U.Va. professors employ Twitter to participate in history as it happens

How three faculty members’ perceptions of and interactions on the social network educate users, stimulate connectivity


U.Va. faculty members (from left to right) Sally Hudson, Jalane Schmidt and John Edwin Mason utilize Twitter in a variety of ways. 

Photos courtesy University of Virginia

As the number of individuals around the world who are connected to the internet and online social media networks increases every year, Twitter continues to stand out as one of the world’s largest online communication and networking platforms. 

The social media platform on which users communicate with each other through 280 character “tweets” was founded in 2006 and is well recognized around the world. The network boasts 336 million users — users including politicians, celebrities and business executives — giving conversations on the network both credibility and profound influence on global culture. 

When many college students and young adults think of Twitter, they often imagine clever hashtags, viral memes and catching up with friends via direct message. But one thing many of these individuals don’t consider is the network’s ability to be used by professors as a powerful tool to advance thoughtful discourse and connection around the world. Several University professors in particular choose to use Twitter for a myriad of purposes, including educational conversation, connecting with other colleagues in their field, public safety and even fighting white supremacy in Charlottesville and beyond.

Connectivity and opportunity 

One such professor recognized for her use of Twitter as a teaching tool is Sally Hudson — who joined Twitter in 2012 as @SallyLHudson — a labor economist and assistant professor of education, economics and public policy in the Batten School. Amidst retweets of ESPN and local news outlets, Hudson often engages her over 2,000 followers in conversations about the economics and policy involved in American education multiple times a day, reflecting Hudson’s efforts to bridge the gap between personal interests and academic endeavors. 

Hudson was initially reluctant about joining the site and ultimately signed up as a result of pressure from a fellow University economist who “insisted that it was an important professional tool,” Hudson said during an interview with The Cavalier Daily. Eventually, Hudson discovered that Twitter was not only useful as an educational tool, but also as an important gateway to networking with individuals with backgrounds and fields of expertise much different than her own. 

“[Twitter is] a neat platform in that you can insert yourself in conversation with people that you would not necessarily be able to talk to because they’re from a slightly different profession than you are, and from there, you can have conversations that you wouldn’t otherwise have,” Hudson said. “There’s all sorts of opportunities that have come my way via Twitter that would not have happened if I was just working in traditional academic silos.”

In early July, Hudson tweeted a link to an article in The Salt Lake Tribune about voter turnout and mail-in ballots. She posed a question to her followers: “Any enterprising student got time for a rough cut diff-in-diff?” 

The tweet garnered several replies, including one with a graph from Twitter user Carson R. Aft, @carsonraft. Socratically, Hudson and the user questioned back and forth as they explored the data with a “difference-in-differences” econometric method. There’s no indication of where Hudson or @carsonraft were when they exchanged tweets, but on Twitter, location is not a limitation for education.

Assoc. History Prof. John Edwin Mason — who joined the site in March 2009 as @johnedwinmason— at the University, echoed Hudson’s sentiments that Twitter is a powerful resource for making unique connections with individuals outside of his usual network. Throughout his career, Mason has worked extensively with the history of photography and has found that many of his connections on the site have exposed him to novel ways of understanding the field. 

“One of the first things that happened is that I developed a network of people who were interested in photography … a variety of different kinds of connections into the professional photo community,” Mason said in an interview. “That was really useful in helping me develop my own ideas about photography.”

Through connectivity comes community, and Mason noted that connecting with other historians on Twitter led to an informal community with its own rapidly developing and acknowledged identity.

“There is a community of historians on Twitter,” Mason said. “We have our own hashtag. It’s ‘Twitterstorians.’ It’s a pretty active hashtag. There are tweets every day, but this informal community of historians on Twitter is actually quite large.”

Empowerment and activism 

Hudson acknowledged the capacity of Twitter to empower individuals from underrepresented demographic groups through connectivity — specifically, female educators from minority backgrounds. 

“One thing that became immediately obvious to me after joining Twitter is how important it is for scholars from underrepresented demographic groups, particularly [women] of color,” Hudson said. “Black female academics have a really cool thing going on on Twitter, because they’re so often the only one of themselves in their doctoral program, or in their department, and so being able to find those people is really special.”

Assoc. Religious Studies Prof. Jalane Schmidt — @Jalane_Schmidt — is one such black female educator who utilizes Twitter for activism purposes. Schmidt’s account is largely focused on “sounding the alarm,” or alerting citizens and promoting intervention against the swelling public presence of white supremacy in America — a phenomenon Schmidt describes as America’s house being on fire

“[Twitter] is part of the fight against the encroachment of fascism,” Schmidt said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “It’s actual work to maintain an ideological climate where it is shameful to be identified with …  these open, vile, violent white supremacists.”

Mason’s research and experience as a historian, along with a desire to be hands-on in the local community, has refined and shaped the way he has tweeted throughout his years on the social network. Although many of his tweets continue to revolve around history and photography, many more tweets highlight the history of Charlottesville — specifically, the city’s history of racial inequality, including the 2017 presence of white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville. 

“There is a conversation about the things that Charlottesville has been reluctant to address … and certainly racism and inequality are two of the things that have generally been outside of the public conversation in Charlottesville,” Mason said. “I think that Twitter is a great way to extend those conversations.”

Schmidt’s tweets captured the City’s ongoing struggle with white supremacy in the moment as her tweets during the deadly Unite the Right rally last August revealed the actions of white nationalists in Charlottesville to the world. These tweets, along with tweets providing vivid imagery of a brief, white supremacist torchlit march in front of the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park on Oct. 7, 2017 gained Schmidt national recognition. Schmidt was interviewed on CNN following the weekend of Aug. 11 and 12, and was highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2017 Influence List — for her constant activism and use of a 240-character tweet to capture history in the moment and instantaneously reveal the face of racism in America.

“We have these tools at our disposal that is social media,” Schmidt said. “This kind of microblogging format allows for quick, instantaneous dissemination of knowledge of these events. It makes more accessible those accounts of historical events.”

Schmidt’s tweets following the Oct. 7 march, which displayed photos of white nationalist protesters and resulted in their identification and their subsequent removal from their jobs, showcased the value of Twitter’s capacity to post photos and their ability to be immediately viewed by users from around the globe. 

“Sometimes [immediacy] shapes the way stories get told,” Mason said in regards to the way imagery on Twitter affects the way history unfolds following important events.

Schmidt also notes that the immediacy of image viewing on Twitter serves as a functional public safety tool for minority groups. For many people in marginalized communities, the dangers of racism and white supremacy strike deep personal cords, and Twitter is crucial in alerting them of dangerous local situations and in providing photographs of persons who are necessary to avoid, Schmidt said.

“White supremacy is dangerous, and I and other members of vulnerable populations need to be able to recognize them on site so that we can make a decision to get ourselves out of harm’s way,” Schmidt said. “[Twitter] can be an important tool for protecting the community to get those images out there, to be able to avoid these people.”

Roundtable discussions

Although the three professors choose how to tweet and connect with other users in a myriad of ways, the theme of making a large world more informed, connected and empowered strikes a strong chord with all three. 

Hudson chose to sum up the intimate connections Twitter fields as moments akin to a small group conversation over cups of coffee.

“What I think is really, really cool about Twitter is when I sit down to read it with my morning coffee, it’s like having a dozen other people around the table and you get to find out what they’re reading, too,” Hudson said. “But, those people are your favorite researchers and your favorite journalists and your favorite commentators — people you would never have a way of just reaching across the table and asking them, “So what are you reading with your coffee this morning?”

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