Sunday, September 7, 2014

Tweeting for Healthier Social-Ecological Systems: Introducing #SocEcoSys

By Kai Chan
Can Twitter be a useful teaching tool? Can it advance social-ecological systems thinking, research, and practice? I think so (as I argued in "3 Ways Tweeting Will Improve Your Reach & Impact—In Any Communication"), but I'm about to put the question to the test.
We use the term 'social-ecological systems' to refer to interacting
social and ecological subsystems, but pinning down how such
systems behave can be harder than it might seem.

This semester, I'm teaching a graduate course called 'Towards Social-Ecological Systems' (RMES 510; 'towards' in that I'm not assuming that the systems view or the current SES literature captures all important dynamics). For the first time ever, I'm assigning grades based on student tweets. In so doing, I'm advancing one strong social-media trend, and fighting against another.

The continued advance is intentionally using Twitter for scholarship purposes, and making this scholarship 'actionable'. As far as I can tell, there's no hashtag for Social-Ecological Systems research and practice. Given that virtually no sustainability issue can be properly understood without a social-ecological lens, this is a tremendous shame. Accordingly, I hereby introduce #SocEcoSys, the hashtag for social-ecological systems research and practice.

The fight is against the trend that social media is only for what's new, even if what's old is far more important and insightful. RMES 510 students will be tweeting also with two additional hashtags: #OBG for oldie but goodie (already in use, but used in conjunction with #SocEcoSys to refer to classic papers illuminating key social-ecological dynamics); and #hiddengem for papers and other resources that seem to have gone unnoticed or unappreciated in SES thinking.

Have you used Twitter in courses? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

At the end of the semester (December) we'll take stock with a frank assessment of the educational value, and the vitality of the new conversation about social-ecological systems. Stay tuned!

P.S. If you see the value in #SocEcoSys, and in unearthing classic articles and key contributions (via #OBG and #hiddengem), please share this post using the social media buttons below.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

3 Ways Tweeting Will Improve Your Reach & Impact—In Any Communication

When Berta Martín-López mentioned over a delicious Basque lunch that she used Google to find a colleague’s tweets on women in science, I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing, interrupting her story and our sumptuous meal for an extended digression on the unappreciated benefits of Twitter.
Berta using her smartphone, attached to an
external battery, in Vitoria.
For me, Berta’s harmless but retrogressive use of technology (searching the whole world-wide web to find single tweets) was akin to powering a 21st Century smartphone using a bulky 20th Century battery pack. Not so different from what Berta was forced to do when her smartphone’s internal battery went kaput.
“Why don’t you just use Twitter?” I blurted out, once I’d controlled my laughter. Berta answered that she didn’t have an interest in tweeting. But you don’t have to produce tweets to use Twitter and benefit easily from others’ tweets, I protested, and besides, there are three wildly unappreciated benefits of tweeting.
I assured her first that Twitter really was a superb tool for what most people see it as, rapidly and easily accessing tailored information about the world and various people of interest.


Beyond the benefits of information consumption, Twitter offers a simple and straightforward way of connecting with people with related interests. In some ways it’s more powerful than and complementary to LinkedIn and other networking platforms. You don’t see people’s professional resumes, but you do see very quickly the kinds of things that interest a person, and the kinds of contributions she makes to the virtual world. You can tell quickly whether someone shares your interests, and whether they will lead you to nuggets of useful wisdom, or just mounds of rubbish.

Know Your Audience:

By all accounts, one of the keys to effective science communication is to ‘know thy audience’—in Steve Schneider’s words—and Twitter is magic with this. By seeing who follows you, you know who is interested in what you have to say. Based on their tweets and what they ‘favorite’ and re-tweet (including from your ‘stream’), you learn quickly which particular topics and styles interest each.

Practice Pithiness, with Feedback:

Apparently it takes some 10,000 hours of practice before we become expert, but expertise only comes from practice when we get rapid, repeated feedback about our performance. You tweeted a nugget you were sure would catch fire, only to be met by zero re-tweets of your gem and handfuls of re-tweets of someone else’s take of the same? Or, your tweet was modified by someone else and then re-tweeted plenty in its revised form? Chances are your topic was hot, and your wording not.
For those who think that messages of 144 characters are artificial, superficial, and instructive of nothing, I beg to differ. First, it’s neither artificial nor superficial. For me, a tweet is a hook or an arrow: it points (usually via a hotlink) to a blog post, academic paper, or news item of much greater depth. And you’d be surprised at how many people have mostly made up their minds—whether they know it or not—if they are interested in an article based on the first 144 characters. Next time you’re skimming a newspaper, go back and see how many articles you decided to read or not based only on the title. Ditto re: sifting through emails based on authors and subjects.
Moreover, whether or not you apply your Twitter learning to the first 144 characters of your article, you will undoubtedly apply it to distilling the crux of your message into fewer, punchier words.
Note that it doesn’t need to take much time. I almost never spend more than five minutes a day on Twitter, and I have connected with hundreds of interesting folks and learned loads.
I’m not saying that Twitter is the best thing since sliced bread, but it is a very useful tool, with a suite of critical but unappreciated benefits—much more than a source of pithy nuggets to be gleaned from the world-wide web.
@BertaML, when will you ditch the 20th C tech & join me on Twitter? Masterful messaging awaits….

Addendum: I've now got my RMES 510 class tweeting for credit, and we're launching a new #SocEcoSys hashtag.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Internships in Grad School -- Time well spent?

Check out two new posts by Kai on the Leopold Leadership blog about the UBC biodiversity internship program, and the role of internships in graduate study. 

Learn more about the BRITE internship program at UBC here! And if you can contribute to this effort, please visit Biodiversity Internship Fund: Help our students help the Earth.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Two Streams of Advice ... into One River of Understanding: Co-Teaching

by Kai Chan

(Ed.: These thoughts were written November 20th, but they're equally applicable to today.)
Last night at 5:15pm, I sluggishly climbed the stairs to my office after another engaging but exhausting class, Toward Social-Ecological Systems (RMES 510), which I co-teach with Terre Satterfield. Despite having spent an hour talking, and more time writing, to harmonize our plans for this informal workshop-class, there were still moments of student confusion.
Two streams ... into one river. Creative Commons, via

Terre--an interdisciplinary anthropologist--and I (an ecologist with an infusion of ethics and ecological economics) both wandered around the room, providing guidance on the student final projects, which are tackling 'small' issues like the Northern Gateway (Oilsand) Pipeline, Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) in B.C., Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) in Nova Scotia. A few times, I gave advice, only to see a tell-tale wide-eyed look. "But- But, Terre said ....".

Truth is, Terre and I almost never really disagree. But in the context of advice on how to bound and target a massive topic into a useful contribution, sometimes it might seem that we do. And therein lies the learning.

All this pondering on a frigid ride home led to another exchange with Terre, and the below email to students:

Just a quick note to follow up on today's workshop: Terre and I certainly won't offer the same advice. We fully appreciate that it can be frustrating for you to receive advice that may pull you in different directions, so we do our best to iron out differences and provide a consistent and coherent message before class. But it will keep happening, and it's actually a reflection of very different ways of thinking about the same problem, or attention to different aspects/needs. And your real-time exposure to this is a very healthy tension that yields superb learning opportunities about this social-ecological space and diverse threads of academic inquiry into it, which you couldn't possibly get from one instructor alone.

All the best,
Kai (and Terre)

Long-live co-teaching, especially the interdisciplinary kind, and the learning it yields us all!