Joelle Renstrom

Social Media as a Research Tool for Undergrads

Finding new ways to teach students discernment of cutting-edge news is an important part of this Boston University College of General Studies lecture. Professor Joelle Renstrom discusses the power of social media and how it adds learning value for students both inside and out of the classroom.

I’m Joelle Renstrom, a lecturer in rhetoric at Boston University’s College of General Studies. I used social media, particularly Twitter, as a research tool when I taught Rhetoric 102 and WR150, and I still use it in my Rhetoric 103 course. Now that BU has rolled out new general education requirements, I also incorporate social media into my Rhetoric 104 course, in which we practice visual rhetoric and digital/multimedia modes of expression.

How My Students Learn Using Twitter

In my current Rhetoric 103 course (and in my former Rhetoric 102 and WR150 courses), students focus on research methodologies. The conventional way of doing that was to bring them to the library and have them explore databases, archives, and other sources. That’s all well and good, but a number of our research projects involve timely subjects, such as cancel culture, climate change and the anthropocene, the digital revolution (especially robots and artificial intelligence), and space exploration. It’s tough to find timely, cutting-edge material in the library, because it’s being communicated in real-time online and reflects ongoing scientific progress and cultural evolution.

There’s new research coming out on a daily basis and in my experience, social media, and particularly Twitter, is the best way to both stay on top of the research, as well as glean insights into what the public knows and how they feel about it. On Twitter, I follow thousands of people who are in robotics/AI, astronomy, climate studies, and cybersecurity. I take my students through my Twitter feed and share with them some of the most exciting news of the moment and how people are reacting.

In my RH103 course, students write a research paper about a common misconception, such as flat-earth theory or the idea that vaccines cause autism. Students research (conventionally) the origin of the misconception, and then they research how the misconception spread. Students analyze the rhetoric that helps spread the misinformation, which almost always is observable on social media. They can determine the use or weight of scientific evidence versus anecdotal evidence, analyze anecdotes that seem particularly resonant, or identify logical fallacies in the claims. They also think about why people tend to believe misconceptions or fake news. 

I show them how to search and how to use a hashtag. We develop a class hashtag, such as #RH102, and if one of us finds a really cool article that might be helpful or interesting to somebody else in the class we just retweet it using that hashtag. So when they get on Twitter, if they want to really quick jump to stuff related to class, they can just search the class hashtag and all of that great material will come up for them.

Impact on Classroom Interactions and Learning

I find that when students come back into class, they are really excited. They might say, “Whoa, did you guys see what Ray Kurzweil tweeted yesterday?” or something about some other famous scientist or engineer or manufacturer. It helps them follow the news in a really specific way. They get really excited about science news, and they come into class ready to talk about something like a really cool argument on Twitter between two robot designers. Students will sometimes quote tweets or reference a Twitter conversation in their papers. An example would be Elon Musk tweeting that they automated too many positions at Tesla and how that was a mistake. Something like that fits so perfectly in a paper about technological unemployment.

Students also hone their “baloney detectors” via social media. They often come in talking about a specific tweet or meme that they find particularly compelling, ridiculous, or fallacies. This is the perfect chance to build in lessons about ethos, credibility, and source validity. Do you believe this tweet or this person? Why or why not? Do other people believe it? Why or why not? We can apply lessons we all need to be really thinking about in terms of evaluating our sources of information, as well as why “fake news” contains rhetorical power. 

I would recommend this approach to other faculty if they think it makes sense in their classes. It’s certainly not right for every class. But if you’re working on research, rhetoric, logical fallacies, social media discourse, the distortion of information on social media, or any sort of cutting-edge topic, why not give it a shot?

This story was originally posted in 2017 and has been updated to represent 2020 social media trends. Professor Joelle Renstrom currently teaches RH103 and RH104 and utilizes these best practices in the classroom.

Learn more about a variety of faculty resources at Digital Learning & Innovation.