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Building and Shifting the Discourse

Submitted by Timothy Ruback

This activity uses memes to introduce participants to the concept of discourse. Participants will be challenged to change the world by changing our discourse about the world.

average rating is 5 out of 5, based on 1 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 consider how these could be creatively challenged.


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 4 out of 5

Sovi Herring

May 30, 2024 at 6:42:10 PM

This activity is great when a group is comfortable sharing thoughts--but it is modified to be more introspective at first. There are two versions of this, one to recognize "normalized" feelings, the other is labeled "extreme" as the group was practicing navigating high emotion. This first one covers parents, cats, dogs: This one is to recognize more difficult to talk about feelings of fear, disgust, etc.:

average rating is 5 out of 5

Sovi Herring

May 30, 2024 at 6:28:11 PM

This activity was modified for a Business & Professional Communication class. It is best when the groups have gone through the guidelines activity to help facilitate how to communicate and even the 3.4 ambiguity. This is a difficult activity if the class is uncomfortable speaking (and in my case they were very adverse to discussing these in any group). Here is how I set it up (along with a print out of the words). It is modified to fit the business world, but worked well as a concept.

average rating is 5 out of 5

May 28, 2024 at 1:33:05 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

May 28, 2024 at 1:31:01 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

February 14, 2024 at 1:03:34 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

February 14, 2024 at 1:02:20 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

February 11, 2024 at 3:55:15 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

January 4, 2024 at 7:22:22 PM

average rating is 5 out of 5

December 12, 2023 at 11:56:40 PM

average rating is 5 out of 5

Lori Britt

October 3, 2023 at 5:00:05 PM

Have done this in the past, but today a group really blew me away. I did this as a Fishbowl with 7 students taking roles. Prior to the converstaion they could seek input from a few other students about what which decision they think the person in their role would support and why. I also asked them to come up with some things that were concerns for them. This 10 minute of prep time helped my role play participants really embody and feel confident in their roles. Great discussion about what deliberation looks like in practice and about how power can impact conversations and how a facilitator can try and minimize these power imbalances. I used the scenario above and assigned these roles (I was not sure my students woul be able to consider roles that would offer different perspectives): • Facilitator (non-voting) • Mayor • High school teacher • 17-year-old high school student • Transportation planner for the region • Local business owner • Economic development office for the region (your community and the surrounding communities served by the train) • 50-year-old who lost his job last year and who has been on unemployment

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