Teaching Memes

I really get Kennedy Davenport. I spent years unaware of how to say “memes” despite viewing, sharing, and utilizing them frequently. “Quay” eludes me, too.

A few weeks back, I saw the memes of Donald Trump with toilet paper stuck to his shoe boarding Air Force One. I didn’t have time to Google the story and – frankly – I didn’t care, so I went a number of days without knowing: Did DJT actually ascend the stairs bathroom tissue in tow? Or should haters say it’s Photoshop?

In her post for Inside Higher Ed, Barbara Fister makes the point that many of our students – like myself – encounter memes of dubious or uncertain information value on a constant basis. We use those memes to learn about and shape the world, but we are doing so irresponsibly if we do not analyze and interpret the memes. Throughout my first semester teaching information literacy, I belabored our beloved CRAAP tests and showed students many a fake news story, but I didn’t really encourage students to engage images with the same critical mindset.

In my own education, I’ve been fortunate to take courses which were image-focused and discussed at length the relationship between sensation, perception, and interpretation. Sign, signifier, signified – all that good jazz. Alas, the ‘one-shot’ most librarians teach (what a terrible name) does not leave room for lengthy, abstract discussions on the history of depiction. Instead, I shared the above meme with a writing class and asked them to describe how the image made them feel, what they noticed about the image, what seemed to be missing or out of place. Students were quick to point out that the image does not show people at the border, despite the overlaid text. They also noted that the image does not include evidence that the border seen is the U.S.-Mexico border, and one student suggested the image had been constructed or altered in Photoshop. After listing what the image does and does not depict, I asked them, “How does this image make you feel, or how do you think the creator wants you to feel?”

I paused for a while to let them consider the question. Library pedagogy rarely involves asking students how they feel about information, so I knew it would take them a moment to turn their attention inward. After a short silence, one student offered that they felt afraid — not afraid of refugees, but afraid of what comes next. Another student expressed anger Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric. As a sidebar, this is consistent with student research topics this term, including: Will Donald Trump start World War III? I inquired as to whether or not the students felt the image was celebratory, hopeful, or even interested in the lives of the Central American refugees implicated in the meme. Unanimously they answered: no. Refugees are haunted political talking points in this image. It is clear, from the past week’s news cycle, that the fascist ideology this image conjures up is explicitly tied to denying refugees bodily existence.

Following our discussion, I shared with them some practical fact-checking tools: Snopes, FactCheck.org. I noted that – at the time of the class – most refugees were in and around Mexico City, nowhere near the border. A simple Google search for news stories proved that the image couldn’t be true. But teaching students to fact-check images isn’t enough. Even now, when refugees are at the border, the power of this image bypasses fact-checking. This image is about dehumanizing, and disembodying, refugees through a systematic hatred of difference. To address the image, we must prepare students to peel apart the layers of feeling, meaning, and context to understand how the whole relies on the relationships of the parts.

This kind of image literacy is nothing new. It’s regularly taught in media studies, art history, anthropology – just to name a few fields. Perhaps librarians assume students are learning to critically evaluate images in other classes, or perhaps we’re not comfortable moving beyond text-based fact checking. Whatever the cause, we’re letting students down by treating the Internet as a text-based medium when we know it is overwhelmingly image- and video-centered at this point.

We need to discuss with students structures of feeling, the allure of images, and the poetics of imagery. The image I shared with my students was meant to tug on deeply emotional topics: nationalism, Donald Trump, national resources, crime, xenophobia, racism, and a host of other social concepts. Our feelings on these topics have been shaped, rehearsed, and performed over our entire lives. “I pledge allegiance to the…” With the large, white Impact-style font the image repeats a visual motif of memes and through this repetition the image seems casual, conversational. Memes have creators. They’re funny. They feel personal. Photoshopped or not, the text and image have a relationship which exceeds the meaning of either individual component. In one small graphic, a web of connections is made with some reaching outward to get our attention and influence our decisions. How we feel about refugees, it can’t be overstated, becomes how we treat refugees in our communities, how we legislate their lives and deaths within national borders. Images have consequences.

In a community college setting, I find students often come to the library for a quick fix. This reflects the economic pressures, familial responsibilities, and societal stresses they face; it does not reflect their potential as learners. Against this, I try to convince them of the value of slow research, sitting with an idea, and recognizing feelings. “Maybe we don’t have time today, but…”

Like all Internet generation kiddos, I spend a lot of time online and I come across memes of all sorts – some of which provoke feelings in me that I find difficult to explain or contextualize. Memes about the M*A*S*H character Max Klinger, for instance, circulated in both liberal and conservative circles as a visual joke for discussing transgender individuals in the military. Liberals thought it was a kooky way to celebrate a media icon. I don’t think I have to explain what conservatives were up to. Many trans people felt that the substitution of Max Klinger for real transgender soldiers was an attempt to de-legitimate their genders and mock their military service. Images of Klinger pulled on my heartstrings for other reasons.

As a young person who was treated as a boy but didn’t feel like one, Klinger’s appearance on M*A*S*H re-runs was a pressure valve . Klinger showed that there were other ways of being, no matter how horribly they were mocked and derided, and that those ways of being could take pleasure and joy in aesthetics. Say what you want: she had style. Klinger wasn’t killed for how he looked, wasn’t made to not exist. Perhaps he did start dressing en vogue to get out of the military – but by the end of the series his relationship to clothing felt more complex to me: more loving, less utilitarian. Klinger made for himself a new body with what was available.

The image’s creator probably intended for me to conflate transgender soldiers with Max Klinger and, as a result, treat everyone as a joke. But images exceed our intentions and, instead, I identified with Klinger: not a real transgender soldier, not a real man, still in a war. These are the kinds of spaces we can open up within images, and the kinds of spaces I want to encourage students to open up. Besides teaching them to fact-check a meme or look for signs of Photoshop, I want to encourage them to respond to images and – as Barthes taught us so long ago – peel back the layers and see images as composite objects. Even as popular culture representations of some of us change, broaden, deepen, there are still such profound gaps between how we feel and what we see. For students, being able to name that gap and peer into it will prove an invaluable research skill but also a means of responding to visual culture in their everyday lives.

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