Chapter 6: Gathering: Assembling actors, maintaining relationships


Chapter 6 introductory graphicA single tweet and the hashtag with which it participates provide a point of departure in this Gathering. I first explored the exchange which unfolded from the tweet below and the interrelations between the human participants. This exchange and the #teamenglish hashtag which helped to bring it together, brought me to a second, longer series of interactions assembled by and around a nonhuman actor, the ‘crib sheet.’ Finally I followed the hashtag to the #teamenglish ‘community’ it assembles, then compared and contrasted that with a similarly enacted sister community, #mfltwitterati.

Making a request by way of a tweet is a common practice amongst educators on Twitter. Levels of response vary, but can be assisted by Twitter. Where a hashtag or a mention is included, reach and therefore the likelihood of response are increased. What unfolds subsequently is much harder to predict.

The above tweet in which Lauran asked about marking policies in English Departments, led to some aspects of educator practice on Twitter one might have anticipated, but also into new arenas. In that tweet #teamenglish helped to extend the exchange. Two of the respondents did not follow Lauran, so were only able to participate either as a result of following the hashtag, or perhaps as a result of following one of the other respondents.

Mentoring is a professional development activity which has become increasingly common in schools and on initial teacher education courses. It might therefore come as no surprise that similar activity should bleed across into Twitter, or at least, that the practices and discourses surrounding mentoring make the jump. What is also no surprise is that where mentoring is found, the nature and form it takes morphs. Where mentoring practices occur on Twitter, the open arena obliges them to adapt, with episodes generally being shorter, more timely, unplanned, less private, and involving more individuals than the conventional mentor-mentee pair.

Within the mentoring exchange, the simple act of sharing a single resource led to a rich and complex unfolding. In digital format and distributed through Twitter, a resource shared can precipitate a cascade of re-sharing. Furthermore, immersed as it is within a culture of reuse, repurpose and remix, it travels further and does more. The retweet helps it on its journey; likes and replies provide feedback and critique. The crib sheet travelled round Twitter timelines, outwards into classrooms in hard copy, then back into Twitter as photographs embedded within yet more tweets, but remaining connected with the original through Twitter’s threading. All the while the sheet shifted and changed, responding to the contexts in which it surfaced.

Connecting together the mentoring episode and the crib sheet was the #teamenglish hashtag which also led off in another new direction. People have aggregated together for one purpose or another, around shared interests or endeavours, since the early days of the World Wide Web (Rheingold, 1993). In addition to all the activities in which hashtags are engaged as outlined in ‘The Hashtag’ section, they also provide a point around which people can rally. Both #teamenglish and #mfltwitterati are self-proclaimed communities which, given the ‘mission statement’ of @Team_English1, are engaged in nothing more than resource and idea sharing.  On the contrary, it transpires that participants in each are involved in a range of professional activities including resource sharing, asking questions, discussing issues and providing mutual support. For these groups, Twitter is partly conduit, partly stage and partly hub; the flâneur might see it similarly to a town square. Activity takes place here, traffic is channelled by it and passes through, and it connects with other locations. Group members meet here, metaphorically kiss cheeks and hug, exchange gifts and news, but also pass through, leaving trails to their next stop at Dropbox, the wiki or blog. They might even meet for a pizza.

Although both #teamenglish and #mfltwitterati have principal actors (generally those who founded them), organisational labour is distributed amongst a wider team. In a similar way to EduTweetOz as mentioned in the previous Gathering, different levels of participation are apparent. Whereas in a conventional educational setting where roles are established and conferred within some hierarchy or structure, the roles which emerge within these groups seem to respond to needs as they arise and are more contingent on circumstances. Jobs which need doing are recognised internally and are taken on by the person or people identifying the task. Maintaining either group as a successful enterprise involves considerable unpaid labour, whether for @Team_English1,, the MFLTwitterers list, Dropbox, the MFLTwitterati Dropbox wiki, or in co-ordinating the offline meet-ups. Though these activities may fall on a core of motivated individuals, the effort of resource sharing is distributed more widely amongst the whole community.

One would hope the unpaid labour that people invest across #teamenglish is recompensed by the benefits they accrue. Participants presumably get at least as much out as they put in. But what of the nonhuman participants? How are they remunerated? That might have little meaning in the context of the #teamenglish hashtag, but Twitter, Dropbox, the smartphone manufacturer, the internet service provider and other businesses are recompensed either financially, or by the data provided as a result of #teamenglish activity. One might speculate on the extent to which people reflect on that as they participate in group activities.

Although #mfltwitterati has a longer genealogy, it is the notion of #teamxxx which seems to have gained traction recently. Since @Team_English1, further Twitter curriculum subject accounts have emerged;  @Team_Maths1, @TeamScienceEdu and @TeamRE_UK are just three of which I’m aware.

How this addressed my research questions

In the previous Gathering, I showed a number of ways in which a hashtag can affect other actors. In the opening tweet of this Gathering, it was the #teamenglish hashtag which made the difference in opening out the exchange to draw in other people. Nevertheless other actors also played significant parts. Twitter’s ‘threading’ allowed the conversations to remain intact and be traced; photo previews provided visible, meaningful exemplars; and quote tweets plus notifications drew in others. Others have noted how pre-service (Carpenter, 2015) or novice teachers (Smith Risser, 2013) can benefit from the support afforded by networks of mentors. This study adds to those findings by illustrating that nonhuman participants broaden the cast of actors, open out mentoring episodes to include others and permit role switching between mentor and mentee.

Sharing resources is one of the most common activities in which teachers on Twitter become engaged (Carpenter and Krutka, 2014; Sauers & Richardson, 2015). Even studies which didn’t quantify or compare different activities mentioned resource sharing as at least one strand of participation. Although exchanging resources is part of professional practice, it would be difficult to make the case that it equates to learning (Wesely, 2013). What the crib sheet episode reveals however, is how productive and generative sharing a single resource can be. Not only was the crib sheet shared and reshared, but it was illustrated in practice, opened to scrutiny, discussed at length and adjusted for different settings. As it travelled it jumped from one curriculum area to another, between educational phases and across international borders. One might argue a case for the crib sheet as a boundary object in the way they enable ‘a sort of arrangement that allow different groups to work together without consensus’ (Star, 2010).

A range of contributory factors could have produced the flurry of activity around the crib sheet. Greg’s blog post, the need to address marking load, or the crib sheet itself could have precipitated the outcomes that people described. On the other hand, given how far the sheet seemed to range and the number of reactions it provoked, one might argue that it was the tweet that generated the greatest effect. All of these actors are crucial once we think about assemblage. The tweet alone couldn’t exist without the Twitter platform, which in turn relies on the connectivity that the Internet provides. Greg’s blog post too relies on the same backbone, but would have been far less impactful without the capacity for the inclusion of multimedia. Those who are critical of sociomaterial accounts might point to Greg’s centrality; without his creativity, his technical ability and his desire to share the product of his labours, none of this would have been possible. That is indeed true, but if we also erased any of the nonhumans to which we might not ascribe the creativity or generosity that Greg displayed, the outcome as described above still dissolves. It is not a single thing, but the whole that enables the crib sheet to succeed.

The #teamenglish and #mfltwitterati ‘communities’ are more than people coming together around shared interests or goals. They are entangled with the nonhuman actors which could arguably also constitute the community. Retweets for example resurface tweets in new timelines and perhaps help forge new connections. As discussed earlier, the retweet plays a significant role for #teamenglish particularly, as indicated by the proportion of retweets within the corpus. boyd et al (2010) saw this as more than mere copying and rebroadcasting, and as a conversational practice; ‘not simply to get messages out to new audiences, but also to validate and engage with others.’ Perhaps it is one way through which #teamenglish is enacted, renewed and extended?

Other nonhuman actors also help to produce the two communities. Replies to tweets, when working with Twitter’s threading algorithms, provide structured conversations from which sense-making becomes easier. Pinned and author-threaded tweets bring related information together, concentrating it for ease of access. The #mfltwitterati hashtag and MFL Twitterers list, sometimes together, sometimes apart, and sometimes with hashtags like #langchat, entangle tweets, people, resources and ideas to translate teaching practice from person to person and classroom to classroom. Each of these two communities perceives itself as a group of people involved in the common endeavour to learn from one another. Attending to the nonhuman participants reveals how those communities persist, or don’t, yet their ontological status as constitutive elements of the community is rarely discussed.

boyd, d., Golder, S., & Lotan, G. (2010). Tweet, tweet, retweet: Conversational aspects of retweeting on twitter. Paper presented at the System Sciences (HICSS), 2010 43rd Hawaii International Conference on, 1-10.
Carpenter, J. P. (2015). Preservice teachers’ microblogging: Professional development via twitter. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 15(2), 209-234.
Carpenter, J. P., & Krutka, D. G. (2014). Chat it up: Everything you wanted to know about twitter chats but were afraid to ask. Learning & Leading with Technology, (February), 10-15.
Rheingold, H. (1993). The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier (1st ed.). Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Sauers, N. J., & Richardson, J. W. (2015). Leading by following an analysis of how K-12 school leaders use twitter. NASSP Bulletin, 99(2), 127-146. doi:10.1177/0192636515583869
Star, S. L. (2010). This is not a boundary object: Reflections on the origin of a concept. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 35(5), 601-617. doi:10.1177/0162243910377624
Wesely, P. M. (2013). Investigating the community of practice of world language educators on twitter. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(4), 305-318. doi:10.1177/0022487113489032

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