Multimodal Mondays: What the Meme?

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316958_pastedImage_11.pngToday's guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn, a Professor in the English Department at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at or visit her website Acts of Composition.

When I ask students what they read on the internet, inevitably they say that they like, read, and share memes.  Although memes are texts with which students are very familiar, I find that they have not really studied or contemplated their significance or rhetorical form.  Memes represent cultural ideologies and operate through the rhetorical relationship between the author and the audience. They are participatory in nature and involve dialectic conversation as they move into virality. Rather than dismiss them as insignificant or taboo texts that operate outside of our classrooms, I have found ways to incorporate them through meaningful, multimodal activities.

316959_pastedImage_13.jpgBackground Readings and Resources

What the Meme? – Assignment Steps

  1. Study the theory of memes – Memes actually have an interesting history and theorists have studied the related rhetorical concepts for ages. I introduce students to Richard Dawkins, who coined the modern term that identifies memes as cultural transmission and is “primarily associated with specific internet artifacts or viral online content.” I also work to look back and connect this definition with other theorists who reflect upon and define the meme, memetic behavior and rhetorical concepts.
  2. Understanding the enthymeme as a rhetorical form – In particular, I draw upon the idea of the enthymeme to demonstrate the relationship between form and content and the ways ideology is shaped through commonplaces that spread through culture. The concept, originally introduced by Aristotle and extended by Lloyd Bitzer (and others), defines the enthymeme as an “‘incomplete syllogism’ that is, a syllogism having one or more suppressed premises –the speaker does not lay down his premises but lets his audience supply them out of its stock or opinion and knowledge” (p. 407). The effectiveness of the enthymeme and ultimately internet memes depends on the kairos of the situation along with cultural knowledge and visual recognition.  It is getting students to understand this unstated premise and the kairos that gives them the concepts necessary to analyze and create effective memes.  I assign selected readings, and students discuss the varied ideas and definitions related to the subject.
  3. Meme Analysis – Students go online to analyze existing internet memes. They can start with image searches or can go right to some of their favorites.  I ask them to then choose a particular meme and research its history and the ways it has transformed throughout its iterations and modifications of text and image.  The site, Know Your Meme (an internet meme database) is an excellent, comprehensive resource for searching and understanding the context, history, and background of particular memes.  Students compose an interpretive analysis of their meme in which they incorporate the rhetorical concepts and the ideas from the readings. They are required to embed and source the memes as part of their writing. I have them post this analysis to their course blogs, but you can modify it for other modes.   
  4. Create an Original Meme – Next, I challenge students to create an original meme that they embed as part of the analysis along with a context statement in which they explain their rhetorical choices, ideas, context, and purposes. Students can use an existing meme and rewrite the text or image or, for an added challenge, create one completely from scratch (and strive for its own virality).  They can choose to compose their meme through open-source available software or go to a Meme Generator site that offers templates for this kind of composition. 
  5. Presentation: One Minute Memes – The last step of the assignment is to have students present “One Minute Memes.” For this activity, each student creates a Google slide as part of a collaborative presentation.  The slide should include their original meme (image) and a brief explanation of their rhetorical choices, visual analysis, its cultural context and “unstated premise.” Students get one minute to present and explain their meme to the class.

Reflection on the Activity

Students love this activity because they love memes.  They find it interesting that they are not the first generation to consider these concepts and that memes have a significant cultural impact.  The rhetorical analysis allows them to forge strong interpretations and research theory and history. The original meme gives them an opportunity to realize their ability to participate in this type of cultural conversation.  I have included a few of samples: two modify existing memes (Labor Day and Parking Kermit memes) and two newly created—original text and image—(Dog Socks and Generation Meme).316960_pastedImage_15.png





Bitzer, L.F. (1959) Aristotle’s enthymeme revisited. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 45(4), 399-408.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1976 -  accessed through Chandler, 2013).

Students generously consented permission to include their work.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.