The Things They Posted: Social Media Officers in Teaching

Adorning the front page of its May 1972 issue, GIRDA – an Asian-American monthly – had a cartoon of a white American officer in Vietnam demanding of an Asian-American soldier to “kill that gook, you gook.”

In April 1975, the United States undertook Operation Babylift, which evacuated approximately 3,300 South Vietnamese babies, who would be resettled in the US and its allies. President Gerald Ford publicly posed for pictures cradling orphans.

Ten years later, British musician Paul Hardcastle released ‘19’, a song named after the (disputed) average age of American soldiers in Vietnam, and which became the top selling single in 13 countries for 1985.

I am well-versed in the Vietnam War. I took a master’s module on the war, wrote my subsequent dissertation on the media’s role in the conflict, and I designed my own course entitled the Vietnam War in American History and Culture. And yet, I must confess that prior to teaching that module over the past three years, I knew a grand total of zero of the stories and cultural artefacts listed above.
Thanks to my students, I now know all of them (and countless other fascinating sources and stories there isn’t space to include here). They uncovered and shared these sources as part of my Vietnam module’s Social Media Officer (SMO) role. Below, I’ll outline some of the basics of that role and why it might be a helpful teaching/assessment tool for educators in American Studies and AmericanHistory.

So, what is the Social Media Officer (SMO) role?
At the first seminar, students sign up for a week in which they will be the SMO for their seminar group. During the week prior to the seminar taking place, they are required to conduct their own research for primary sources that they think will illuminate understanding of that week’s topic. Posts can include pictures, letters, music, film, television footage, cartoons, or any other relevant source. I also encourage the students to follow the social media accounts, although that is optional.

Students then log onto the Twitter/Instagram accounts that I have set up for the course
(@Vietnamgu) and post three sources with commentary. Moreover, I have students choose one of the sources they post online and do a 5-6 minute source analysis presentation. For completing these two tasks, students receive a grade worth 10% of their overall course grade.

Why use the SMO role?
Assessment Variety – students, in my experience, simply enjoy doing something different to their standard assessments

Develop Student Research Skills – particularly helpful for those students going onto do their dissertation

Expose Students to New Sources – in other words, sources I cannot cover in lectures or with seminar reading

Social Media Experience – there is an increasing array of jobs for which social media
experience is desirable

Creates a Revision Archive – students can revisit before exams

It Benefits the Teacher – as outlined in the introduction, it has added significantly to my knowledge of a subject that I had studied for years.

How have students responded to the SMO role?
In my experience, overwhelmingly positive. Largely as a result of this SMO role, I was lucky enough to win the 2018-19 university-wide award for Best Use of Technology in Learning, and was shortlisted for Highly Innovative Teaching. Students also routinely – and unprompted – note their enjoyment of the SMO role in course evaluations. By comparison, in five years of using the SMO role, I’ve had about two negative comments.

To ensure students feel ready to take on the role, I prepare and share an extensive Q&A document, which is on the course’s digital platform, provide them with a list of digital archives, and give them plenty of time in the first seminar to raise any queries.

Okay, but there have to be some drawbacks?

Yes, there are a few, but in my experience they are minor:

Students who don’t like Social Media – this has not been as much of an issue as I thought it might be. Since, I am not asking students to use their own accounts, it means there are no privacy issues when posting sources. Moreover, those who are not keen on following the social media accounts are still benefiting from hearing the source-driven presentations from other students.

First Image on Search Engine – inevitably there may be the odd student who posts the first image they see after Googling, for example, ‘Vietnam War and Gender relations’, but this is not a frequent problem.

Inaccurate Posts – this is perhaps the trickiest issue, although again, it is rare. If a student posts something that is incorrect and the error is significant, then I would speak to the student privately and ask them to amend the post.

Conclusion
The Social Media Offer role is a great tool if you want to offer your students an innovative assessment, while at the same time developing both their research skills and your own subject knowledge. Moreover, it is applicable for all courses where sources are available online.

If anyone has any queries then I’d be delighted to discuss – mark.mclay@glasgow.ac.uk

About Mark McLay

Mark McLay is Lecturer in American History at the University of Glasgow. His first book, The Republican Party and the War on Poverty: 1964-1981 will be published by Edinburgh University Press in May 2021. He is co-host of the American History Too! podcast.
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