Can we please change the discourse on social media?

This summer I was fortunate to return again to the annual conference of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) and that of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). In considering overall themes that kept returning, especially in the ATHE conference, classroom use of social media and video-sharing platforms (e.x., Youtube, Vimeo, etc.)  kept returning. The two sessions that really stood out for me this year were “Teaching Theatre to the Youtube Generation” and “Designing Collaborative Exercises for Theatre Design,” the latter of which wasn’t necessarily intended to look at social media issues but the topic inadvertently became a major part of the discussion nonetheless.

I have to say that I’ve been disappointed overall in the discourse on this subject in the field. Too often I find the tone of discussions about technology’s role in the classroom and the theatre becomes paranoid and negative. I truly appreciated panelists in both the above-listed sessions for choosing to explore, in a practical way, how social media’s emerging presence in our lives could positively influence theatre and theatre education. In too many cases at these types of events, the mention of technology dissolves into a series of rants by professors complaining about their experiences with students texting in class. Yes, I can see how that could annoy someone. If it bothers you, state your expectations regarding technology at the beginning of the semester and enforce them. Or get over it and ignore it.

Could there be ways social media could be legitimately welcomed into the classroom, facilitating and deepening learning and artistic exploration as opposed to simply distracting from it? What if students were to tweet their “muddiest points” from a lecture to a class Twitter handle, allowing quick assessment and an easily accessible record of student understanding throughout the course? What if students were encouraged to text each other their thoughts following a performance viewing? What if conversations about communication in the theatre went further to explore the unique challenges of communicating via text, email, and social media platforms, something virtually all theatre professionals today are encountering to an increasing degree? What if theatre students were expected to make podcasts — living journals– of their rehearsal process? Could video footage kept in an e-portfolio enhance the traditional post-mortem discussion of a student production, or perhaps aid in encouraging a student to self-evaluate with greater objectivity? Which is more valuable to the Intro to Theatre student– an article about theatrical conventions in Kabuki or a Youtube clip showing those conventions in action? Access is an important aspect of the conversation for me as an educator. I use an outstanding textbook in my Introduction to Theatre course each semester that unfortunately many of my students honestly cannot afford. But all of my students have free access to Youtube clips at their public library. Could social media platforms offer possibilities for more equitable scaffolds for learning than more traditional resources?

These are the kinds of questions about technology that interest me as a teacher, and I suspect they would be of interest to others if the discourse could be framed and facilitated positively. Instead, I felt that too much of the dialogue many of my colleagues engage in seems almost fear-laden. There were comments about whether even the idea of bringing Youtube into a theatre classroom was self-defeating to the field. Is there a real concern that increase access to online video content will ultimately kill theatre? Well, I would respond, is there any evidence that increased access to recorded music via platforms like iTunes decreased live concert attendance? I would certainly be surprised if it were the case and would venture that most would still feel that the live communal event retains its place as a special experience in spite of such opportunities.

Yes, technology has its limits and problems. Professors need to be responsible in considering/controlling how openly student work should be shared, for instance. But exploring social media and strategizing around its potential challenges will yield more benefit for the future of the field than simply resisting it. Finally, as technology’s role in the workplace changes, given that theatres are workplaces, shouldn’t our students be encouraged to master those platforms that will like figure into their professional lives?

Question for the World: What role does social media play in your classroom or theatre? What role would you like to see it play in the future?