Carleen Carey is PhD candidate in Teacher Education at Michigan State University whose research explores how African American adolescents make meaning and construct identities through reading engagement in informal education spaces. You can follow her on twitter at @CSCarey.
One of the challenges to teaching with technology is helping students figure out the "who", "what", and "how" of internet messages. As a grad instructor of “Human Diversity, Power, and Schools”, a course that centers on issues of difference, this challenge coincides with a key concept: social construction, or the idea that dominant groups’ norms are positioned as natural, to the exclusion of non-dominant groups. I have stumbled into memes as one fruitful teaching tool for helping students to uncover the ways mass media shapes how we view ourselves, others, and the world around us. A Google search for “definition of internet meme” returns the following definitions from about.com and urbandictionary.com*: A "meme" is a virally-transmitted cultural symbol or social idea” or “a short phrase, picture, or combination of the two that gets repeated in message boards and Barrens chat for far, far longer than anything ever out to be.” In this case, I mean the combinations of words and pictures like the “i beleev u haz mi cheezburger?” cat by LOLCats.
While these innocent examples may present us with a chuckle, the memes most valuable to our course’s task center on the social context of political messages. For an example, take the infamous meme of HRH Queen Elizabeth at the Olympic Open Ceremonies with the caption, “Look at all these countries I used to own”. While the Queen is an amazing monarch, the meme is pointedly addressing her role in the history of imperialism, and in some ways, asking implicit questions about the emergence of the nation-state, capitalism and globalization, which are great fodder for discussions on neocolonialism. After giving students a moment to take in the image, I ask students “What message is this sending? Why is it significant? Is it accurate, and for whom, from what perspective?” Asking questions about whose perspective the meme is from provides an important means of understanding that messages in the media, much like messages in the meme, come from someone. Then, we can begin to talk about how that someone’s point of view is influenced by their identities, or social location (the totality of these identities), and how this can inform the argument being made in the meme.
For U.S. citizens, the memes following the presidential election present us with a similar task. By displaying one, such as that of Sen.Ryan and Gov.Romney smiling with the caption "silly poor people, help is for banks”, and asking students what political party the author likely belongs to, what rights are most important to this party, and what actions does this party want readers to take, we can begin to help students untangle the messages hidden within our own political system that can influence our behavior.
Finally, because we focus on power, privilege, and difference, I ask my class questions such as, "what avenues do the subjects of the meme have to assert their beliefs?"," how can these actors and the ideas they represent exercise influence over the public?", and "in what ways can identities affect who can access power, and what kinds?" As a grad instructor, memes provide me with a means to use something students know as an introduction to course questions and content, and in this way help me to model the culturally-relevant teaching critical educators espouse. Additionally, because teaching with technology is, at times, intimidating for the new TA, memes are a friendly way to introduce students to issues of socialization, social control, and the internet as one facet of mass media. Showing students examples of successful social justice campaigns, and asking them to make their own memes is usually a helpful exercise to end the class on, as sometimes beginning social justice educators can struggle with with practical applications of themes to everyday students and situations. I wonder, what happens when grad instructors use memes, and ask students to bring to help illuminate course content?
Have you used memes in the classroom? If so, let us know in the comments below.
*I’m careful here to pick open-sourced websites, in order to ask questions about how we can know who wrote the information, and how knowing their identity could help us to consider how this influences the messages they send.
Image retrieved from GoogleImages, original source: <http://www.internetnews.com/img/2007/12/i-beleev-u-haz-mi-cheezburger.jpg>