Students cheered the first time I told them that their exam would involve designing a meme. When I added that they had to write an explanatory paragraph accompanying the meme, the reaction was much less enthusiastic. This final exam experiment, a.k.a. the meme exam, occurred in Jumpstart Stage and Screen, a team-taught, year-long, inter-and multi-disciplinary class at my institution that fulfills nearly all of first-year students’ General Education requirements, including their American history requirement.
In our unit on colonization, we focused on the mythology of Pocahontas, comparing the story in film and popular culture with the history. We read Camilla Townsend’s Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma.
As the culminating assignment in this unit, I asked students to design a meme based on Townsend’s book. They had to choose an image from the Pocahontas Archive, an online collection of dozens of images of Pocahontas throughout history, organized by Dr. Edward J. Gallagher of Lehigh University. No outside images or sources were permitted. I instructed them to communicate one aspect of their new and/ or revised understanding of the Pocahontas story after reading Townsend’s book.To accompany the meme, students wrote a one-paragraph explanation of the idea behind the meme, documenting it from the book. They had to cite Townsend’s book with examples and illustrations to support their idea and then add Chicago-Style footnotes to those references.
The students had fun with the memes. They designed of a variety of them to illustrate their learning. The key to success for the meme was that it had to demonstrate a concrete and specific insight into history they had gained from Townsend’s book. Students couldn’t simply say that the real history of Pocahontas differed from the mythology. It had to be focused one one issue or insight derived from the book. Some students focused on the significance of Pocahontas adopting English fashions, while others focused on John Smith’s key role in shaping the mythology of Pocahontas by writing his “History of Virginia” in the early 1620s. Still others designed memes based on the significance of tobacco or disease in shaping the early history of Virginia.
Most of the memes were strong and funny. For example, one meme depicted an image of Pocahontas with a blank gaze, captioned as “When John Smith tries to get back with you even though you’re married, or the same image, captioned as “When John Smith looks nothing like his Tinder profile.” Others were profound, such as one meme with an image of Pocahontas with a knowing and deep gaze, captioned with a quotation from Townsend’s book: “Rolfe’s writings prove, however, that she was not a blank slate upon which he could write: clearly she was not always doing as he wished.”
While the memes were strong, the quality of the paragraphs varied. I had instructed the students, in composing their paragraphs, to write a topic sentence that communicated their one new insight or issue, then to illustrate that issue with a few examples drawn from the monograph and explanations, and to conclude with a brief reflection on the significance of that issue. Some students struggled with paragraphing, especially using evidence from the monograph to support their ideas and explaining the larger significance of their insight, that infamous “So What?” question.
Still, it was a useful exercise for both the students and me. Students practiced the skill of writing a concise and focused paragraph, one that made a historical argument with documentation. They learned that in a university history course, a paragraph is not simply a random stream-of-consciousness reflection written the night before it is due, but rather a deliberate, well-designed, and documented unit of composition. I’m in a much better position now to give my students advice in writing their essays this semester.
In sum, this final assessment was about basic units — memes, paragraphs, and footnotes — of both visual and textual media. Having the students design a meme was definitely a hook to get them excited about the project and engaged in it. The meme prompted them to spend a lot of time finding the right image and choosing the right theme or issue to communicate, and expressing their idea concisely. This semester, I’ll be telling students that they need to invest as much time, if not more, in writing their paragraphs.
In trying this assignment, I do not mean to suggest that I will be abandoning more traditional, essay-based exams in the future, but I liked how this particular assignment combined old and new media. My students taught me something about new media like memes, while I’m teaching them to write paragraphs and document their ideas in footnotes, the building blocks of historical scholarship.
For a link to the Pocahontas archive of images, please see: http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/pocahontas/images.php
For fun, here are more memes: