How to use memes in teaching – without turning into Steve Buscemi
A meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene; a piece of culture passed on from one person to another. Memes spread and mutate, often via social media, as people imitate and remix them. Internet memes are the best known example, but the definition extends widely; as one of my millennial colleagues says, ‘for the internet generation, the word ‘meme’ is now just their way of saying “funny’’’. The prevalence of memes mean they have huge contemporary cachet in fields like marketing and media.
Some academics also successfully utilise memes and pop culture references as a way to pique interest and connect content to students’ worlds – not to mention provide a levity boost. Here at UTS, Business School academics Robert Czernkowski, Lecturer David Bond and Professor Peter Wells used the notorious KFC double-down burger to liven up a potentially dry concept like revenue recognition. (“The cool thing about it was that it was just so tacky and gross that students simply couldn’t forget it.”).
Although some make it look easy, there’s always a risk with using memes and pop culture references. Exhibit A:
If you’re not familiar with the Steve Buscemi ‘my fellow kids’ meme, it’s taken from an episode of 30 Rock, where Buscemi’s detective character attempts to infiltrate a high school as a student. The joke is on Buscemi’s character’s desperate and obvious attempt to connect with his much younger classmates – backwards baseball cap and skateboard included. In classic meme style, the meme itself has become a way to make fun of brands’ inept attempts to capitalise on the popularity of memes.
If you’re from a different generation to most of your class, it seems especially easy to get Buscemied. The closest thing I had to a meme growing up was probably that time when Thingee’s eye fell out. (Unless you went home after school each day to watch New Zealand’s Channel 2 back in the early 90s, you probably won’t get it.) Realising I’m showing my age here, I asked current students Amanda, Matilda and Matt – who also happen to be fantastic work colleagues – to give me some tips. How can teaching staff navigate the fine line between an acceptable use of memes and Erhmahgerd?
Be aware that memes ‘become outdated after like, a month’, according to Matt. Memes have a short shelf life. (The standard is probably even stricter for marketing than it is for classroom use. Look no further than this post explaining Dank Memes; if you thought Gangnam Style might be a contemporary-enough reference for marketing purposes, think again).
But: don’t expect all your students to have the same cultural reference points. ‘Students are all from different social groups that interact with different memes.’ says Matilda. ‘Everyone is in their own meme niche! As soon as you make “internet culture” into it this cohesive thing, it’s obvious you’re not involved in it.” Using a meme that not everyone gets can be risky, ‘because you can culturally alienate your students and culturally affirm those who are within the mainstream.’
Be aware of cultural diversity as well as age. ‘Memes have to be culturally relevant.’ says Amanda. ‘I did a case study recently where I looked at memes that resonate with Chinese students in particular, and I was really surprised. You need to be sensitive to cultural differences as well, particularly if you have a lot of international students.’
Use a meme mainly to reinforce a point, and make sure your meme fits the point perfectly. Matilda says that ‘the whole power of a meme is when it communicates something specific, when it completely summarises the vibe in a situation and whatever that’s a reference to. If it doesn’t fit perfectly, it’s obvious that it’s being brought out as a “fellow kids”.’
Inside jokes about your discipline or your students’ future professions work best. If you’re teaching media arts and production, for instance, a filmmaking meme, or a meme that is a goof in a movie will usually resonate with those particular students. That’s possibly why something like Biostatistics Ryan Gosling works – as an aspiring Biostatistician, each member of the class can get the joke on some level, even if they don’t recognise the underlying cultural reference.
Be aware of who the meme might be making fun of. ‘Often someone is the butt of a joke, and we have to be careful about who that is.’ Matilda cautions. According to Matt, ‘A lot of that stuff originates on places like Reddit and 4Chan and those places are really mean – you have to filter it through.’ Matt suggests checking your meme’s provenance on Knowyourmeme.com.
In the end, my student colleagues agree that successful use of memes hinges on knowing your students well and already having a connection with them; memes are just part of the package of making your content relevant and engaging. It’s doubtful that UTS Business School’s Amanda White could successfully appropriate the lyrics of a Rihanna song to teach her Accounting class (watch below) if she didn’t already have that rapport with her students. In the end, Matilda says ‘memes are not your path to connecting with your students better if you don’t already.’