I respect that decision as well. I often find that when people are as vocal, it’s because we’re experiencing quite similar things.

DAISY CONANT: Today’s most important news: turns out teaching at the same time as the inauguration is extremely distracting, #amteaching. My mind has been elsewhere.

REBECCA SHAID: Using Twitter alongside his teaching is something Chalmers has found works for him. Not only when Tweeting about classroom distractions, but as an important part of his curriculum and field. He even put a line on his syllabus warning students that he would sometimes tweet about his experiences from class.

MATTHEW CHALMERS: My Twitter is a professional Twitter. I know there are some professors who use Twitter as part of the substance of that class. But when I Tweet about class, it’s because I’m having a conversation with my colleagues, with my professional colleagues. I know that there are students who who are watching as well. It’s a really neat, interconnected space for having conversations about kind of what worked in my classes, or what might be helpful for my colleagues at their institutions, ideas that they might be having about how to communicate a certain set of material. “Oh, my student brought up this really interesting question. And this reminded me of this other thing, but there’s no time in class to talk about it.” After class finishes, I’m going to go on Twitter and be like, “My student said this really cool thing, let’s all talk about it as professionals and see and like, geek out about it a little bit.”

ILANA AROUGHETI: He says it’s an appealing, interconnected space where he can talk with his professional colleagues, many of whom are also teachers or have once been teachers, and where students can become part of the teaching process by watching him think in real time.

MATTHEW CHALMERS: People often artificially segment teaching and research away from each other. For me, they kind of play together. I teach classes that I’m really interested in, in ways that really interest me, and that then feeds back into my research. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Chalmers describes his Twitter as an intersection between Samaritan Christianity discourse and labor rights discourse — his two passions coming together. He says he finds Twitter ephemeral and doesn’t remember a lot of his old Tweets, but he’s especially proud of the ones where he links images of the artifacts and ancient history books he works with, starting conversations between his followers more often than not. 

MATTHEW CHALMERS:  Those are the Tweets that always make me feel kind of warm and fuzzy inside. I like those Tweets.

JORDAN MANGI:  Pictured: My students’ real-time reaction to the Gospel of Mark *paper shredder sound effect* 

DAISY CONANT: Post-workout mimosas! My mentor is a vibe.

REBECCA SHAID: While the choice to tweet from the lecture podium gives the chance to connect with students in new ways and turn teaching into a conversation, it can also create a larger conversation about boundaries. This is a conversation that Chalmers and Nettles have both taught about extensively, because it involves privacy on both ends. Are there certain things that you can’t say when students are watching, even in the name of honesty? On the other hand, what information about the classroom shouldn’t leave the classroom, even if it would create a lively thread?

ILANA AROUGHETI: Both Nettles and Chalmers draw the line at putting out identifying information about students and at reaching out over DM. They find it more of an extension of their personal ethics of care than a hard-and-fast rule of professionalism and professorhood.

ARIONNE NETTLES: And I very much understand people who want to have really clear boundaries between student and teacher, so I get it, but I think that what works for me overall, is that I’m a human. I want my students to know that I’m a human, because then I think that when we make mistakes, we are a little bit more forgiving with each other.

MATTHEW CHALMERS: I don’t stop students from following me, but I typically don’t actively seek out and interact with students. My Twitter persona, if you like, pre-exists this teaching job. There’s also a level of professional distance that’s important when you are a professor and the students are your students. You have a sort of soft duty of care to behave in kind of a responsible way. And one of the things that means is not doing things that might make students uncomfortable. And it might make a student uncomfortable if you start interacting with them directly on social media — you don’t know that it’s not going to, so best to respect everyone’s space and respect boundaries. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Our guests also pointed out that not everyone has the same options when it comes to what to Tweet. Chalmers is proud of his outspoken threads about tenure and labor rights, but recognizes that as a visiting professor, he might face less pushback than one who’s actively trying to go up for tenure. Nettles keeps in mind the rules of the newsrooms she still writes for, which may limit reporters from covering certain stories if they have opinionated Tweets related to the topic. Everything’s a balancing act.

ARIONNE NETTLES: But I feel like if I make an educated opinion, and I can give that out because what I’m saying is backed by facts, I’m not making up stuff. And sometimes, especially when emotions can run high, you do sometimes think and say, “Oh my gosh I want to say something kind of off the cuff,” but you reel it back in. I’ve had a few jobs where I’m like, “I’m afraid to share anything,” but also what I’ve found is that I have a lot less interaction with my work stuff when that was the only thing I posted. Because people who follow you also don’t want to just see you retweeting the headlines of articles and quotes and stuff all day.

JORDAN MANGI: Me cheating on Four Seasons Total Landscaping by reading about my side piece, the Mere Possibility that He’s Patti LaBelle’s Son.

JORDAN MANGI: BREAKING: in a weird pandemic body life, I have a lot of body pains when I get any vaccine (tetanus, flu). And… I think I am having phantom (sympathy? envy?) arm pains from the COVID vaccine from all the selfies — even though I haven’t been vaxxed yet! Anyone else having this?

ARIONNE NETTLES: Northwestern Twitter jokes are hilarious. Something will happen in the University, and I will just scroll and I will be over here laughing so hard, because I think that’s how we get through stuff, right? We get through stuff with laughter and being in a community with each other.

REBECCA SHAID: Being yourself online, balancing work and play and keeping your sense of humor throughout it all looks different for each of Nettles and Chalmers’ colleagues at Northwestern. It’s something many students have found Medill Professor Steven Thrasher, or @thrasherxy, has mastered. Thrasher’s career has taken him all over the journalism world, from his start at the Village Voice to a yearlong project with StoryCorps. Yet all his tweets feel like you’re reading texts from a friend. As an aspiring journalist getting started myself, I feel like it’s nearly impossible to feel comfortable being myself online and I only have 33 followers on Twitter. Somehow, Thrasher has managed to do it with over 35,000.

ILANA AROUGHETI: I only have a few tweets from my account to date, so I completely feel you on that one. Thrasher’s account, however, is so well-liked to the point that it even has a fan club. After Thrasher taught their section of Journalism 201-1 in the fall of 2019, four of his students started a group chat to discuss all things @thrasherxy. They loved the class, they loved him and together, they love his Twitter. And this group chat is still going strong. We talked to one member of the chat, Medill sophomore and Daily staffer Carlos Stinson-Maas.

CARLOS STINSON-MAAS: The more personal, the better, you know, because he talks a lot about his work and what he writes about. He’s very passionate about his work, which I do find really interesting on Twitter, but it’s always cool to see what your professors do outside of the classroom. And he does. He is pretty liberal about tweeting about that kind of stuff. And so that’s always fun, to be like, “Oh, here’s a picture from his apartment of, like, how he’s doing today or like a joke he makes about a Broadway musical,” or whatever. Those are always like, I think a lot more entertaining for us. I honestly wouldn’t have anticipated a ton of connectivity from professors. I think in Medill you would expect a little bit, just because of the journalism aspect and how important Twitter is in that field, that people would be tweeting about stories or relevant topics. But I think he is kind of in another league of, like, Twitter fame.

REBECCA SHAID: Thrasher doesn’t Tweet specifically for his students — or for anyone, when so many different people are watching. But seeing their professors tuning into the same Northwestern jokes, industry insecurities and pop culture phenomena as them was a bonding moment for the group chat.

CARLOS STINSON-MAAS: Right after the Four Seasons landscaping thing happened with Rudy Giuliani and Trump, (Thrasher) just tweeted a video that was like, “Me, like, whenever I forget about Four Seasons (Total) Landscaping, and then I like, remember it” or something like that, like, “When I remember four seasons” has given us a thing.’ And then it’s just like, 20 seconds of him, like, just like cracking up. And he just, like, sits there and then just starts laughing. And it just, like, just made my day. It was funny, and it’s just so nice. It’s good to see your professors in that kind of light, just like enjoying themselves and being funny. 

REBECCA SHAID: It may have been the humor that first drew us all to Twitter, and to the NU Twitterverse — 

ILANA AROUGHETI: — But it’s community that keeps us there. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ilana Arougheti. 

REBECCA SHAID: And I’m Rebecca Shaid. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me and Ilana Arougheti. A huge shoutout to Daisy Conant, Jordan Mangi and Maia Spoto for lending your voices to this episode. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey. 

Email: [email protected], [email protected]
Twitter: @rebeccashaid , @ilana_arougheti

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