Students in professor Chad Pecknold’s newest class at The Catholic University of America come from Canada, Uruguay, France, Germany, England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and all across the United States, but two things unite them all – a printed copy of St. Augustine’s City of God and their Twitter accounts.
Pecknold, who teaches a doctoral seminar on St. Augustine’s City of God at Catholic University, decided on a whim at the beginning of the semester to post the reading schedule for his seminar on his personal Twitter account, and invite people to read along and have an occasional discussion. Expecting about a dozen people to respond, Pecknold was shocked to find that thousands of people showed interest in doing this online study of Augustine.
As of Jan. 18, about 120,000 people had viewed his invitation, and more than 2,000 had committed to buying the book and reading along. Pecknold had to quickly figure out how to accommodate such a large volume of people, and decided to dedicate a two-hour period on Thursday evenings from 8-10 p.m. to the study of City of God.
During his first class, which was held on Jan. 12, Pecknold sat down with several different translations of the book, which had all of his hand-written marginal notes from about a decade of teaching the text. He tweeted out his commentary on book one through the Twitter app on his iPhone, and since Book 1 is 33 chapters, he wrote about 150 tweets in two hours. His students either replied to his tweets or composed their own, using the class’s hash tag #CivDei to add their own commentary to the discussion. The hash tag is taken from the original Latin title of the text, De Civitate Dei.
“It really is amazing how much of the experience is mimicking what actually just naturally happens in a classroom,” Pecknold said. “In that way, it is confirming that Twitter is an instrument that can be used well. It is not just a diary. It is not just a place for political warfare. It is not just a place for expression of identity. It is actually a place in which people can meet on the ground of ideas.”
After his first class, several of the students offered up their advice for how Pecknold could improve the technological efficiency of the class. For subsequent classes, Pecknold followed their advice to use a website that allows him to compose the tweets beforehand and schedule them to post at five minute increments, which he says will free up his time to be more interactive with the students’ comments.
Following the surprising number of responses that he received for the course, Pecknold said he started to wonder, “Why this? Why now? Why the response?”
“My sense is it benefits from coming off of a bruising election in which people feel the political order is shaky, however you think that shakiness manifests itself,” Pecknold said. “And when people feel that the structures are shaky, they intuitively want to go down to the foundations to see what is there.”
St. Augustine’s City of God is a fitting text to explore the foundations of Western civilization, Pecknold said, because it recounts Greco-Roman history, discusses what is right and wrong about how to order society and political life, and explores how to order oneself toward neighbors and toward God.
“There is a lot to be learned about Augustine, a lot to be learned about his time and his reflections on a classical world, but also a lot to be learned about ourselves: where we have come from, where we are going, who are we as a people, what do we value, what sort of world are we going to pass on to our children?” Pecknold said.
In addition to the students’ geographical diversity, which Pecknold said isn’t an issue, because, “the funny thing about Twitter is there is no furthest away,” the participants come from all different walks of life. They include a senior U.S. Court of Appeals judge and his wife, a Harvard law professor, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, insurance salesmen, stay-at-home-moms, Catholic school principals, lawyers, and teachers.
An advantage of Twitter is how it encourages everyone to focus around a common task, Pecknold said. The 140 character limit forces everyone to be concise, and it is easy to ignore comments that are off topic. During the two hour class period, the commentary is very focused, but Pecknold said throughout the week he sees more expanded discussion, with students sometimes bringing in outside research or connections with current events using #CivDei.
“Social media isn’t something different than real life, on another level,” Pecknold explained. “It is a mirror, and as a mirror of real life, it is worthy of taking seriously. I think there is a certain dismissiveness toward social media which is dangerous; that you can actually value it too little and not take it seriously as a medium in which human beings are actually interacting and being formed.”
Because of this formation, Pecknold said it is important to figure out how to use the media to direct people to objects that matter, or as a connection to God through a “medium for raising the mind to eternal things.”
While he takes social media seriously, Pecknold strongly encouraged his students to buy a print version of the book, in order to create a balance between what is happening on and off the screen.
The students are not receiving any course credit for their work of reading the 1,000-page book in 15 weeks, and are simply doing it out of a hunger to learn. Pecknold is learning as he goes and does not know what the future is for courses like his, but he believes he is carrying out the mission of Catholic University through his personal endeavor.
“The Catholic University of America is founded to serve both the Church and the nation,” Pecknold said. “And I think this project does reflect our mission.”
For St. Augustine, an important theme is the question, “What are you willing to sacrifice for?” which Pecknold used to analyze his students’ motives.
“What you are willing to sacrifice for tells you a little bit about what you love, and what you love tells you a lot about who you are,” he said. “An Augustinian analysis of the participants tells me that people are willing to sacrifice time and energy, and that’s because their loves are moving in the right direction, and that tells us something about who they are. [It] tells them something good about them.”