Using Memes to Teach... Should we? How much?

I am a philosophy teacher and I frequently use memes in my lectures to assist students' understanding of course concepts. My reason for this is that I have felt memes give students some texture in humor and popular culture that connect them to the course material in an alternative way to my lecture content. I want to investigate with yall if this is actually a good strategy (I think it is, but - why?). Also, I am wondering, even if memes can serve a support role in a teaching environment, can they go further? To start, below are some of the reasons I think memes work in the classroom:

  1. If lecture content becomes boring, they have a meme to look at.
    a. Memes generate interest.

  2. If lecture content becomes too complex, the simplicity of a meme often serves a boiled down, bite-sized communication of the same idea.
    b. Memes are simple.

  3. If the lecture content is foreign to some students, memes improve accessibility insofar as the meme formats are better known, comfortable, and come with their own socially embedded (non-foreign) content.
    c. Memes are pre-loaded with cultural content

Given virtues a-c, it seems to me a pretty strong case to make that memes serve a strong support role in the classroom. However, what if we were to put memes in the driver seat of a classroom? Memes excel in a support role, but what about as head honcho of the classroom content... That is, instead of power points with explanations, definitions, and technical pictures - what if all of that were replaced by memes? After all, memes are more interesting, simpler, and easier to understand (than lecture content). Could they fully replace traditional learning/teaching materials? Should they? What do you think?

I have all sorts of thoughts, but I'll save them for discussion with yall. I am interested to hear what you memers think. Should memes be used in a classroom, to what extent?

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  1. Memes at least fulfil the same roles as traditional supplementary "edutainment" content, such as comic strips, lighthearted videos, jokes, and so on;
  2. Since there's no limit to how much textual elements can be included in a meme, there's no prima facie reason that communication per se couldn't be replaced with memes (or comic strips, or edutainment videos, or jokes, and so on).

Therefore, I think you're quite right to go further and consider how memes differ from other supplementary materials, and whether that means they should play more than just a supportive role.

Here's a meme I made that illustrates the above points nicely (the text is from the SEP article about Holes):

One way in which memes differ from other supplementary materials is that they are not generally self-contained. Memes are typically consumed alongside other memes which share a theme or context. That could mean that an audience looks at a meme that's saying the same thing in different ways (e.g. using different templates to say "analytic philosophy is cooler than continental philosophy") or talking about different but related topics.

Memes tend to be terse and can be consumed in batches, and an effect of looking at several closely related memes this way is that they contextualise one another (which helps to understand them all better). It's quite similar in effect to reading multiple introductory articles on one subject matter that explain the subject matter in slightly different ways: the reader can develop a clear understanding of the topic by seeing what remains constant between the readings. (However, I may be biased here, because East Asian education systems often prioritise repetition with variation whereas Western systems have a tendency to consider this approach to be shallow.)

Another aspect of memes that are important in this discussion is that you can appreciate memes without understanding them. In fact, you can not only appreciate but also make and spread memes without understanding them. Comprehension of the syntactic structure (e.g. the diagrammatic relation between the elements used within a template) can facilitate a comprehension of the meme's general vibes without comprehension of the semantic contents. This is frequently the experience of many memers, and it's often enough to make the meme enjoyable. The order in which comprehension and enjoyment occur for comic strips or jokes are not so fluid.

Putting these two aspects of memetic comprehension together, it's plausible that memes allow students to learn the relevant information about the course material in a more modular way than conventional methods of learning. For example, they might learn the names of several concepts and how they relate to one another, without having to learn what the concepts are.

Here's another meme I made that could facilitate this sort of learning:

It seems to me that ordinary memes can perform uniquely effective functions as educational content inside of a classroom, provided that they are used as such, and not (say) merely embedded into slides as substitutes for a comic strip break. One promising role that they could perform is to anchor the flow of discussions in tutorials, especially if students can make modifications and derivatives in response to the meme and share them together. But I don't think that attempting to replace traditional learning materials (e.g. textbooks, lectures, tutorials, workshops, labs, fieldwork...) would be a good use of the unique effectiveness of contemporary memes. Perhaps memes will evolve further alongside technology to the degree that this statement is outdated, but not right now.

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Maybe a litle more out there use of memes for education but a hands-on personal example is one of my friends in a philosophy chat pulled up this meme which none of us understood, so we did some rapid-fire research and then came back together to try and explain it to each other.

I will say that as a spontaneous exercise I don't remember all the research particularly well, and I think that finding a way to continue to ground the new knowledge would have gone a long way in making sure the exercise was a little more didactic

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That's a brilliant methodology and basically a better version of what I gestured at by "anchor the flow of discussions". It's like decoding the meme is an educational game. Memes are frequently treated this way by commenters on a memepage, when they ask each other what an esoteric meme means and try to piece it together.

When I make memes I try to make it so that it's useful and informative for the "players" to this end. Here's a shroomjak meme I made in this vein:

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say something about rhizomes :point_right::point_left:

I have to say spending years around philosophy shitposting has been invaluable language game practice for art gallery applications

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A couple of years ago, I was teaching an introductory course to critical media theory and the internet and I used memes in a few different ways in that course.

Firstly, I would get the students to analyse certain memes as a way of engaging with analytical concepts to give students hands on experience of how theory is used as a methodological tool. Two of my more successful examples was getting students to use discourse analysis to describe the political framework underpinning swol doge vs cheems. Or exploring the unmooring of signification under postmodernism by getting students to trace the character arc of the Joker from straight irony to post-ironic surrealism to show how relationship between signs, signifiers and signifieds breaks down.

Secondly, I used the grammar of meme formats in my presentations/lectures to make the material feel more approachable because these were first years students being introduced to very dense theory for the first time in their lives. So whenever I introduced a polemic into the class room it became a trollface moment - which helped students get comfortable with the idea that I was throwing out a sticky question with no clear answer to see what came back. Moments where I boiled down essence of the theoretical idea were presented as galaxy brains - which helped communicate that while the language of theory was difficult to parse there was always a kernel of common sense that wasn't as smart as it at first seemed. Critiques of theory could often be presented as "is this a pigeon?" - which helped emphasise how the underlying value systems of theories could lead to false equivalences which got students used to idea that no theory was infallible.

This all worked well as a teaching framework because it helped me mirror the subject matter of internet culture in the way that scholarly concepts were presented and engaged with.

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You might be interested in New London Group's project on Multiliteracies, one of their scholars Gunther Kress specifically talks about visuals on social media from the perspective of semiotics in shaping our knowledge. My supervisor recommended their work for my research regarding meme-making as a way of creative learning. :wink:

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This is great. It resonates with my pedagogical practice which was actually honed during my time as a high school teacher working in an intervention program for at risk youth. We had to employ multiliteracies as a way of approaching teaching and learning to engage the students without replicating the mainstream classroom practices that had led to their marginalisation. I never really made the connection between this and my meme classes till you raised the issue of multiliteracies but you are absolutely right!! It's interesting to consider these practices from a more scholarly perspective because my own way of working emerged from a distinctly untheoretical need to survive in the classroom on a daily basis so I've never really read on these matters before.

I think meme usage depends on how good the memer-teacher is and how meme-literate the students are. While memes work well as "tools", I can see it introducing tons of noise, such as @spencerivy93's praised cultural references that might be over-relied on and read into too much by the consuming students (whose diverse backgrounds may complicate things further as well). Another problem is the introduction of a "storyline" through the batch consumptions of memes - their collective guidance should create a metanarrative in the same vein as how concepts in the syllabus relate to one another. Should memes that describe stuff (@Seong's holes meme) and memes that connect stuff (@Seong's assassination meme) be standalone objects to help understand certain parts of the course, or should they altogether form some type of coherent "lore"? I'm not sure if I can find good examples of what I just said - the closest thing I got now are children English textbooks, where grammar lessons are delivered as adventures of the book's cartoonish characters. Surely doing r/dogelore type of posts for a history class would be brilliant, but again, does it enhance the learning process?

The OP themselves would need to make good use of pre-existing templates, as well as making up new ways to communicate their course, in order to walk this fine line. This extra layer, I'd say, is pretty much harder than just trying to summarize the concepts into chunks and just lecturing them out, unironically.

Surely memes can and will be used in classrooms worldwide, but to go their full potential (i.e. exploit their non self-containing properties while still being relevant to the class-goers), it takes quite an effort. I think this exploitation is key to the "driver's seat" status by virtue of constructing a more malleable and modular approach. However, I'm not sure what will happen if we put all the lecture slides and textbooks as secondary or extra materials, as again, memes seems to be based on something tangible. Until then, meme awareness and literacy still have a long way to catch up amongst the new generations.

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That sounds like good stuff. Do you or @doktorb have a specific reference you recommend?

I think what you describe ("lore") is more or less the holy grail of student enthusiasm. Feeling like the contents of a course tell an exciting story about an ensemble cast full of unexpected twists and turns! That's what the history of any major discipline feels like once it clicks.

Memeculturalists have always produced and consumed lore as a key aspect of their oral histories in lieu of systematic record-keeping. Contemporary memecultural practitioners taking more deliberate and calculated approaches to building online communities talk about lore as a key component of community as separate from memes or vibes (these two examples are from defi subcultures, whose hype and wealth have resulted in a niche for such heterodox analyses; but I think it applies to subcultures at large as well, as well as to education).

And besides that, every student group or chat I've been a part of has their own memes about the course. They facilitate peer education in a lower commitment, higher persistence manner than study groups. That being said, I think @nguyenvantree is right to point out that the multiple layers of meaning that memes communicate are harder to take advantage of than simply using the meme as a PowerPoint slide theme. Educators have their own language that has its own culture, history, nuance, and advantages that cannot be translated into memes without (generally wasteful) time and effort.

I think having memes on top of conventional resources is far more likely to be successful than replacing conventional resources with memes. I wonder whether there's a good rule of thumb for when it is right to replace them with memes, though. There's certainly instances where that makes sense.

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As I said in one of my replies, I developed a lot of my teaching ideas from having been a high school teacher in an at risk youth intervention program which has dubious relevance to researching/teaching with memes but...

One book that has been amazingly influential on me in terms of pedagogy is the Paolo Freire book Pedagogies of the Oppressed. Whilst the subject matter is not directly relevant to higher education, the educational framework described is useful because Freire is all about how we centre education around people's lived experience to get people to reflect critically on the worlds they inhabit, recognise problems and develop real world strategies for their own situations.

In the case of my own approaches of using the textual elements of memes to present critical theory and creating analysis exercises where students used theory to explore the political/cultural implications of their underlying structures was intended to:

  1. make theory something which felt directly relevant to my students' lives
  2. help them think more critically about the politics of memes and internet culture through analytic/creative tasks that encouraged them to not just deconstruct the problem but to experiment with new creative possibilities.
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I don't think the relevance is all that dubious: classic ed theory from the 60s come up, with some regularity, in conversations about peer-educational communities and intellectual memecultures. Among the books that I referenced whilst setting up our first meme studies community in 2015 was Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969); the community was then called "Collectivized Memetics". I've since moved away from most of the radically egalitarian educational theories when it comes to community design, because they usually weren't effective (let alone efficient) in most scenarios.

How did you gauge whether a meme was working or not, especially when it comes to helping students "think more critically about the politics of memes and internet culture"? I think it's safe enough to assume that nuance and deconstruction generally lead to more self-aware and critical understandings; but the major memetic phenomena of the past decade have all come from deconstructive methodologies being repurposed for uncritical ends.

Chess & Shaw put it excellently when they point out that GamerGate "bears resemblance to "counterknowledge", which acts "as a means for oppressed people to articulate fears that stem from cycles of persecution":

In his thesis, @fern traces back the cultural lineage of leftist Twitch streamers back to right-wing radio talk shows, going through online gaming and liberal infotainment along the way. It makes me wonder whether classrooms form similar "communicative circuits" which the streamer and the chat (or GamerGaters and games journalism) seem to have formed, within their respective metagames.

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Oh wow I love Teaching as a Subversive Activity when I finished from my teaching qualification I got given a copy of that book as a graduation present!! Not only did I find it very useful, particularly for teaching media, but I have a profound sentimental attachment to that book. I am really interested to understand how you used these books to set up your first meme studies community, in what ways did these books influence the structure/facilitation of the groups? And what went wrong? I've never really thought about applying them for setting up and running an internet community so I would really love to know more about your experiences.

Ok so to answer this question I have to clarify that the learning goal of the course was to provide first year students with a working understanding of foundational media/cultural theory, as far as the uni was concerned, the fact that students ended up thinking more critically about their own internet culture experiences was a by-product. With this in mind I used memes instrumentally to explore theory rather than using theory instrumentally to explore memes - I hope that makes sense.

With that distinction in mind, I did have a set of criteria which guided my choice of memes/internet lore. To this end I liked for memes which:

  1. offered an intuitive example how a theory manifests as actual cultural phenomenon.
  2. were familiar to the students (limiting choice to either extremely current or classic).
  3. connected to an existing academic literature in a meaningful way.

Using this as a starting point, we played with memes to better understand what different theories were, how they worked and why they were useful. By instrumentalising the meme in service of theory, authentic critique was more possible because classroom activities obliged students to look beyond the aesthetic of critical self-awareness by exploring the limitations of the deconstructive/meta-textual tendencies of meme culture. Does that make sense? If you want a more concrete explanation I could write up a little case study of a specific example.

Thanks for linking this, I love Shira Chess's writing, the book she did with Eric Newsom on Slender Man was a revelation for m PhD. I wasn't aware of this article but I am definitely going to have a look at this. The concept of counterknowledge seems like something that would be very useful in my own work on valuing lived experience of culture as specialist knowledge.

This is an interesting prospect and I would be very interested to hear more about how you think this might work in practice. Personally I tend to view the educational process in less adversarial terms, I often describe my classrooms as 'experimental labs for the experiential feeling out of possibilities of understanding and being in the world'. I tend to shy away from the good vs evil tendencies of critical theory's utopian impulse and approach learning from the perspective of: "Let's acknowledge that the world is kind of shit and accept that we've got to do something about it, but let's admit that we can't achieve anything until we figure out how to live in it so let's explore strategies for being in the world and navigating it on our own terms".

This approach is informed largely by Noortje Marres The Experiment in Living

https://www.academia.edu/1815258/The_Experiment_in_Living

Ahhhh sorry, every time I get on here to post or reply I accidentally end up writing half a thesis. I hope that these meanderings are actually of value and not just the unstructured ramblings of someone who should be channelling this energy into writing actual journal articles :slight_smile:

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Right, of course. That clarifies it for me.

This is an interesting tension that all teachers seem to have to deal with. Effective education has to balance novelty with familiarity, and the same is true for humour; but the ideal ratio between novelty and familiarity seem to differ between the two. An unfunny joke might still be effective for learning (maybe it's so unfunny that it's memorable, which is kind of what mnemonics are). And that also seems to be how many memes operate, especially political memes aimed at "mass education" of sorts.

That sounds powerful, but I'm struggling to imagine how exactly it might be done. I would really appreciate a specific example!

I think this is a great way to approach education, and I'm a Deweyan so the experimentalism aspect rings true for me. Inasmuch as knowledge is contextualised by the student's own tendencies and capabilities, the learning produces new knowledge even if it's informationally "unoriginal" (whereas empirical research strives towards information that is "new for all").

Collectivized Memetics was set up when political discussion groups were first emerging on Facebook. We initially started off as a philosophy discussion group, and the participants were all very interested in the politics of online communities. Because we were interested in the philosophy of politics and education, we had a strongly democratic attitude towards how a group should be run. We made our decisions together as a community, through extensive discourse:

We also ran experiments to verify our theories about platform governance, such as creating groups with extremely specific foci and restrictive rulesets. A good example is Described Memes, in which you can only post memes in text. It's a great success, since the group is active and consistently produces high-quality memes even after years since it was first set up. Other examples are more esoteric, like attempting to create societies on multi-player survival games based on different political ideologies (the first one we tried was setting up Plato's Republic on Rust).

We narrowed our focus to the study of memes in 2015, because we were all very interested in developing our own theory of memes. Several meme-related concepts that are in widespread use today, like the layers of irony model, got their start in our community. I didn't realise at the time but I think Postman's vocabulary also made its way into how we discussed memes. For instance, "subversion" is an important concept in how we understood ironic memes (ironic memes subvert pre-ironic memes; meta-ironic memes subvert ironic memes, and so on):

No, it's perfect for the forum. Please do it more!

Also, you can cite anything on this forum, including your own posts. Consider them something like microarticles with a living peer review attached. I want this forum to be a productive and valuable space for the participants, and make this workflow as easy as possible. So if you have a suggestion about how to achieve this (I think radical) way of knowledge production, please tell me about it.

On that note, also please cite other researchers' posts (and let them know) if you do find any of them useful for your own research!

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I'm finding them (and this thread) fantastically valuable; the fact that we can leisurely link articles and mention books and influences is making this a great way to engage with both meme studies and pedagogy — I feel like even a fairly casual thread like this could be an excellent launchpad for people who might be interested in these topics, without knowing where they should start (and the highly-anecdotal observations are not only fascinating, but something that you don't usually get from a textbook or course reader).

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Happy to oblige. In my introductory class to discourse analysis I wanted the students to understand how, within a given cultural form, the grammar of a text dictates what is possible to express. It was important that students understood how framing encouraged certain statements whilst making others unsayable was political because it established an agenda which seemed natural when the text was taken on its own terms.

This was in 2020 when the Twitter tl was mostly just people riffing on Swole Doge vs Cheems which was perfect for two reasons. Firstly, my students would be very familiar with it, and secondly, it had a very rigid grammatical structure that expressed a very overt political position.

So...

To begin with I got my students to all pick their favourite examples of the meme and post them in the class Discord. Then I got the class to look over all the examples, break down all the most common elements of the meme and describe them which led to observations like:

  • Always begins by referencing a thing
  • Two dates one past and one present
  • Swole doge is associated with the past and is big strong and happy
  • Cheems is associated with the present and is small, weak and sad

Once we had broken down the elements I asked the students to look at the relationship between all these elements and imagine that these memes were answers to a common question. I then left the students to discuss what they thought the common question that linked all these answers could be. They came up with something like:

How is the present different to the past?

After we had the question, I noted that even though the details of the answers are always different there is a common sentiment running through all the examples which expresses a specific opinion about the relationship between the past and the present. I asked students to identify this common sentiment and they came up with something like:

The past was really strong and impressive and the present is weak and sad.

Once we had this I got the students discussing how such an opinion intersected with political frameworks. This led to a long debate about how the meme made trad conservatism seem natural and logical and actively undermined the idea of present day social progress as something which makes us weak and sad.

Hey presto my first years had just conducted a discourse frame analysis without even realising it!!!

From here we could have fun with it so in class I got the students thinking up statements which were unsayable by the Swole Doge vs Cheems discourse frame and then I asked them to do whatever it took to corrupt the template so they could force it to say these things it wasn't supposed to. Students then presented their corrupted meme subversions and we had a long and interesting chat about what you needed to do to the grammar of the original to make it say things it didn't want to.

For homework students had to pick a meme template then liked, collect a bunch of examples and conduct their own discourse frame analysis to present at the beginning of our next workshop.

I am with you there, learning is a totally personal experience, if it is a revelation for the individual it is absolutely valuable knowledge!!

This all sounds incredible, I am feeling super inspired reading this!! I what ways did you feel like this didn't work? It sounds like it was not jut incredibly successful as a group but productive to boot. You generated some really important theory concepts and interesting experiments.

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This discussion has been really interesting! I love the focus on how memes have been utilized in yall's classrooms as well as studied as a subject of research. I thought maybe I'd add in some real examples of my how memes operate in my lecture slides to give some practical context to how I see memes as useful teaching tools. Below are example slides that exemplify memes in four distinctive teaching roles.

Strategy 1: The Concept Contrast

  - Memes as markers for ideas

In this slide, we see a presentation of Camus' distinction between the cause of 'physical suicide' and
'philosophical suicide.' Each image in the slide affords content expressive of the alternate sides of the distinction. As I explain the distinction in detail and read Camus' quote, students are provided with much simpler and straightforward images expressing the same content. Further, in reviewing slides for future study, students should be immediately reminded of either portion of Camus' distinction without needing to read the slides. Memes can placehold ideas.

Strategy 2: The Better Known Example

  - Memes as ecologically valid examples

In this slide we see the famous* shopping cart 4chan post alongside Xunzi's famous injunction that human nature is bad. I read nearly the entire /b/ post as an example, then invite my students to discuss it - does the post prove Xunzi right? Here, students who are well versed in internet culture will likely have encountered this meme/post before. Immediately upon seeing it, the students familiar with it should know exactly what's coming and simultaneously have an 'aha!' moment alongside Xunzi's injunction. Students who are not familiar with the shopping cart post are introduced, so not left out. Memes can trigger Aha!

Strategy 3: Empathic Connection

  - Memes as representative of common student experience

In this slide I am covering a really complicated and jargon-filled passage from Simone de Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity. The idea is really interesting and important, but de Beauvoir's work can be very challenging to break through and into, especially for students who have not been previously exposed to philosophy. In this slide, I use the Obi-Won meme to communicate that these ideas are hard - they aren't meant to be understood as easily as one understands simple mathematical calculation, or even more complex (but philosophically foundational) ideas like the mind-body problem. It's okay to be confused, and even in confusion, understanding can be cultivated. Memes can help orient students' emotions.

Strategy 4: Pictures speak 1000 words

- Non-text memes as artistic representation 

This brain-caged wojak is the Yips. Even without words, the meme should be all you need to get from the idea that "overthinking sinks you." Memes as art can simplify representation.

And also, as a bonus @Seong your bigtext memes inspired this one I made a few months ago. I love blending philosophy and surreality through memes. When the joke lands for students alongside an idea, all the better for comprehension and retention.

Hume1stDate

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Sorry for not getting back to this sooner, I've been somewhat consumed by marking and end of semester admin which seems an appropriate distraction considering the topic of this thread.

I really liked the way you broke the use of memes into four distinct categories or functions here. I feel like I could use either concept contrast, better known examples, empathic connections and picture that speak a thousand words to classify all the different little instructional techniques I have adapted memes into.

I especially liked the example you gave of using memes as a way to commiserate with students over the challenges of studying. I think it is really important that students know we know how hard some of the stuff we ask of them is. It benefits no one to have students think we just somehow superhumanly get these concepts as if we were born with the ability. It's something I try to achieve by including meme elements and emojis in my slide templates to signal different sorts of learning experiences:

troll face - is a discussion prompt intended with no correct answer which encourages differences of opinion

galaxy brain - is an explanation of a theory concept which reveals that despite it's linguistic complexity many scholarly concepts can be boiled down to succinct thinking tools whose real challenge is in it's application

thinking face emoji - indicates that we are going to need to take a moment to reflect critically because the implications of a particular idea are more complex than they appear at face value

And so on and so forth...

Typing out this list, I realise that a fifth function of memes that operates on a meta level is to signpost what is going on in the lessons by standardising the pedagogical function of a meme so students know when they see a particular meme element on a slide it's time for a certain type of learning/teaching activity.

And another thing that comes to mind is that a sixth (also meta) function is to create a sense of fun in the learning experience that re-iterates to students that the reasons we are here is because learning things should be a joy. If everything is dour and serious all the time it makes something like philosophy or critical theory feel like a grind that detracts from life rather than an explanation of ideas which should enrich your experience of it.

I used a lot memes in my teaching and scientific life but so far it was mostly to convey feelings and narrative.

  1. I often draw memes on the exams of my university students to convey constructive criticism in a light-hearted way and it seems to work fine. I think the additional (ironic yet playful) distance between them and their mistake can make it easier to not receive criticism as an attack. I also use meme to reward good ideas or simply create a link with them. For example, a student wrote "I can't finish this computation" and I drew a finish which says "man, what's the point" and I wrote "This is bob, the computation-averse fish, supporting you through your struggle". I had a very good relationship with this student this year and he worked a lot.

  2. Not teaching per se, but I use a lot memes in conferences when I present my research to my peers. They serve as an underpinning of the narrative or they lighten the tone by providing ironic distance to the usual "showing-off" habit of researchers in conferences. Here is an example in one of my conferences: FKTW03 - Frontiers in kinetic equations for plasmas and collective behaviour - YouTube Some of the attendees told me after the talk that this doge help them keep focus and made them laugh about the fact that many people show crowded technical slides mainly because they must in order to explain something but also because it makes them appear smart. I feel like these memes help to break this "my talk has to prove how smart I am" dynamics and put back the focus on the narrative and the purpose of the research. I have yet to try this with students when I will be old enough academically to give plenary lectures.

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Oh god that is so pure :sob: I love this fish

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