Those of us who manage our Writing Center’s social media are Wizards. We may not have been blessed by a Sorting Hat, gifted an Emerald City, or charged to protect a sacred ring, but we are Wizards all the same. We are the ordinary persons hidden behind screens wielding gifs, emojis, hashtags, and statuses. The Wizard is an avatar, a shell that we face to the student body in order to elicit a particular response and reach specific goals. To the student population, we want to appear hilarious, wise, useful, and technologically savvy. When Wizards step up to the screen, we assume a role, and within that role, there are factors each Wizard must consider when creating the Wizard avatar.
The Wizard must set goals.
Goal setter is the first role the Wizard must play. In choosing how to interact with students through social media, Writing Center staff must ask the following questions: what do we want students to do? What are the particular needs for our Writing Center? We might be trying to get students to come into the physical space of our Writing Center. We might want our online presence to be an additional way students can receive writing instruction. Or we might try to transform the image of our Writing Center to be friendly, inviting, and witty. Whatever the goal, the medium and the message need to match. In their article “Writing in Multimodal Texts,” Bezemer and Kress define medium as “the substance in and through which meaning is instantiated/realized and through which meaning becomes available to others” (172). Twitter is one kind of medium. Tumblr is another.
The medium chosen should align with the goals set. This can happen in a variety of ways. If one of the Writing Center goals is to interact with students directly on social media, then Twitter might be the best choice with Facebook as a close second. If the goal is to disseminate long-form bits of writing advice to students that can be easily shared, Tumblr might be ideal. Many Writing Centers will likely have multiple goals and hopes for the Wizard, in which case multiple mediums make the most sense.
The Wizard must be a Mode Master.
Part of the beauty of social media is that it allows Writing Centers to use different modes to reach students. Modes are a social and cultural resource for disseminating information and meaning, according to Bezemer and Kress (171). Text, videos, still images, memes, gifs, emojis, and audio are all modes. In order to successfully draw students into the Writing Center’s online world, we have to be masters of all the modes. Lack of knowledge and finesse in the modes of social media create cracks in the Wizard’s avatar. Students, Millennials in particular, will see these cracks and the Wizard will be compromised, like Oz after the illusion is shattered.
Wizards are meaning makers.
Our social media personas allow us to express the rhetoric of our field and reach students in the intimate spaces of their phones and laptops. Wizards have the power and responsibility to use the modes at our disposal and make sense of academic writing. This can be anything from explaining the usage of semi-colons to cheering students on during midterms.
Through our role as meaning makers, we want students to see the online presence as wise and useful. The nature of social media necessitates that we take whatever we are trying to say and make it bite sized. We must take a wealth of pedagogical and rhetorical knowledge and break it up into easily digestible chunks. And then we slap a good gif next to it.
Twitter in particular forces the digestible chunk guideline because of the 140-character limit. While Facebook and other mediums do not formally exact these limitations, the prevailing rule throughout social media is: shorter is better. Part of building the Wizard avatar is also recognizing its limitations. Writing instructors can spend weeks teaching students how to write an excellent thesis statement. Wizards should not expect to do it in a single tweet or Facebook status.
Much of the pedagogical work Wizards do can be viewed as a “teaser” or, in the case of first year writing classes, a complement to formal instruction. Posts on any medium can be enough to get a student thinking about how to problem-solve their way through a particular writing hurdle. It can also be a way to prompt students to come into the Writing Center for more formal instruction. The Wizard does not seek to replace the teacher but rather to be a liaison, a bridge students can cross from the loneliness of the writing woes to concrete help.
Wizards must be student whisperers.
A significant part of meaning making in social media involves being in touch with students and how they engage with various mediums. According to the Pew Research Center, most people are on social media to make connections with family and friends. So, where does that leave the Wizards among us? Millenials, as a group, are likely to use social media to “stay connected and to take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities” (Anderson and Raine). Middle aged and older students strongly value social media “as a tool to connect with others around a hobby and interest,” according to the Pew Research Center (Smith). Thus, students (both young and older) are using social media for the opportunities it provides to connect.
They are not necessarily scrolling through our Twitter feed looking for how to use a dash. They are not on our Instagram to figure out how to organize a literature review. They are looking to connect with the Wizard, with the avatars we are building and presenting.
In order to connect with students, we need to know what is important to them. At Mills College, for instance, we have a long history of being committed to a liberal arts education rooted in social justice. That history influences the kind of students that come to us. Our students love a good cause. They also take great pride in the fact that Mills College is the first single-sex school to open its welcoming arms to trans students. By understanding what is important to our students, we can start connecting with them.
Another good place to investigate what is important to students is the first year writing program. The struggles and needs of freshmen are intense and often indicative of the trials that pervade the student body. The vulnerable first-years are looking for wise and useful people to connect with. And in many cases, the Writing Center social media pages are going to be less intimidating than a professor’s office hours or even, at first, going to the Writing Center in person to ask for help. By, in a sense, reading their minds and using available modes, we can draw them in.
Wizards are entertainers.
Students can tell if the Wizards believes what they are saying. They can also tell if the Wizards are having fun. We can use the mediums and modes available to us not only to highlight what is important to students but also what is exciting to us. This show of enthusiasm adds an authenticity and enjoyment to the Wizard avatar that implicitly invites student to trust and engage.
Whatever the goals, whatever the medium and modes, Wizards must above all adhere to the following rule: don’t be boring. Wizards are entertainers. To be clear, we are Wizards of the Oz variety, not the Hogwarts kind. We do not create magic. Rather, the magic exists in our world through technology, and we simply harness it and use it for our own rhetorical purposes. In doing this, we must grab and hold the minds of students amidst ever-increasing competition for their attention.