Sean Gerrity, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
The only appropriate way I can begin this discussion is with a statement of disclosure and recognition: Professor Alex Milsom, my colleague and officemate in the English department, first came up with the idea of using Snapchat in her classes. I adopted it from her, and I have also adapted a quote from another department colleague, Professor Cynthia Jones, in the title of this article: “Meeting students where they are.” For Professor Jones, this was a decidedly declarative statement: “Meet the students where they are.” She said it during one of our first new faculty orientation meetings last year, and I wrote it down on a post-it note and have kept it as a kind of mantra for my teaching ever since. I mention these two things, and these two women whose work and ideas I have borrowed and adapted, because we as teachers all exist in an intensely collaborative working environment. I strongly believe that the best teaching evolves out of collaborating, sharing ideas and assignments with each other, and talking about what works and doesn’t in the classroom, whether in meetings or in informal conversations in the hallways.
But I also share all this in light of the fact that a gendered dynamic is very often at play when it comes to ideas and who gets and takes credit for them in the workplace. A quick Google search of “men taking credit for women’s ideas” is instructive on this point. According to the writing on the subject, this “phenomenon” most often occurs at meetings, and there is a great deal written about its occurrences in the corporate world. But it can be especially insidious, I think, when it happens out of view of anyone else, without witness, effectively erasing entirely the woman whose idea it was in the first place.
All of this being said, I began experimenting with Snapchat in my classes in the fall of 2017, after learning that Prof. Milsom was doing it, and after having one of her students (also a woman) who happened to be in her office hours show me how to properly set my privacy settings and avoid becoming privy to the outside lives of students that they frequently broadcast to friends through this social media app. First, I made a Snapchat account designed solely and specifically for professional purposes (my username is profgerrity for anyone interested in following along). At the beginning of the semester, I share this username and its associated “snapcode” (an image students can scan with the app and immediately begin following my account) with the students. In my syllabi, the use of Snapchat by students is listed as a strictly voluntary, but encouraged, part of the course. I assure them, in class and in the text of the syllabi, that they will not miss out on anything required of them in the course by opting not to use Snapchat. These requirements are always communicated via the syllabus, in class, and through Blackboard reminder announcements.
So far, I have experimented with using Snapchat in my classes in two primary ways: (1) to send reminders to students about upcoming deadlines and assignments, and (2) to inform students of campus events, activities, and organizations that may be of interest.
But perhaps it may be helpful to backtrack slightly and explain how Snapchat, as a unique social media application, actually works. Those familiar with Twitter and Instagram will be familiar with the idea of “following” someone on these platforms. “Following” is a one-sided choice, which means I can follow someone on Twitter or Instagram and then see their posts on my feed, but they are under no obligation to “follow me back” if they do not wish to do so and do not wish to see my posts on their own feeds. This differs from Facebook, where “friend requests” are the norm, meaning both parties must accept a request and then become privy to each other’s posts. (Though Facebook has also somewhat recently instituted a “following” feature that allows one person to view another person’s posts without the two of them needing to be “friends.”) Some people choose to make their Twitter and Instagram accounts “public,” meaning anyone can follow them without needing to “request” to follow. Others have their accounts set to “private,” meaning if you wish to follow them, you must submit a follow request which that person then needs to approve.
Snapchat, at least for me, started out a bit more confusing than Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. But it is a reality that Snapchat tends to be the most pervasively used social media app amongst students at Hostos. (This is anecdotal, but I have found it to be the case in four courses I’ve taught at Hostos, and Prof. Milsom has found the same to be true in her courses.) So in at attempt to “meet the students where they are,” I decided to explore this app as a means of communicating with students in a way in which most of them are already adept and familiar. On Snapchat, posts remain for only 24 hours, and only those who follow you can see them. The posts can be images or short videos, and they can be visually enhanced with a variety of “filters.” In order to maintain privacy, so long as I don’t follow students back, I cannot see their posts, and I make it clear that I will never follow them back once they follow my dedicated account for college work. The primary feature I use is called Snapchat “stories.” A story is a set of posts (“snaps”) that can be added to with an unlimited amounts of images and videos, but the whole story expires 24 hours after its initial post and is no longer visible. (However, students can take screenshots of snaps within a story in order to preserve them for viewing later.)
I give students a small amount of extra credit for attending any event on campus (including sports games!) and emailing me a detailed paragraph describing the event and explaining what they got out of it. The way I publicize events is usually through Snapchat, and often also through announcements in class. But Snapchat makes it very easy for me to be walking down the hallway, see some events of interest posted on the bulletin boards throughout the college, and capture an image of the flyer to add to my story. There is also a feature that allows me to see who and how many students have viewed my story at any given time. I’m very much of the mind that encouraging students to attend campus events is a good way to get them more engaged with their experience as students at Hostos and is also a way for them to meet fellow students and make friendships and connections. Research has demonstrated that these types of things boost retention rates and just have an overall positive impact on students’ experiences, particularly at two-year colleges where there is not on-campus housing and many students are quite busy, moving between classes, jobs, childcare, and other obligations. The more I can make them feel connected to each other and to the college, the better, as far as I’m concerned, and Snapchat has been one way that I work to facilitate this.
The other main way I use Snapchat is to remind students of upcoming due dates for essay drafts and important class assignments. Of course, I make these reminders through class announcements and Blackboard messages, as well, but the added exposure through Snapchat seems like it can only be a positive thing for students whose lives are busy and are usually connected to their smartphones throughout the day. Sometimes, I’ll simply film a short video of myself reiterating an important point from the week’s class lessons, or I’ll remind students to visit the Writing Center for assistance with their essay drafts. Other times, I’ll simply send a funny snap of my dog, which students seem to enjoy, in hopes that it might brighten their day.
In order to gather some more actual quantifiable data on the impact of my use of Snapchat in the classroom, at the end of this semester I intend to distribute a survey asking students to reflect on their experiences with the app as part of the course. I encourage any faculty members who are interested in trying Snapchat in their own courses—in any department—to stop by B-516, the office Prof. Milsom and I share. We often spend time discussing how our experimental practices like this are going and brainstorming ways to improve them. And I am also happy to communicate with anyone via email regarding the issue. In the meantime, I intend to keep experimenting with Snapchat in new ways and to continue considering new ideas to “meet the students where they are.”