On Teaching with Helis Sikk–Expanding The Classroom and Strengthening Community Through Tumblr

Similar to Mark Redondo Villegas’s confession in The Digital Moves the Real, I was at first hesitant to include more technology in my classroom. It is not just that many instructors think students already spend too many hours on social media—as teachers we often find social media to serve as a distraction from our work more than anything else. Nevertheless, initially out of pure necessity, I decided to make Tumblr—one of the fastest growing social media networks—an important space for class discussion. Admittedly, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in regards to changing my teaching methods.

Most of us in American Studies do interdisciplinary work and our classes often rely extensively on visual materials. I first decided to use Tumblr for a particularly visually oriented class, Queer Visual Culture. The class required me to scan a number of readings because one textbook or reader is not sufficient to cover this interdisciplinary exploration. To my dismay, I discovered that since a number of selected articles were heavy on images, scanning made the quality of images terrible and the reading experience as a whole rather unbearable. Description of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep embracing falls flat when the image next to it looks like this:


Tumblr allowed me to remedy this and add an image like this. Of course, it was extra work looking up the images covered in scanned readings and uploading them with high hopes that students would actually go to the Tumblr page and look at the images as they went about the readings. But it was all worth it because the students did go on the Tumblr page and really appreciated the images online.

Besides using Tumblr in class to provide the students with better quality images, I also relied on this social media platform to give students a more accessible space to interact with each other outside the classroom that would further help to form a creative and curious community. We only spend a limited hours together in the classroom. Tumblr expands those hours of shared time. Most of us use Blackboard out of necessity, but let’s face it—it is rather slow and clunky. Students generally do not like it. Often we do not like it. Blackboard works well enough to upload your syllabus and readings, but when it comes to multimodal posts, it is very limited and not very intuitive. Plus, the formal and disciplinary digital environment of Blackboard hinders creativity and uninhibited sharing of ideas among class members.

I encouraged students to post on Tumblr whatever they felt was relevant to the class and spoke to our readings. I think the results were amazing. Before each class I would scroll through Tumblr and see what people had posted and in class asked if anyone would like to discuss their posts. It was also a creative way for students to talk about topical issues on the news and share it with their classmates.

Here’s a link to my Queer Visual Culture Tumblr page. It starts with the most recent student posts, but if you scroll all the way down you see my first posts on Homoerotic art from Ancient Egypt and Rome that served to accompany the readings initially. In other words, something that started out disciplinary in content quickly expanded and grew into a project that connected video clips of Ellen coming out on the television to queer slam poetry and the creative photography projects that students made for class.

I used Tumblr for another class heavy on visual creative works: Queer Comix, which I co-taught with Dr. Jenny Putzi at The College of William and Mary. Again the results were beyond wonderful. We learned so much from each other when it comes to new and upcoming online queer comics, which would not have possible if only sticking to more traditional classroom communication. I also learned that Tumblr works equally as well for classes that are not necessarily visually oriented. The students in my Introduction to Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies class collaborated on a Tumblr page that ended up compiling and highlighting pieces of information integral to the complex and broad themes covered in class.

I love using Tumblr and will continue to do so. I look at Tumblr as an interactive contemporary reader that gets updated collaboratively throughout the course of the semester. The best part is that this “reader” will be always available to students: they can go back to the page any time they feel like it and revisit the beautifully creative collaboration that took place among a community of inquisitive minds.


Helis Sikk is a PhD candidate at the College of William and Mary. She received her master’s in American Studies from the University of Wyoming, and her bachelor’sin English Language and Literature from the University of Tartu, Estonia. She prefers a feral interdisciplinary approach to the relationships between queerness, built environment, media and visual cultures. A recent Smithsonian Fellow, she is currently getting ready to defend her dissertation on the affective economies of LGBTQ activism in the United States.  

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