From books to blogs, English dept. breaks the mold

What department at GW is most comfortable using the Internet, blogs and Facebook to connect with its students?

Computer science? Wrong.

Political communication? Wrong again.

It’s the English department. And its chair, professor Jeffrey Cohen, is leading the march to technology.

About two years ago, Cohen created the “GW English News” blog, hosted by Google’s popular Blogger service at gwenglish.blogspot.com. Last year, he and other members of the department established Facebook accounts. Now, three weeks after the creation of a Facebook fan page, the department can now claim 52 official fans. Not bad for a department whose major requires two courses in pre-1700s literature.

Communication is the basis of the department’s foray into social media, Cohen said. The blog and Facebook page are a “fundamental part of our department mission, which is to be connected with our students and stay connected with them once they’re gone,” he said.

He said he wants students to think of the English department as a welcoming community, “not a stuffy place,” he said. “When our students primarily think of us as individuals, rather than as a community, they also get left out of that community,” Cohen said.

To encourage that community, English professors set up Facebook accounts and Cohen created a fan page.

“The fan page is an experiment, and it’s also an acknowledgement that maybe we live in a post e-mail era,” Cohen said. “Everyone assumed for a long time that e-mail was the best way to communicate with students. It isn’t.”

Though many professors still primarily use e-mail, six members of the GW English department have Facebook profiles, including the deputy chair, Gayle Wald.

Other departments at GW can claim one or two Facebook representatives, but nothing resembling an active, department-wide interest in the social networking service.

The blog gets about 300 to 400 visitors per week, according to readership statistics. A significant portion of those visits are from alumni, who feel more connected to the department because of the blog, Cohen said. The blog also connects current students to alumni, acting as a networking tool.

Past blog posts have highlighted alumni achievements as well as professorial publications and departmental special events. The same day The Hatchet announced the possible phasing out of the hippo mascot, Cohen blogged about it and suggested a replacement inspired by literature: the raven. As Cohen said, “We don’t want to be yet another organ of the University that announces in dead prose that something is going on.”

To encourage student participation, Cohen is arranging for an undergraduate English major to blog from a student’s perspective. The department has already appointed Rajiv Menon, a junior majoring in English, to be its communications liaison.

“When I first started reading the blog I was uncomfortable commenting because I saw that there were no other student commentators,” Menon said. “I guess that’s the Catch-22: Nobody wants to be the first student to start posting, and because of that, there aren’t a lot of comments.”

Cohen said he has found that having an online presence has been a catalyst for face-to-face conversation. It has also increased support for an English majors’ club, a physical extension of the Facebook fan page. The department would give the club money to bring writers, theorists and lecturers to campus, Cohen said.

Based on their example, perhaps other departments will reach out to their students via social media – but they might have to recruit an English major for help. Cohen notes that the fundamental reason the department has a blog “is because the English department is filled with people who like to write and who like to read.”

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