Instructor Reflection – Rhetoric of Memes

Memes as a Writing Pedagogy
by Simone Sessolo

The ability to process and employ information in different media is an essential aspect of education, and offering resources that can help students sharpen their analytical power has beneficial effects on learning. Currently, there is little more than anecdotal information available about the implementation of internet memes as pedagogical tools; the website we developed, The Rhetoric of Memes, facilitates innovations in studying and approaching new media.

The Rhetoric of Memes is the end-result of a course in new media writing offered at the University of Michigan in the Fall 2013. The website claims that using memes in the classroom can become a writing practice that fosters success for students of all academic backgrounds. This novel application of technology can offer a more sophisticated kind of learning, helping students practice analogous thinking between academic concepts and their connection with popular culture. By exploring what arguments memes offer, students practice analytical thinking. A website that archives analyses of common image-macro memes can help us draw a fuller picture than has previously been available of the types of writing practices that can benefit from the use of memes.

The website is the result of a combination of presentation activities and writing. These activities took up the first 4 of our 6 class meetings. The last 2 meetings were dedicated to reviewing the written analyses and designing the website.

For the first activity, I asked students to find an internet meme that told them something, as opposed to just being funny. I asked them to analyze that meme in terms of its “heteroglossia” and its “carnivalesque” aspects, following the way Mikhail Bakhtin describes these concepts in “Discourse in the Novel” and “Rabelais and His World.” In short, I asked them to do a Bakhtinian analysis of their meme of choice. They were then invited to come to class ready to present a short overview of their analyses, so that they could discuss them in groups. After those discussions, each student turned her oral Bakhtinian analysis into writing, giving it a clear thesis and an argumentative structure.

The second activity was similar to the first one, but with a different focus. Students looked for an internet meme sequence that they found humorous. I asked them to think about what made it funny for them. Could they find appropriations of that meme sequence that did not make it funny? For example, the politicized Willy Wonka meme sequence: did they find it funny when it proposed Democratic issues as well as Republican ones? I asked students to analyze their meme’s humor following some of the concepts Michele Zappavigna talks about in “Internet Memes.” After they discussed their ideas within their peer-groups, they turned their analyses of memetic humor into writing, as they did after the first activity.

Students responded well to the assignments, and they were actively engaged in producing writing for different media: on paper and on the web. In this respect, students actively contributed to the creation of the website, and they authored all the meme entries. However, in considering the site as a whole, they appear as contributors rather than authors, because it is very difficult to establish “authorship” for a website. I consider myself as one of the website’s authors (or webmasters), as website administrator, since the initial idea for the website was mine as part of a pedagogical effort to include memes in the writing curriculum. To coordinate revisions to the website, both in terms of content and functionality, I appointed a managing editor. As managing editor for the site, Nadeem Persico-Shammas appears as “author” of the website as well. He was a student in the class, and he revised the website after the semester ended. Because of that, I compensated him for his revision efforts, thanks to a research grant offered by the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan. Our “authorship” should by no means detract the attention from the fact that the website is primarily a student-created project, and its production rests on the excellent work students performed in the class.

We believe the website assists viewers in identifying patterns and trends within memetic practices, and we hope to promote deeper and broader conversations about using memes as a writing pedagogy.