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Past Meets Present In ESF Writing Class

Eustace takes to social media to assist students make connections

Eustace B. Nifkin

Combining a long-standing campus legend with social media has turned one ESF writing class into a dynamic and interactive venture.

Janine DeBaise, an instructor in the ESF Writing Program, teaches Research Writing and the Humanities. Her class roster lists 20 students, but she's found that there is one contributor who is often heard but never seen - Eustace B. Nifkin.

And he's using his social media accounts to interact with students in EWP 290.

"He or she," said DeBaise. "It's important that it's 'he or she' because Eustace B. Nifkin has diversified. We don't know the color of Nifkin's skin or know the gender. It could be anything, right? But Nifkin seems to be consistently taking my classes."

Nifkin's participation gives students an ESF history lesson as part of their class. Nifkin is ESF's unofficial student with his name appearing on class rosters and other official college documents since the 1940s. Nifkin has changed with the times. No longer content to simply send letters to campus, today he is ensconced in social media.

"Prior to taking a class with Janine I knew nothing of Nifkin," said senior Pierce Sofko. "I knew it was the (unofficial) name of the Alumni Lounge, but I did not know of the ESF 'student' known as Nifkin."

The class, designed to hone students' writing, avails itself of the Twitter hashtag #nifkin to expand participation beyond the registered students.

"Twitter is way for my students to connect with people outside the classroom," said DeBaise. "It's a way to pull people outside the classroom into our class."

And how does Eustace fit in? He has "a habit of retweeting many of the comments made at #nifkin," said DeBaise. Nifkin can be found tweeting at @FollowNifkin

This year the class has conducted a number of interactive activities including a photo contest and collaborations on poetry and a document about food (Implementing Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems in America).

Sofko, who has taken several classes with DeBaise and assisted with EWP 290 projects in 2013, said the class is "a great way to help explain both the impact of social media and how it can be used for more then just posting 'selfies' or 'LOLing.'"

"The involvement of social media in the class allowed students to realize that sites such as Twitter can be used as a source of information gathering and sharing," said the environmental studies major.

One hallmark of the class is small events called Twitter Chats. For the chats, participants use the #nifkin hashtag to initiate a dialog about specific environmental issues.

The class has seen other ESF students and alumni chiming in, along with people from other colleges and countries.

"These chats were enormously successful and involved not only the students in the class, but other ESF students, alumni, and even members of the general public who are unaffiliated with ESF," said Sofko.

"I believe it's a more successful way of reaching out, because the people of the ESF community generally all have the same perspectives on things environmental," said sophomore Bryony Striffler. "Using social media allows us to be in contact with people who share different opinions. This provides stimulating conversations and debates that will further our knowledge and lead to more successful conclusions on world controversies."

The chats have included faculty and students from other colleges and countries such as Emory and Georgia Tech. "There was also a professor from Taiwan who had his students join in on the chats with us," said Sofko. "All in all, the use of social media in class was a great idea. It helped students learn to collaborate with other students, professors, and even with the general public."

While Nifkin is interesting in his own right, DeBaise said it's the ESF students who are amazing to work with. "Their ideas should go beyond my classroom. I want everyone in the world to see the cool work my students do," she said. Social media has made that possible.

This year students will engage in research projects on environmental issues and connecting them to "place." A key component of the project is to share their work with the public via a blog, Twitter or Facebook.

"I think this aspect of the project is important not only to us individuals who are doing the project, but to those who are viewing what we are doing because we are exposing others to our thoughts and ideas, and these environmental issues," said Striffler, a wildlife science major. "We're doing this in fun innovative ways so other people can hopefully find theses issues interesting and of importance."

"It goes beyond the old school of finding facts and writing them down," DeBaise said. Today's students need to know how to sort through the information on the Internet and tell what's credible and what they can ignore.

Students also need to know how to write for different arenas - be it a research paper, a Google Doc or a 140-character tweet.

"I want them to be nimble writers," said DeBaise. "That's the world these students are going to be in. When my sister went to journalism school no one taught 140-character writing. They have to be able to adjust to the changing times. Their audience is potentially the whole world."