Hillary Weiss, Wayne State University
This lesson plan uses Stuart Selber’s multiliteracies—functional, critical, and rhetorical—as a framework to effectively analyze multiple texts, including internet, image-type memes. Analyzing and critiquing the meme genre promotes students to consider Selber’s multiliteracies and prepares students to critically read and invent internet linguistics and multimodal texts.
Beginner (lower level college composition courses)
Students will annotate an article about internet linguistics
Small or Medium
Building off of Cynthia Selfe’s call for changing (technology) literacy instruction, Stuart Selber’s book, Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, offers English departments a framework to create multiliterate students. Selber argues that three different literacies—functional, critical, and rhetorical—are crucial for students to participate “fully and meaningfully [in] technological activities” (24). I will briefly define these literacies according to Selber: functional literate students can use technology as a tool but also acknowledge the limitations of this technology; critical literate students can identify and question the politics of technology (one example Selber provides is for students to consider the cultural, political, economic, and social elements of a website); rhetorical literate students can use “thoughtful integration of functional and critical abilities” to design and evaluate computer interfaces (145). As I demonstrate in my lesson plan and reflection, analyzing and creating memes as an assignment uses Selber’s multiliteracies and allows students to effectively analyze multiple texts.
Though the definition of “memes” is widely debated, I will use Patrick Davison’s accessible definition: “a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission” (122). More specifically, I will only be examining image-type memes (for an example, see the first page of this article).
There are already numerous U.S. instructors who use memes within the classroom. Teachers Tracee Orman and Sharon Serano both use memes for ice breakers and class rules, to reinforce and promote curriculum visually (such as showing a meme that emphasizes a historical event), at freshmen orientation, and to create memes that reflect the unit students are learning. However, many of these teachers do not analyze and critique the meme genre itself, as my lesson encourages. Analyzing and critiquing the meme genre promotes students to consider Selber’s multiliteracies and prepares students to critically read and invent internet linguistics and multimodal texts.
Lesson Plan Instructions
I originally taught this lesson to a group of eight developmental writing undergraduate students, and most of them were ESL students. This course is pass/fail, and I used a grading contract where students were required to participate in many (but not all) class discussions. This was also our first class discussion and short presentation.
- Tia Baherl’s article “Your Ability to Can Even: A Defense of Internet Linguistics”
or another article about memes or internet linguistics
- A technological device to look up and post a meme
- Discussion board or Google Document so students may see their peers’ memes
Specific Lesson Objectives
By the end of this lesson, students will:
- Summarize and define what internet linguistics and memes are
- Discuss and evaluate internet linguistics and the meme genre
- Present a single meme and its background/mutation(s)
- For class that day, students should have read and annotated “Your Ability to Can Even” by Tia Baherl, chosen, researched, and posted a meme (nothing that is racist, sexist, homophobic, and/or ableist) to the discussion board, and prepared a 2-3 minute explanation of the meme. During the last class, I showed students examples of memes that they could access on our class webpage and defined memes with Davison’s definition. I began this lesson by allowing students to discuss the article with those near them with the guided questions below (5 to 7 minutes).
- Online instructors: you might ask your students to read and annotate the article and then participate in a discussion board for both Baherl’s article and presentation of memes.
- Briefly summarize Baherl’s article.
- Have you ever been confused over internet linguistics (like memes)?
- How can internet linguistics (like memes) be beneficial and detrimental (to students, teachers, businesses, writers, other countries, et cetera)?
- Should internet linguistics be taught in schools? Why or why not?
- After students discuss the article on their own, I asked my students whether they want to present their memes and then discuss the article, or vice versa. They chose to present.
- For this presentation, students were required to complete and present the following:
- Post the meme on the discussion board so they could easily access it for their presentation
- Explain the text and picture together within the meme and its meaning
- Find either one of two things:
- Where the meme originated
- How the meme has mutated or transformed (15 to 20 minutes)
- After presentations, students (they earned participation points) and instructor discuss Baherl’s article. Outside of the guided questions, our discussion touched on the influence of memes in our culture and social media sites. Specifically, we discussed how some sites, like Facebook, have become more commercialized (20 to 30 minutes).
The discussion and students’ meme presentations went really well overall; I did, however, have to prod them a bit into explaining where their meme originated from and how to interpret it. I’m still wondering if my students’ struggle stems from privileging alphabetical text over other modalities, like visuals (for the limitations of alphabetic text, read Remixing Composition by Jason Palmeri). Students usually analyze text well, but visuals are a bit more difficult for them. While students enjoyed and even referenced this discussion and assignment within their end-of-the-semester reflections, in the future, I would like my students to create their own memes. Analyzing and critiquing memes are useful and involve two out of three of Selber’s literacies, but rhetorical literacy, or being able to invent, is crucial to understanding technological literacy. In fact, Johnathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes maintain that students and teachers must become “prosumers,” or the “convergence of the professional and the consumer” (106). If we teach students to be prosumers of—consuming, analyzing, and producing—digital texts, then we teach them to be critical of these digital texts (not only memes, but also videos, podcasts, et cetera) and to possibly use these genres in productive, new ways.
Another critique that I would have liked to have spent more time on is how memes can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Although I asked my students not to choose any racist, sexist, homophobic, or ableist memes, perhaps I could have found an example and we could have discussed together how cultural fads sometimes subtly extend stereotypes and hatred.
Finally, another aspect of the meme genre which I wished I had known about before I taught this lesson is how memes function differently compared to traditional critique. As Sarah Arroyo observes, “the goal [of the meme] is not to resolve a problem once and for all; rather, the goal is to create more content with which other users will connect and invest time in re-purposing, thus participating in spreading ideas and making them more complex” (38). Another possible assignment is for students to trace a meme and its mutations, and study how the memes are made more complex through race, class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, text, colors, and so on. Digital texts such as memes show us what certain people and cultures value and may also be able to indicate where critique is headed.
Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. On Multimodality: New Media in Composition Studies (Cccc Studies in Writing & Rhetoric). National Council of Teachers of English, 2014.
Arroyo, Sarah. Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy. Southern Illinois University Press, 2013.
Davison, Patrick. “The Language of Internet Memes.” The Social Media Reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg, NYU Press, 2012, pp. 122.
Orman, Tracee. “Five Ways to Use Memes to Connect With Students.” Mrs. Orman’s Classroom, 29 March 2014, http://www.traceeorman.com/2014/03/five-ways-to-use-memes-to-connect-with.html. Accessed 17 August 2017.
Palmeri, Jason. Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
Selber, Stuart. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
Selfe, Cynthia. Technology and Literacy in the 21st Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.
Serano, Sharon. “5 ways to use memes with students.” ISTE, 2 Dec. 2016, https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=858. Accessed 17 August 2017