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Building and Shifting the Discourse

Submitted by Timothy Ruback

This activity uses the fun and playful medium of memes to introduce participants to the concept of discourse. Participants will be challenged to change the world by changing ideas about the world.

average rating is 5 out of 5, based on 3 votes, rating(s)
Cat napping meme with text the cat days of summer

Learning Goals

  • Understand how ideas shape our worldview and identify hidden assumptions.

  • Recognize tactics used to make ideas gain traction and creatively consider ways to change minds.


Set Up: Prepare for the Activity

Share these Scenarios for Memes, or create scenarios of your own, for each group as handouts or a shared document.

Organize participants into three small groups (4-8 ppl).

Begin by introducing the learning goals of this activity.

Step One: Introduce the Activity and Discuss Memes (10 min)

Share this short introduction to the activity:

For many, our experience of the world is dependent on our worldview. In some ways, this is exciting because it can be easier to imagine people changing their minds than it can be to conceptualize large, systemic material change. But it can also be unsettling because ideas and beliefs may sometimes be based on factually incorrect information, or unstated assumptions that have important consequences. In this activity, you will be challenged to change the world by changing ideas about the world.

Start a brief conversation about memes:

  • Where do we see memes?

  • When, if ever, do we share them?

  • What are some of our favorite memes?

Step Two: Introduce the Concept of Discourse (5 min)

Introduce the concept of discourse as a series of ideas, shared in many different places, that communicates some important meaning about the world and peoples’ place in it. Talk about the ways in which memes may be a part of discourse. Important points here include:

  • Each meme is only a part of a larger whole.

  • It seems unreasonable to think that any one meme can shape how people think about things.

  • But when similar ideas are repeated often enough, they seem to become normal.

Step Three: Share Instructions and Scenarios for Memes (10 min)

Explain that participants will be working in small groups to generate a series of original memes designed to change peoples’ minds about an important issue. They can caption their creations by using an online meme-making site like Meme Generator.

Remind participants that their captions must be original captions written by the group. They have the option of captioning their own images or using a popular image (e.g. Kermit drinking tea, Distracted boyfriend, etc.). ALL meme content must be appropriate for a classroom or group setting.

Assign one of the three scenarios to each group. Ask the groups to read through their respective scenarios.

Step Four: Brainstorm Strategies for Creating Memes (5 min)

Before small groups start to create their memes, brainstorm strategies as a whole group about ways to create memes that can shape discourse. Possible important points you can share to spark ideas include:

  • Don’t advocate for a specific policy position, if it’s very far from what most people currently believe.

  • Think about the unstated assumptions behind your preferred outcome. What do people need to believe before your position will seem reasonable?

  • Ask yourself – how do you change those assumptions?

  • Think about appealing to emotions – both positive and negative ones.

  • Think about whether you want your memes to be based on the facts you know, or whether you want to stretch the truth.

Step Five: Create Memes (15 min)

In small groups, invite participants to start creating their memes. While creating memes together, ask them to keep the following questions in mind:

  • Who is the audience you’re trying to convince? What values are important to them?

  • What do they currently think about the world and their place in it?

  • What do you want them to think about the world and their place in it?

  • What needs to change before people will accept your point of view? How do people need to think differently?

  • How did your memes contribute to the discourse? Which ideas were you trying to change with your memes? How were you doing it?

  • Do your memes fit the facts that you know, or did you try to contradict those facts? If you tried to fake the facts, how did you do it, and why?

  • Which of your memes seems to you to be the most effective? Why do you think it is effective?

It may be helpful to share these questions on a board, shared screen or other surface visible to the whole group for participants to refer to as they create their memes.

Step Six: Debrief as a Full Group (15 min)

Invite each group to present their memes in order (i.e. group A, B, and then C). Discuss:

  • Where do you see common themes and strategies?

  • What important differences do you see?

  • When considering all the memes together as a collection, how would you order the memes for the greatest effect?





Civic Collaboration

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average rating is 5 out of 5

Sovi Herring

June 26, 2023 at 8:55:50 PM

I did this as a sub for a class and it went really well! The only feedback I have is that the prompts are a little long. I didn't edit them for this class, but I did offer a second prompt. Other than the bulky-ness, it was a great conversation and activity to have students do. Here are the materials I used in a Google folder:

average rating is 5 out of 5

Shannon Wheatley Hartman

December 7, 2022 at 7:03:49 PM

I am waiting for someone to try this activity out and share it back with us. This is probably one of the most ambitious activities in the toolkit. I really love it but I have not had the opportunity to try it out with a group. Please someone try this and share back!

average rating is 5 out of 5


December 3, 2022 at 2:22:49 AM

Activity 5.6 uses memes and futuristic zombie scenarios to develop ways to change people's minds, while exploring various aspects of the methods used to change minds, like assumptions behind ideas, sticking to the facts versus stretching the truth, appealing to emotions etc.

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