In our first post of the new year, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Dr Ellis Saxey considers the use of humour in learning and how memes can be used to explore and communicate complex theories and concepts in the classroom.

Humour in teaching is a double-edged sword. I like to use simple humour – exaggeration and hyperbole – to emphasise concepts in a lecture, or to raise the energy in a seminar. But more complex humour can sometimes founder badly. Jokes often tend to be culturally specific, and if a tutor is riffing on a student contribution, it can easily look like ridicule.

This is a shame, because humour can be a powerful channel for learning. Specifically, jokes are very effective at epitomising norms and dynamics. Within an academic discipline, shared jokes can help students to understand key concepts – see below for some examples!

Humour as a teacher

Jokes are a great way to get to know communities. Families, workplaces, regional and religious communities all have in-jokes.  These satirise the group’s own behaviour, to communicate group values – they often look outwards to explain what the group finds unacceptable.

This kind of humour is readable, and enjoyable, but also a densely layered articulation of a particular position. I’ve on occasion studied humour created by specific communities (e.g. disabled students) as a way into understanding the issues they face.

If we regard academic disciplines as communities, with norms and rules, we can see jokes as one way that new members (our students) become inducted.

Nuggets of information

Internet memes are particularly densely layered. These ‘memes’ are humorous snippets (images, video clips, short texts) which are shared online, then re-purposed by their readers or viewers, and re-shared.

Like joke formats (e.g. ‘knock-knock’ jokes) each meme has its own set-up and logic which can be easily adapted to a new subject. This logic is often highly complex, because memes draw on moments from films, TV and music. Some memes compress complex relationships from the original source material into a single captioned image. Take, for example, this character:

Boromir memes

When the character Boromir speaks the original line in the popular fantasy film The Lord of the Rings (top left), there’s a clear subtext: I’m a hard-bitten old-timer! This undertaking is hard, and your enthusiasm marks you as a naïve newcomer! As such, the meme is put to work describing difficult undertakings (often with some self-deprecation – top-right, with pizza).

The bottom-left version is a meme about studying itself, suggesting Derrida is really hard to read. There are numerous student-created memes about essay procrastination, sleeping in the library, and exam panic.

But I’m more interested in the next level of academic memes: using a meme’s dynamic to explain a disciplinary concept. For example, bottom-right: Boromir paraphrasing the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler. If you know the meme, then this conveys something key about Butler’s work: only a naïve newcomer would assign identities based on appearance.

Convey all the information

Another example is the ‘Distracted boyfriend’ meme, first seen in 2017. The source image, from a stock photography site, shows a man distracted from his existing relationship. It’s particularly fun because the cheesy staging implies exaggerated drama and outrage.

Here’s an educational rejig of this meme from an enterprising Earth and Environmental Science pupil called Lachlan:

Australia distracted boyfriend meme

What did this teach me? That Australia is highly stable, but hankers after nutrient-rich soil. The idea of a sleazy continent, the incongruous juxtaposition of geology and stock photography, makes it funnier and more memorable.

This is the kind of meme that I believe can support learning, particularly asking students to create their own versions. Anything which requires students to communicate a concept will help them to understand and recall it. Similarly, anything which lets a tutor judge a students’ understanding is invaluable. Memes offer students a form which feels less formal, where they can use their own expertise (their pre-existing knowledge of pop culture). Memes are easy to share and can prompt discussion.

How could you welcome memes into a course? You could let students know that memes can be included in their class presentations. Or you could accept memes by email submission, offering to use the best in lecture slides. This allows you to vet the memes for appropriate language/images and accurate concepts, and gives student humourists the option to stay anonymous. Memes are ideal for a revision session as they encapsulate concepts and spark recollection.

Assessing by meme is probably unfeasible – there’s too much subjectivity involved – so why would students put in the additional effort? Rewards include the appreciation of their peers, and recognition from their tutors, who can showcase student efforts in slides, handouts, Moodle forums or announcements. Small-scale competitions, with or without prizes, can also encourage participation.

One does not simply use memes in teaching

There are hazards to learning, or teaching, through memes. The reader needs to grasp the meme’s logic; that might draw on a film or TV series, which is itself culturally specific. Even if you understand the format, you can read memes ‘wrong’ (in the example above, I initially wondered if Australia was endangering its tectonic stability through enriching its soil). Memes date quickly, and often use language unsuitable for teaching.

There’s also balance between introducing new knowledge and relying on an understanding the reader already has. One of my favourite academic meme collections is ‘Discourses on the Otter’ (which replaces ‘Other’ with ‘Otter’ in philosophical texts, and adds otter photos). These adorable mammals did introduce me to some new thinkers, but the images rarely explain the concept itself.

The word ‘meme’ comes from the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. His ‘meme’ is a significant unit of culture, passed between individuals in a society. Scholars have been irked by the adoption of the term to refer to funny internet snippets. But perhaps we can recapture some of the usefulness of a real meme, in communicating and conveying information, by drawing internet memes further into academia and classroom practice.

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