Tuesday, February 21, 2012

From Thesis Statement to "Tweethis" Statement

Perhaps nothing is more central to good writing than the thesis statement. This is the core of one's argument, the central point, the claim that focuses the writing and engages the audience. For a long time I have advocated using better thesis statements, those that will divide an educated audience and do the heavy lifting of persuasive writing (see also this Prezi on thesis statements by former student Erin Hamson).

Online writing has only sharpened the need for thesis statements. However, since mid-2011, I have been promoting an adaptation of the thesis statement to the digital realm. I call this the "tweethis" statement. As one might guess, this combines the Twitter micro-post with the thesis micro-argument. In short, what if one's argument could be condensed to something only 140 characters long? But also: what if one shared this "tweethis" through social networks -- not just publishing a summary of one's completed work, but circulating one's working argument in order to refine this and to gain social proof?

Tweethis statements incorporated into a book.
They also circulate on social networks while writing is in progress.

And so, I now require my students to create a tweethis statement as a sort of in-progress, working thesis statement which they must share within appropriate social networks. And then, once their writing has been formalized and finalized, I again require my students to publish their tweethis to appropriate audiences who could benefit from being referred to the more complete, finished writing.

To be clear, then, the "tweethis" statement is a concise argument that students circulate within social networks in order to draw interest, refine their argument, and build social proof (about which I have written much lately, see "Making your content legit: Four phases of social proof" and "Student Successes with Social Proof"). It can also serve as an executive summary of their more finished, formal writing which can also be circulated through social networks.

Note in the image above how my writing students from a prior semester used their tweethis statements within the table of contents of an eBook which we put together about Writing about Literature in the Digital Age. That is an example of publishing a summary of completed work via the tweethis statement. But equally important is the in-progress publication of the tweethis.

Of course, Twitter is a great way to circulate a tweethis statement, but it is not the only social medium available. Facebook, Google+, or other subject-specific social networks (such as a Ning network) are all fitting places to float one's working concept to audiences who might be willing to provide useful feedback.

And so, as an experiment, I will post a tweethis associated with this blog post. Then, if I'm lucky enough to generate some responses, I will post these to demonstrate how a tweethis can indeed provide social proof (that there is indeed interest in one's idea and an audience for a larger argument built upon the tweethis).

Here's my tweethis, which I plan to post on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+:

Students should circulate "tweethis" statements to refine their writing & publicize their work. #writing #composition 
Watch for updates to come... (and feel free to comment on this blog post or respond to where I've posted this tweethis publicly).

Feb 21, 2012, 9:20 am

I love how easy this is! Just 9 minutes after I made this post someone had already retweeted my tweethis:

Also, I updated my post to add in the Prezi presentation about thesis statements that a prior student of mine created (since she is currently a writing tutor). I sent her an email telling her I'd used her content and inviting her to respond to this post. I'd love to see what a current writing tutor thinks about using "tweethis" statements. Hope she responds.

Feb 21, 2012, 9:42 am
Within an hour of my posting, two different writing instructors among my Facebook friends liked my tweethis on Facebook. As you can see, this has begun some conversation. Melissa is clearly interested in where this leads (she teaches business writing).

Feb 21, 2012, 11:54 am

Before noon I'd gotten a great response back from Brian Jackson, Associate Coordinator of University Writing at BYU (a colleague whom I'd emailed asking to look at my tweethis post). He was happy to give me permission to post his response, which I much appreciate:
Hey Gideon, 
I think this is a cool idea. Students get far-flung feedback from their weak-ties networks as they prepare to write. It harnesses the best of the creative writing workshop, which itself harnesses the "wisdom of crowds" principle for improving quality and judgment. You also engage students' motivation, since they will receive swift feedback from their peer groups in digital publics.  
I can think of challenges to the model--not because of the digital angle but because of what I understand about feedback and how people learn to write. We operate within two competing models of writing instruction: [1] general writing skills instruction that prepares students to participate in various publics for various purposes using various strategies, and; [2] specific apprenticeship writing, more attuned to the concept of expertise (in theories of learning) and specific discourse communities with specialized literacy practices. Heaven knows because of my work in the dept & my understanding of rhetoric that I'm heavily invested in making [1] work for students. But there is compelling research evidence that the most effective writing instruction happens in [2], the apprenticeship model where students assume a professional identity in a specific community of practice and write specific genres directed at specific audiences for specific professional purposes, etc etc. 
An uninformed understanding of the tweethis is that it takes an argument outside a community of practice and flings it out to a community with only one arbitrarily shared attribute: The people are all friends with the tweeter. They do not have a vested interest in the outcome of the paper, nor do they know the ways of making knowledge in the community of practice--unless the tweethis is directed to other members of the class. It seems more productive to share a tweethis with a specific group with a vested interest in the outcome of the project, a group that has--either via instructor fiat or intersubjective agreement--a set of principles, like a rubric, that guides the writing.

But it looks like you've already thought this through. On your "social proof" post, you talk about at least 4 possible audiences for creating social proof for students and receiving feedback from groups that are either passport-carriers or card-carrying members of communities of practice. That's an incredibly useful post for understanding how to make the apprenticeship model work in digital writing. I've had a hard time making this work for myself because I'm timid & turned off by the self-promotion/marketing required to get my writing out.

Thanks for sharing this with me. You know you could probably get this stuff published, but you wouldn't like the venues. :)


And my response:
Thanks for a generous, quick, and insightful reply. Would you be okay with me publishing this on my blog? You bring up such excellent points. Distinguishing appropriate publics and gauging the kairos of sharing are probably going to be key for 21st century writing -- especially when the public / private or personal / professional tends to get mixed up online. I'm increasingly drawn to the belief that we must be training writers in social skills (that include but are not limited to social media). Anyway, thanks for helping me with the thinking. This is making the case, perfectly, for soliciting and sharing social proof. 

March 30, 2012

Wanted to link to a very successful example of a student circulating her Tweethis and getting some great response. Ellie shows a screenshot of the Facebook exchange about her tweethis that really helped her refine her ideas.