Meme Talk: A Lesson on Plagiarism, Copyright, & the Scholarly Conversation
The lesson plan detailed below is intended for a class in a semester-long face-to-face research and information literacy course with 90-minute sessions. Considering many programs do not have sessions of such length, variations for shorter time frames are offered in the Reflection section. In addition, components of this approach to the “Scholarship as Conversation” and “Information Has Value” frameworks could be adapted to a one-shot instruction session, especially for first-year composition or general education courses.
While this lesson plan was conceived as a class taught solo by an information literacy instructor, the approach lends itself well to collaboration with Composition & Rhetoric, Communications faculty, and faculty working in Media fields.
First- and second-semester college students
This lesson engages students in the “Scholarship as Conversation” framework by introducing them to the complex relationship between academic writing and sources. The lesson exposes students to the “Information Has Value” by encouraging them to think about plagiarism and copyright infringement as real-world contractual matters determined by specific communities of practice, rather than fixed realities. Asked to compare the creative process we call “the scholarly conversation” to that involved in the phenomenon of meme communication, students will gain a better understanding of how writing research papers requires not extracting or copying information from sources, but contributing to an ongoing exchange of ideas, coming up with new takes and iterations – yes, producing new knowledge.
The lesson may fit in at different points in a course dedicated to the research process and information literacy concepts. It could serve to introduce the concept of the scholarly conversation early in the course, for example. However, it would work particularly well after a lesson covering the issue of how to read scholarly articles as the lesson reinforces reading for argument and ideas as opposed to getting caught up in language. It would also work later in a course as an introduction to the task of synthesizing sources.
Why memes? Two reasons:
1) The notion that undergraduate research requires students to assume the role of new knowledge creators is a basic information literacy tenet shared with many other disciplines in a liberal arts community. However, it is easily stated, but much less easily internalized or put into practice. In order to understand their work as part of a scholarly conversation, rather than hear this statement or have the statement explained to them, students need to experience themselves as creators. But, how do we get there? One way is to introduce them to the concepts, tools, frameworks of a discipline or field or debate and to invite them in. This is the work of introductory subject-specific classes and theme-based skills or general education courses. Information literacy instruction can offer another approach: to get students to recognize and leverage the ways in which they already participate in everyday communication akin to the scholarly conversation, focused on social or cultural commentary and bound by similar constraints, conventions, and opportunities for creativity. The world of memes provides the perfect example. Meme communication – a phenomenon so ubiquitous to everyday networked life that we may assume most students are familiar with it whether or not they know what a “meme” is – blurs the line between consumers and producers. Memes work in a way that allows students to see themselves as contributors and creative participants in an ongoing, almost endless, exchange.
2) Media scholars and journalists alike treat the world of memes as practically synonymous with internet communication itself. As Wired’s guide to memes puts it: “Memes and the internet—they're made for each other. Not because they’re digital visual communication (though of course, they are that), but because they are the product of a hive mind. They are the shorthand of a hyper-connected group thinking in unison” (Watercutter & Ellis, 2018). Memes, then, are closely connected to a way of thinking that arises from and shapes the internet. Educators, librarians among them, have for some time argued that this way of thinking has led to the apparent surge in student plagiarism in digital times and to new, looser or freer attitudes toward intellectual property (Blum, 2008; Murphy, 2016). Memes can be a rich vehicle for discussing the similarities and differences between a thriving everyday form of networked communication – that “hyper-connected group thinking in unison” – and the scholarly conversation, a different form of group thinking shaped by expectations of attribution and documentation.
After this lesson, students will be able to:
Use sources not simply to reproduce or transmit the information they provide, but also to highlight connections between sources and to apply these connections to the new context created by the student’s own work.
Recognize what counts as common knowledge (and, therefore no attribution) as determined by context and audience.
Weigh arguments concerning copyright and fair use.
Conduct successful internet searches for open access and public domain visual materials.
Navigate free meme-generator tools.
Demonstrate familiarity with APA References page citations for online visual materials.
Begin to develop their own stake in how attribution and documentation honor the relationships that sustain the scholarly conversation.
Prepare the Google Forms Questionnaire on familiarity with memes.
Select background readings and viewings on copyright, fair use, creative commons, open access (see suggestions below and in the Resources section).
Create handout and/or class slides with definitions of memes from a range of sources; find suggested Meme Definition Sheet here.
Select several meme series to showcase.
Design a few summaries of copyright infringement and ethical cases related to memes; find suggested Meme Cases here.
Write up homework assignment.
Note: See suggestions for each of these elements below
Read and view selected class readings and viewings:
For discussion - Open culture vs. Copyright system
Read “The Online Utopia Doesn’t Exist” by Jaron Lanier https://www.wired.co.uk/article/the-online-utopia-doesnt-exist
Read “Interview with Lawrence Lessig” in WIPO https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2011/01/article_0002.html
Note: Other readings may be selected by the instructor, but the session will work best if the assigned readings relate in some way to the class’s focus on “Scholarship as Conversation” or “Information has Value.”
Respond to Google Form questions on memes
Access to the Internet and a smartboard or projector
Handout, and scrap paper
Chalkboard or whiteboard for discussion notes
Computer and Internet access
Notebook and scrap paper
Explain that are going to use the assigned readings and videos on intellectual property, copyright, and fair use to explore how discussions occur in the world of memes vs. the world of academic writing, specifically paper writing and scholarly writing.
Show graphics depicting class responses to the Google Form questions on memes.
Introduce the phrase “the scholarly conversation” and have students write down and share with the class two words/ideas they associate with it (encourage free word association here).
Present the question for the class: What are the similarities and differences between the way we communicate through memes and the “scholarly conversation”?
View short video “Joining the (Scholarly) Conversation” (1:15) with the class question in mind.
Brainstorm some initial responses to the question (class “hypothesis”); if the following points aren’t forthcoming, raise them as questions: What about plagiarism? What about citation and documentation?
Make up a chart on a whiteboard, smartboard, or chalkboard with the similarities between scholarly and meme communication on the one side and the differences on the other (you will return to this later).
So, What’s a Meme, Really?
Students write down their own definition of a meme.
In pairs or small groups, share definitions and compare them to the definition assigned to each group from the Meme Definitions Sheet (for the sake of modeling, include the full APA citation along with the in-text as provided on the sheet).
Have each group summarize their assigned definition together and discuss how their own definitions compare to it.
Brief discussion of group conversation in order to establish a working definition of memes – what questions or surprises came up?
How Do Memes Work?
Review together as a class 2 or 3 memes sequences or “image macros” from KnowYour Meme.com asking questions such as:
How does a meme use original images?
What do memes assume about what their audiences know?
What makes a meme successful or ripe for imitation?
How do copies of a meme use the original meme?
Use the discussion to review key background concepts from assigned readings and viewings: such as fair use, copyright, public domain, creative commons, plagiarism.
30 minutes total: 10 minutes small group work , 20 minutes group discussion
Students work in pairs or groups of three; each group receives a case study or perspectives index card, either on memes and copyright infringement or memes and political extremism/fake news (find suggestions here and in the Resources section); each group should be ready to explain their case study or perspectives card to the class and present a response or question concerning meme communication and the scholarly conversation.
Student-led discussion of the two topics: memes and copyright infringement or memes and extremism in relation to the comparison between meme discourse and the scholarly conversation.
Return to the class question and chart concerning meme and scholarly communication; ask: What can we add to the chart now? [You might want to add pros & cons section for both meme talk and scholarly conversation as shown in the Resources section]
To prepare students for the homework, ask them to consider the chart the class made together and free write concerning their views on any questions raised during the class on intellectual property, copyright, fair use, plagiarism, the scholarly conversation; if there’s time and desire, have volunteers share their work with the class.
Hands-on Time: Preparation for homework assignment
Review and demo the tools and strategies below, all of which students will need to understand to complete the homework assignment; provide written instructions in the assignment as back-up:
How to use a free meme-generator to craft one’s own meme (suggested site: https://imgflip.com/memegenerator/27596988/Free)
How to navigate the knowyourmeme.com website to get information on a selected meme’s origins and information
How to search for and use open access or public domain visual material through a Google usage rights search and a Creative Commons search
How to write up an APA Reference page citation and an MLA Works Cited citation for an online visual source
Review assignment: Students will make a series of three interrelated memes representing the “conversation” between two of the course sources they prepared previously for class and their own position on issues discussed in class. Students will upload each meme as a pdf into the course management assignment page.
Students will also be required to create and upload an APA References page of the class sources and the meme or the visual material they decide to use.
To make their meme sequence, students will have to make a few choices as detailed below.
Select two of the class readings/viewings on copyright, fair use, fake news, meme definition that you prepared for this class (pairings can also just be suggested by the instructor). See grading rubric here.
Option # 1:
Browse the “Popular Memes” tab on the imgflip website and select a meme you think would work well to represent the “conversation” between the class sources you paired.
If you want to use the same image and format from the meme series, go back to the imgflip website and make a meme for each of the class sources you selected and one more meme for your own take. Each meme text should represent each source’s contribution or perspective on the shared topic.
If you do stick with the image from the original meme series, you must also write up a brief explanation of why the concept of “fair use” should protect you from any charge of copyright infringement.
Write up an APA Reference or an MLA Works Cited page of the class sources and of your original meme image (instructor’s choice of citation style).
Option # 2
If you would rather use your own image and start your own meme image macro, do a Creative Commons image search or a Google Image search filtered by usage rights; select an image you feel represents the “conversation” between the class sources you paired and your own position.
Go back to the imgflip website, upload your image, and use it as the basis for your three meme series or meme macro
Write up an APA Reference or an MLA Works Cited page of the class sources and of your open access or public domain image (instructor’s choice of citation style).
Give your memes a Creative Commons license and write a brief note explaining your choice of license.
For an immediate in-class assessment, try in-class minute lists. In the last two minutes of class after the free writing time, direct students to:
Based on their free writing, sum up in a short phrase or question their position on any issue raised in the class discussion and/or the class readings/viewings.
Write down one thing they learned in class that they think will be useful to them in their work.
Write down one question they have concerning anything touched on in class.
(This can be done either on scrap paper or in a prepared response text-box post through the course’s classroom management system).
For more in-depth assessment, the homework assignment will serve as vehicle for students to show their mastery of the concepts discussed regarding engaging with sources in the scholarly conversation and the skills reviewed concerning navigating copyright issues in a digital environment. See the meme talk assignment grading rubric here.
For more long-term assessment, it would be worthwhile to find a way to measure the lesson’s impact on students’ understanding of how to engage with sources in a research project. One of the main points of this lesson is to help students become more comfortable with what we currently call “the scholarly conversation,” that is, the synthesis and analysis of sources. To measure comfort level is difficult in general, but perhaps in this case it could be done through a brief reflection piece added to a longer class project such as a research paper or research presentation.
The reflection activity could be something along the following lines: Identify one moment in your project where you feel you made a good use of your source(s) and one in which you are not particularly happy with how you incorporated source(s). Explain your assessment of your work. Why is one use of sources stronger than the other? The language students chose to use in this assessment and their ability to explain what makes a strong or weak engagement with sources will be evidence of their understanding of the scholarly conversation, hopefully gained partially through this lesson.
Teaching method – The combination of small group and class discussion described in this lesson plan is somewhat less common in information literacy classes, which often focus on alternating demonstrations with skill-building practice time. The teaching method is slow and perhaps not always linear, but particularly in the case of a concept-rich framework such as “Scholarship as Conversation,” it involves students at a deeper level and allows them to direct their own learning to some extent.
Playing with visualizations – Requiring students to dabble in creative image-making may seem questionable in a class on research and information literacy, but the exercise speaks to the common demand that researchers distill their work into several different formats, including visualizations. In addition, the exercise of translating a text into a specific kind of visual has the added benefit of allowing students to practice restating ideas in a different “language” than the source language. In other words, the lesson’s assignment gives student a chance to practice a sort of radical paraphrasing, and so, prepares them for paraphrasing in the traditional sense.
“Teaching Plagiarism” – Of course, the more appropriate and hopefully more accurate phrasing is “teaching how to avoid plagiarism.” Ironically, the potential for student parroting appears to be curiously high, perhaps because the sense of plagiarism as a problem is hard for students to internalize (Power, 2009). For this reason, this lesson plan takes an indirect approach to the discussion of plagiarism, steering students to reflect on source use and to focus on those skills that build up their capacity to get around plagiarism: identifying conversations between sources and paraphrasing.
Lesson variations – Admittedly, this lesson packs a great deal into one session. It could easily be turned into two linked sessions, with the second starting after #3 “How Do Memes Work and including more of an emphasis on visual literacy. For a stand-alone shorter session, it would be quite effective to stop again after point “How Do Memes Work” (#3) and spend more time with each part of the discussion. The shorter version could include identifying the “conversation” in a scholarly article and considering the comparison to “meme talk” in more detail.
Memes & the Framework for Information Literacy – Memes are a fascinating vehicle through which to explore and teach about several of the tenets of Information Literacy. Linked lessons could be developed for example on bias and evaluating sources and the workings of authority.
Additional Instructional Materials
Video: ACRL Scholarly Communications Toolkit, Fair Use (3:15)
Video: Open Access, 101 (3:16)
Brief reading: “Duke Scholar Works: Copyright and Plagiarism”
Magazine article: “The Online Utopia Doesn’t Exist” by Jaron Lanier
Interview: “Interview with Lawrence Lessig” in WIPO
Video: Joining the (Scholarly) Conversation (1:15) by Clemson Libraries
Lesson Assessment Assignment
Blum, S. D. (2009). My Word! : Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Retrieved from eBook EBSCO Collection.
Murphy, S. (2016). Plagiarism is dead; long live the retweet: Unpacking an identity crisis in digital content. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from hybridpedagogy.org/plagiarism-is-dead-long-live-the-retweet/
Power, L. G. (2009). University students' perceptions of plagiarism. Journal of Higher Education, 80(6), 643-662. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete.
Watercuter, A. & Ellis, E. G. (2018, April 1). The Wired guide to memes. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/guide-memes/