When thinking about who to approach for an interview about Facebook use as an academic, I didn't have to think long, because Thijs Porck was the obvious choice. Apart from being responsible for medieval cat paws going viral and having written about his use of Facebook for the university news site several times, he was also awarded the Humanities Faculty Teaching Prize earlier this year, where his use of Facebook was specifically mentioned. Thijs is a PhD Candidate with the Centre for the Arts in Society and teaches classes mainly focussed on Old English. I hope you enjoy the interview about his use of Facebook and his Facebook group Old English Enthusiasts.
Why did you choose to start a Facebook group for your students?
"The decision to start a Facebookgroup for students of Old English (the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England roughly between 500 and 1100) arose from a need for ‘more Old English’, among teachers as well as students. Within the English Department, we teach two BA-courses on the language and culture of early medieval England and, although we can treat a lot of material in these courses, there simply isn’t time to deal with everything. We never get around to dealing with certain interesting aspects of our field, such as deciphering original manuscripts, runic inscriptions, rarely studied texts and recent archaeological discoveries. Our students apparently thought so too: in the course evaluations, some students complained about the fact that the third year course Old English literature lasted only one semester and not two.
I made the group in the summer of 2012 and, by now, we have reached a total of 185 members. The greater majority of these members are Leiden University students who have followed one or two courses on Old English and simply wanted more. Together with my colleague Rolf Bremmer, I post a message almost at a daily basis, ranging from recent Anglo-Saxon news, anecdotes found in early medieval chronicles, Old English translation exercises to Old English memes.”
What value does it add for you?
"For me, the value of the Facebook group is threefold. First of all, it is a great testing ground for new teaching material: I can find out what topics my students like and I can reuse some of the successful material in lectures and tutorials. Second, it creates and sustains a community of interested students, who will be more likely to follow our advanced courses in Old English and participate in extra-curricular events. In the last two years, our advanced BA and MA-courses are attracting more students. As for extracurricular events, last year a ‘film night’ about King Arthur was visited by over forty students and a few months ago twenty members of the group joined me for a ‘field trip’ to the exhibition on the ‘Golden Middle Ages’ in the Museum of Antiquities, followed by a lecture on Anglo-Saxon royal burials. Lastly, the group forces me to keep up-to-date in the field and renew and revise my material. To give an example: this year, I have been giving the members of the group translation exercises from Old English proverb collections, a genre of texts I was not all that familiar with. Whilst preparing these little translation exercises, I came across an interesting proverb and decided to do some more research, which has turned into an article that will be published next year in the peer-reviewed journal Notes & Queries (Oxford University Press).”
How does Facebook work for you? Do you only use it professionally in the group or in other ways as well?
“Apart from the Facebook group for the students, I professionally use Facebook to keep me updated on my field of expertise (I am a member of various groups and pages that deal with Anglo-Saxon England and Old English language and literature). I have also started using Facebook to promote a conference I am involved in: The Lucas Graduate Conference 2015; it is a nice, light-hearted way of spreading the news about the conference.
On a more personal level, I also use Facebook to share pictures of my dog and cat with friends and family.
When reading about Facebook use among academics and teachers, they often express worry about the possibilities of their professional and personal lives intruding on each other. How would you allay those fears?
Hm. I suppose one way of avoiding this is by making sure you do not ‘be-friend’ students. So far, I have only accepted ‘friend requests’ from students that have passed their BA and whose thesis I personally supervised. It is a nice way to keep track of what they go on to do after they have completed their studies.
Do you use any other social media?
I have recently begun using Academia.edu actively; it is an interesting way to keep track of colleagues you meet at conferences and you are alerted to interesting articles that are published in your fields of interest.
I maintain a blog for the Old English memes I post on the Facebook group and I have written three guest blogs for MedievalFragments, the blog of the Turning Over a New Leaf project, led by Erik Kwakkel. My blogpost ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats Among Medieval Manuscripts’ went viral and has been read over 60,000 times.
I have a LinkedIn account but do not use it very often.
Any tips or tricks?
“I have made the conscious choice of making a closed Facebook group rather than a ‘fanpage’. This way, members of the group can post things they find interesting or ask questions directly to the group as a whole. It also makes it easier to keep out ‘spammers’ and you can control, to some extent, who is able to see the material you post. One disadvantage of a group is that there is no ‘statistics-tab’; so you can’t see the total number of likes, the most successful posts, etc.
When it comes to posting stuff on Facebook: Make sure your posts are not too long- keep it brief and add some humour. Adding pictures to words often works better than words alone. You should also try to keep your group ‘alive’ by posting at least once or twice a week, otherwise the group will be less likely to appear on the timeline of your members.”