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More than a Short Response: Memes and Millennial Aspirations of Digitising the Classroom

More than a Short Response: Memes and Millennial Aspirations of Digitising the Classroom

Every student knows of the "short response" essay. Students live in eternal fear of the "pop quiz". Professors rely on these tools for essentially two reasons: 1) to ensure that the students completed their assignments, and 2) make sure students understood what they read.

This often takes an important amount of time, especially in a 50-minute class, and often doesn't produce anything that a professor can use while in class. In fact, the professor might not even know if the student did the reading until well after the lesson is taught. Upon grading, the professor might realise that the entire class misunderstood a concept. In the best of circumstances, the professor can go back to the material and quickly clarify the next day. In the worst or circumstances, the topic discussed is already past, and the students are learning on their own, and only see going to class as an exercise in futility.

As a millennial teaching young millennials in a university, I have had the unique subject position (for better or worse) to be able to talk about being both a millennial and a professor. As such, in class I often find myself asking myself if I am teaching a given way because that is how I was taught, or am I teaching the way I teaching because that's how I wish I were taught.

Millennials, like generations before us, like to engage in topics. However, unlike generations before us, we grew up in a world where a LOT of information was made available to us. If we remember encyclopaedias at all, we think of them as those unmoving books that line our parents homes which haven't really been touched in years.  We might have flipped through them in elementary school. Personally, when I was a kid, before Wikipedia, I had a copy of Grolier’s Electronic Encyclopaedia on my computer. Millennials are often used to searching for knowledge and information on their own; we think we know how to find the answers. However, what often goes unnoticed by many millennials is that sometimes they don't know what questions to ask "Señor Google". This is where a professor comes in helpful. Professors can help direct people to academic journal articles, books, and all those class tools that scholars look toward. Like Virgil guiding Dante through hell, professors have a few tricks up their sleeves. Exposure to these types of articles often first comes in high school, if one is lucky, or perhaps in the first year of university.

Like most millennials, I grew up taking classes that taught me how to make Excel spreadsheets, basic HTML coding, digital animation, and Photoshop.  In my journalism classes I learned to use the full Adobe suite to produce our campus newspaper and yearbook. Heck, I sold my first website when I was thirteen (it was a music fan website dedicated to the group Hanson). However, somehow the truly digital classroom had escaped me. 

In undergrad, some professors used digital better than others. Some had functioning blogs, and even used TurnItIn.com to submit papers. Others used Blackboard with some success. Others had mastered the art of the PowerPoint presentation. I designed and coded my Honor's College website. I've only ever really used Apple computers.

That said, many of my professors (if not the majority) were firmly against laptops in the class; most had a strict ban on mobile phones. Wikipedia was seen as the devil by most my professors—save one, who strangely would print out Wikipedia pages and distribute them to his Roman history class.

A Ph.D. candidate, I started teaching my own class during my second year in the programme. Before we are let loose, all History PhD students at Fordham are required to take an advanced pedagogy class. I was fortunate to have one of my favourite professors teach the class. She was a master at delving into the really interesting debates in history; class discussions were strong and always interesting.  She helped me prepare a strong syllabus for my first class, Understanding Historical Change: Modern Europe.

An introductory class, students ranged from first year students to 4th year students who had put off taking the class. I wanted to reimagine the class and think of ways to use technology to change the way I interacted with students.

This brought me to the initial problem of asking myself, what was the purpose of the reading response? What was the point of the quiz? If they are about surveillance and comprehension, how could I do that better, with digital? After creating a blog that essentially worked to as de facto short response papers—responses that were written for me, the professor, on a blog, and read only by me, I realised something had to change.  While not perfect, I created a Tumblr blog, and bought a domain (notebooksfordialogue.org). Tumblr, a platform known for sharing and hashtagging created a built in audience. 

I created assignments that require students to make "memes" (which require that a student read, and create a smart, creative graphic response). It also requires that the students get the importance of it. When reading about Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas's A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, students pointed out the inconsistencies of his stance with clever memes such as this. When reading the works of the likes of Robert Darnton and the history of the printing press students were able to make comparisons and interesting analysis through simple memes such as this. With the introduction of the meme, students suddenly started competing with each other to create memes with what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call loaded with "thick description". In class, using memes, students are able to even discuss Geertz's idea of thick description when talking about their own memes.

To make a good meme, students have to read the text, get the main point of the text, and even become competitive with their work.  They look at other people's memes.  They see what others have created and try to pack more creativity and meaning in their memes. 

Memes also are great starting points for discussion. In class, during our discussions, I will show a students meme to the class. Student's analyse each other’s memes, bringing it back to the text. They praise each other’s cleverness. And seemingly, for them, it is less work—but not less thought.

Granted, of course I still have them write more typical responses to prompts from time to time. However, mixing it up can bring different elements into the discussion.  Also, more importantly, it changes the way that students think of the blog.  By using simple interactive activities such as memes, students begin to see the blog as more than just a student-professor dialogue, but a starting place for class dialogue. And, at the same time, instead of a pop quiz (which still can have their place), a professor can come to class knowing that their students did the reading and a professor can even visualise what those students understood and didn't understand from the readings.

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