Meme Composition & Rethinking Architecture

This presentation was given at the 17th Annual Student Research Colloquium, held at St. Cloud State University in Spring 2014. 

In “The Still-Unbuilt Hacienda,” Geoffrey Sirc revisits the physical structure of a classroom in the 1960s. Here, he presents the voice of William Lutz:

The classroom as presently structured does not provide the environment in which anything creative can be taught. Physically, the room insists on order and authoritarianism, the enemies of creativity: the teacher as ultimate authority in front of the room and the students as passive receptacles at HIS feet. This unbridgeable gap (generation and otherwise) is physically emphasized. (“Making Freshman English” 85)

Consider, for a moment, the ways in which the architecture of our classrooms have evolved since the 1960s. Have we transformed our classrooms to resist this order and authoritarianism? Have we explored a movement from this traditional structure, promoting creative thought, creative minds, thinkers, and writers? The answer to all of the questions I pose is no. Composition instructors continue to work in classrooms with architectures strikingly similar to those from the 1960s, and the buildings we teach in are often from that period, if not earlier. Jerry Farber, another compositionist, expresses a similar concern in 1970:

Consider how most classrooms are set up. Everyone is turned toward the teacher away from his classmates. You can’t see the faces of those in front of you; you have to twist your neck to see the persons behind you. Frequently, seats are bolted to the floor or fastened together in rigid rows. This classroom, like the grading system, isolates students from each other and makes them passive receptacles. All the action, it implies, is at the front of the room…But why those chairs at all? Why forty identical desk chairs in a bleak, ugly room? Why should school have to remind us of jail or the army? You know, wherever I’ve seen classrooms, from UCLA to elementary schools in Texas, it’s always the same stark chamber. The classrooms we have are a nationwide chain of mortuaries. What on earth are we trying to teach? (Faber 24-25)

This architecture, to be sure, is much more than the mere structuring of classrooms. The boundaries and practice of any system of education are culturally defined. This presentation is concerned with first-year composition in North American colleges, where the diversity of our students present unique challenges and opportunities to composition specialists. Just as the essence of discourse is dynamic, systems of education are constantly changing. Approaches to composition instruction have indeed evolved from current-traditional methods to expressivist rhetoric, cognitive to social-epistemic, neo-Aristotelian to new rhetoric. What remains evident from the history of college composition in the United States is the multifaceted nature of the field, a point made so pressingly clear by the range of voices, perspectives, and pedagogies found in any collection of canonical articles in composition studies.

Yet the frame of this architecture continues to be maintained. Despite vast changes in theoretical approaches to composition, the field of composition studies has thrived on maintaining the architecture from its beginnings at Harvard in the 19th century to the present. To quote Cynthia Selfe, “The history of writing in U.S. composition instruction, as well as its contemporary legacy, functions to limit our professional understanding of composing as a multimodal rhetorical activity and deprive students of valuable semiotic resources for making meaning […] a single-minded focus on print in composition classrooms ignores the importance of aurality and other composing modalities for making meaning and understanding the world” (114). Indeed, the primacy of text-based production frames the context for composition classrooms of today.

The emergence of new media technologies have indeed challenged traditional methods of not only composing, but also pedagogies which challenge and reformulate conventional notions of time and space. As a teacher of composition, I seek to inspire students to think critically about the digital landscapes they traverse. The Web, though an empowering space for writers, presents some rocky terrain. The role of power in shaping this environment encourages me to emphasize the study of a wide range of composing to better prepare my students for a range of textual practices that permeate literacy in the 21st century. Text is malleable, elusive, and something to be remixed, reformed, rehashed, distributed, and redistributed. Whether in public or institutional settings, I dedicate my efforts to reaching a wide range of learners, and I have grown to understand the importance of ensuring access to education and fostering inclusive spaces conducive to promoting literacy development, professional skills, and agency. These spaces are not limited to the academy as the Web has transformed access to knowledge, challenges traditional notions of authorship, and the audiences of the texts that writers continuously contextualize and recontextualize on the semiotic domain.

This pedagogy challenges the work of composition specialists to move from the established architecture of the physical space to the digital, information architectures that our students navigate, orchestrate, and shape. Yet I realize this isn’t a wholesale move from one architecture to another. The physical space remains the location for our dialogue, a safe space for reflection and interaction with peers, even a place for vexing about our issues and hang-ups with the writing process. Indeed, writing is messy, and the physical classroom is a place to convene. The web is the location of our connected literacies, the everyday reading and writing practices that students engage with. It is this digital space where the majority of writing is produced. To embrace a meme composition is to reinvision the role of digital products we ask our students to produce in physical class spaces that are not equipped with computers. This question of access, though important and remains a pressing concern for the architectures of our classrooms, is far too ambitious to explore here.

Instead, this presentation is essentially my rationale for approaching memes as a legitimate genre for first-year composition classes. Memes represent a number of elements that encourage students to think critically about the production and consumption of media artifacts, in social media spheres in particular. I’m certainly not the first to suggest the use, analysis, or production of memes in composition settings. What I do hope to achieve today, however, is present a number of aspects of memes that highlight their value to composition pedagogy. Specifically, memes are of value to pedagogies that respond to the rapidly changing landscape of literacy in the postmodern context, where writers are increasingly connected. It is also my hope that a meme composition confronts conventional pedagogies that permeate text-based production fostered in composition classrooms for over a century. In a sense, a meme composition allows students to tamper with the architecture of our field, following the words of Geoffrey Sirc, to tear it down, and possibly even begin to build it anew.

Memes present a number of vital elements to enrich composition classrooms. Memes are far more complex when viewed rhetorically and the way they operate in concert to perpetuate attitudes, values, and beliefs. Mainly, memes are:

  • digital: in order to be considered a meme, I suggest that it must be digital
  • cultural: memes as valuable and important cultural artifacts
  • visual: memes are visual
  • intertextual: memes are amalgamations of multiple textual elements: text & image, and are distributed in places (social media spaces, in particular) that are inherently intertextual
  • contextual: memes travel from one cultural context to another, one digital space to another
  • dialogic: encourage dialogue in classrooms, social media, reader-response to, of and about memes and the issues/topics they relate
  • public: the best memes reach the greatest number of users through social media
  • pathos: evoke emotional response, mainly humor

Employing a pedagogy where writers are exposed to memes on an ongoing basis promotes a sort of environment where talking about writing –and writing about writing– is frank, honest, and open about our harrows with the writing process. Memes can be presented to students on a regular basis to encourage this dialogue. These can take the form of ongoing, routine exposure of memes to begin classroom discussions about harrows with the writing process, procrastination, etc. This can help begin and foster regular classroom time that is reflective of writing processes, is safe, and open for gauging student experiences with the written products that we ask students to produce.

According to Selfe, the history of composition in college settings hasn’t always focused on textual production (114). Indeed, 2014 marks the 100 year split of composition from communication, yet orality, audio, visual composing, and multimedia work is increasingly finding its way into composition classes. Yet, as it is obvious from looking at any composition syllabus, course design, or curriculum, the production of text is central to the work that we assign students. It is from this context of first-year composition settings that I frame the following model for the implementation of memes in a writing classroom. This model is of course influenced by the market context, a choice that may or may not need reconsideration (even the terms themselves are representative of market phenomena). I envision that students will essentially engage in the following stages of composing memes:

  • Consumption: reading, exposure to, and sharing, liking, resharing memes
  • Production: composition of memes
  • Circulation: distribution of memes in social media spaces
  • Reflection: reflection of this process, rhetorical choices, readers’ responses to the memes and the way they were shared, distributed, redistributed (in other words, what made the meme successful or unsuccessful in its response and circulation)

In a sense, each meme is a text (or node) that works in concert with a larger network of memes. This network is complex. Following De Certeau, it can be stated that large-scale, institutional change is not possible in the postmodern, late-capitalist context. But the production of textual nodes over time can promote cultural movement, evolution, and change in attitudes, values, and beliefs. Meme composition is a movement, an instance of change in the larger institution of composition studies. Meme composition, then, works to challenge traditional expectations for the production of texts in our classrooms.

I’m always seeking to create composition classrooms more engaging and relevant to our students. Just a thought: if students are finding ways to create arguments about research papers through memes –instead of actually writing the research papers– I’m encouraged to explore the production of memes as a legitimate classroom activity. I believe that even just introducing memes as an assignment in a first-year composition course can introduce students to the vast possibilities of writing and even tear down preconceptions about writing that they bring with them. Writing is not rigid, fixed, and formulaic. Its process is not set and consistent across spaces, contexts, platforms, and places. Even merely introducing the production of memes to first-year composition students is cultivating change in a sort of defiant resistance to the typical essay.

This architecture, both physical and digital, becomes more visible through meme composition. Altering the architecture of composition studies is just one possible outcome of meme composition, but do students themselves become agents of change when operating within this architecture? I strongly believe that composition classes are locations for inspiring students to become change agents, and I encourage them to produce artifacts that help make that change. The production and circulation of memes in public spheres articulates the work of our students, the work we do in composition, and encourages dialogic engagement about that work. It’s work on the fringes of the mainstream, work that resists the formulaic, text-based order of composing that our field has cultivated for far too long.

The outcome of this initial research is to critically investigate and explore the development of a meme composition. This is far more than the creation of an assignment, however. It represents a pedagogy and a movement. It suggests a revision of the conventional pedagogies that have remained constant and expected in writing classrooms since the 19th century. Meme composition, then, is a basis for the exploration, deconstruction, the tearing down, and rebuilding of the architectures of our discipline.

References

Selfe, Cynthia. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” Multimodal Composition: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Claire Lutkewitte. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Pp. 113-149. Print.

Sirc, Geoffrey. “The Still-Unbuilt Hacienda.” Multimodal Composition: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Claire Lutkewitte. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Pp. 42-61. Print.