Ryan Gibb, Baker University
Though the “meme”-ification of politics has its critics (Kulkarni 2017, Bulatovic 2019), memes can be useful tools. Similar to cartoons or comics, they illustrate concepts and generate conversation by both demanding that the author concentrate complicated thoughts into readily intelligible images with only a few words, a popular trope, and a common understanding of the world. The ability of memes to rescue students from the ethereal, esoteric air of academia and return them to the relatable experiences of their lives make them useful teaching tools. This essay provides some practical guidance by looking at my recent experience of using memes in a political theory course.
In my spring Western Political Philosophy class, I challenged students to create these images to depict concepts from conical works by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Machiavelli. Course readings explored each of these works, and traditional essays assessed student learning for the requisite objectives. Students read, discussed, and explored philosophy in the same way that they had since universities began. Students excelled, and I recognized their work as similar to class work that I and other generations of students did in our political thought classes. This part was not new.
To complement these traditional assessments, though, I asked students to create images that relate some of the messages from the cannon of Western Political thought. For the set of readings, I asked students to find memes and images for specific quotations. Most of the students were ready for this challenge, though I did ask that no student used the same image as anyone else. We relied on a shared Google Drive to avoid duplicating submissions. Some students used online meme generators to help them apply their quotes to popular memes that they selected. Other students wrote on images to create memes through Microsoft Paint or other programs. Both methods resulted in interesting combinations. Not all of these images were appropriate for the classroom, but I suspect that Plato and Aristotle would have respected the iconoclastic perspective of student work.
Memes for Machiavelli had to be different. Instead of providing students time to scour the internet for the perfect image, I asked students to illustrate concepts, scenes, and quotations from Machiavelli’s The Prince with their own hands and rudimental materials (crayons and white paper). This experience did so much for the students. Predictably, most students drew stick figures and gore to depict stirring ideas from The Prince. There was one more requirement: Students only had one class period to complete their tasks. Students used class time to create six illustrations. This work was not meant to be art. The result humbled and created bonds between the students.
As students so often do, they surprised me. They chose quotations before class, and planned their work before they produced it within my restrictions. The logistics of the assignment were also deliberately basic. I provided paper and crayons. Despite (or perhaps because of) these crude instruments, students brought life to The Prince. In their drawings, students gravitated to the interpersonal relationships that Machiavelli described. Students were most impressed by The Prince’s deceptions, diversions, and obfuscations. Having read some ancillary articles to accompany The Prince, students were also fascinated by the possibility that the author was “trolling” the contemporary political elite. Was this a commentary or a handbook on leadership? The stalwarts lost their faith in The Prince’s practical applications, and some skeptics were not so sure of their skepticism. I widely published the images that students produced. With some censorship for violence and sexual content, I scanned and uploaded the student-generated drawings to Twitter.
For all of these Twitter assignments, each student submitted their memes to me on a shared Google Drive. I downloaded these images and then I uploaded them daily to a Twitter account that I created. I published their work chronologically, following their submissions. I scanned their Machiavelli images, and I uploaded those on Twitter, too. In class, I asked that students follow this Twitter account, and they also shared the account with some of their peers. Most of the accounts had pseudonyms with some students making plays on their professor’s name. This did not erode the experience with the digital content. Although the number of followers of Baker’s Philosophy Twitter does not rival the number of students who follow the sports’ accounts, it included many not enrolled in the class. Likewise, this account might not be their only exposure to political philosophy memes. If they follow the same accounts that I do, quotations from philosophers exist on the internet in a variety of places and from a variety of sources. There is a difference, though, between memes that their peers create and memes or images created by unknown Twitter accounts.
We need innovative techniques to cultivate student interest, and vitalize our academic disciplines that, at times, seemingly appear to lack marketable skills. In recent years, an external reviewer for the foreign language program at my university that I helped to coordinate offered this insight: Any program can be a flagship program on campus with interesting and innovative pedagogical resources. Whatever their interests, an innovative class attracts students. Many of us know this from our undergraduate career that rumors about a class create a reason to enroll in the class. Students want to pursue careers, but they also want an exceptional and useful campus experience.
Philosophy in general, and political philosophy in particular, faces an uphill battle illustrating its utility in the lives of university students. Likewise, scholars shutter at the transactional conception of education, and the debate regarding the role of practicality or job training. Why does knowledge need to be useful here and now? However, the slur “it’s philosophical” to denote some patrician dinner conversation moves us away from philosophy practiced in the academy and utilized in the world. Morals, ethics, decisions, and governance depend on philosophy. Every choice is philosophical. As we know from Aristotle, philosophers have always relied on the financial contributions of other disciplines. While philosophy as a discipline builds from a variety of backgrounds, its utility remains unquestioned. “Meme”-ing may invigorate the canon of Western political philosophy. The instructor may avoid serving “thin soup” of cursory engagements with the canon. Good and eager students are skeptical of this diet anyways. Instead, instructors should understand social media as a resource to build on past wisdom. Twitter or other social media may help students begin their journey in an environment that intrigue them to delve deeper into texts, writers, and historical debates for more nuanced understandings.
Memes cannot be the only solution. They do not replace tried and true methods of instruction like the lecture, the exam, the paper, or the discussion. It cannot replacing reading meaningful texts. Obviously, memes can be used poorly to caricature classic texts and turn complicated ideas into false and hackneyed interpretations. It is equally true that memes can invite students to playfully engage texts, grapple with difficult ideas, and treat ancient concepts with a light touch. It grants them access to timeless ideas using contemporary media.
Bulatovic, Marina. 2019. “The Imitation Game: The Memefication of Political Discourse”. European View, 18(2): 250–253.
Kulkarni Anushka. 2017. “Internet Meme and Political Discourse: A Study on the Impact of Internet Meme as a Tool in Communicating Political Satire.” Journal of Content, Community & Communication, 6(3): 13–17.
Bicen, Huseyn, and Senay Kocakoyun. 2018. “Perceptions of Students for Gamification Approach: Kahoot as a Case Study.” International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 13(2): 72-93.
Chaiyo, Yanawut, and Ranchana Nokham. 2017. “The Effect of Kahoot, Quizizz and Google Forms on the Student’s Perception in the Classrooms Response System. In 2017 International Conference on Digital Arts, Media and Technology (ICDAMT), 178-182. IEEE.
Crouch, Catherine H. and Eric Mazur. 2001. “Peer Instruction: Ten Years of Experience and Results.” American Journal of Physics, 69(9): 970-977.
Groh, Fabian. 2012. “Gamification: State of the Art Definition and Utilization. Proceedings of the 4th Seminar on Research Trends in Media Informatics, 39-46. Institute of Media Informatics Ulm University.
Lin, Debbita Tan Ai, M. Ganapathy, and Manjet Kaur. 2018. “Kahoot! It: Gamification in Higher Education.” Pertanika Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 26(1): 565-582.
Zhang, Qi, and Zhonggen Yu. 2021. “A Literature Review on the Influence of Kahoot!! on Learning Outcomes, Interaction, and Collaboration.” Education and Information Technologies, 26(4): 4507-4535.
Ryan Gibb is an Associate Professor of International Studies at Baker University.
Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. All issues of the The Political Science Educator can be viewed on APSA Connects Civic Education page.
Editors: Colin Brown (Northeastern University), Matt Evans (Northwest Arkansas Community College)
APSA Educate has republished The Political Science Educator since 2021. Any questions or corrections to how the newsletter appears on Educate should be addressed to email@example.com
Educate’s Political Science Educator digital collection