Twitter, Empathic Learning, Intellectual Community

William Hogarth,  Scene from Shakespeare's  The Tempest (c. 1735)

William Hogarth, Scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest (c. 1735)

The other day, I tweeted a screenshot plucked from Bethanne Patrick's @thelithub interview with Sunil Yapa to the students in my Intro to British Literature course. Yapa's meditation on empathy as a radical act and corollary to the practice of reading registered as timely for a few reasons, including that our class had just discussed the relationship between education and empathy in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Prospero's self-education removes him from the public sphere: despite his duty to serve his community as Duke of Milan, he admits "my library / Was dukedom large enough." Against his individualist--even solipsistic--retreat from the social, his daughter, Miranda, invests in the lives of others. After witnessing the storm (that, unbeknownst to her, Prospero orchestrated), she tells her father: "O, I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer." 

I came upon Yapa's thoughts on the alignment of empathy and reading via Twitter, mere moments after having led a workshop with my class where I initiated them into using social media as a tool for the course. Though I'd stressed that I wanted them to think of Twitter outside its function as a social media platform, Yapa's moving reflection on reading as necessarily social--"a profound act of imagination and human connection"--made me wonder if, when I made this plea, I implied that my students should be Prosperos when Twitter's potential for connectivity invites them to be Mirandas

Twitter demands brevity. Its 140-character limit precludes monologues, which, by definition, are mono-logical. On Twitter, students are neither expected nor able to dilate on an idea at length. As Jesse Stommel puts it in a recent piece, "Even a series of tweets strung together in succession creates opportunities at every turn for discussion. Each individual tweet becomes an addressable object, always a beginning and never a conclusion." On Twitter, as elsewhere, ideas get built as part of a dialogical process. When students engage with one another on Twitter, they reveal something essential about a humanities education: learning is not about “I” so much as it’s about “we.” 


Many of my students at SUNY New Paltz commute from places outside the town of New Paltz. Many of them have jobs. The kind of intellectual community that might take shape in places where students share time and space in ways mine don’t, or can’t, simply isn’t available to them, or to me. But even at universities where students, faculty, and staff live nearby, intellectual community seems hardly a given: it’s undermined by numerous forces, including the increasing corporatization of higher learning.

The institution puts us in silos. It conditions students and faculty to think of themselves as individuals, for whom education is an individual rather than social good. Too often, our pedagogy reiterates this attitude by encouraging competition and establishing hierarchies. Too often, we fail to ask ourselves what it might mean, and what it might look like, to extend our intellectual labour beyond the confines of the classroom, and beyond ourselves.  

During our workshop, I told my students I wanted them to think of their activities on Twitter as extensions of the intellectual community we’d started building in the classroom. I’m not sure to what degree we’ve realized this goal (it remains a work-in-progress) but I’ve found our daily face-to-face interactions consistently stimulating, challenging, and positive. I attribute at least part of the health of our learning environment to Twitter. My hope, in other words, that online dialogue would extend our intellectual community was perhaps too limited; in fact, Twitter has helped us to create our community, both within and outside the four walls of the classroom.

When students subscribed to the IntroBritLitStudents list, they joined a network of learners and thinkers. Of course, they already were members of such a network by virtue of having enrolled in the class. Perhaps subscribing to this list reminded my students that, despite what the typical classroom experience often suggests, their learning happens as part of a social (and cultural, and political) configuration. We're invested in ourselves and one another. Empathic learning requires precisely such a realization of the social context and potential of education. We've learned, and continue to learn, the wisdom Prospero comes to at the end of The Tempest—wisdom that, it seems, Miranda had all along.