Before we dive into the dank memes, I want to rewind to the summer of 2015. To finish my degree programme at Lander University a year early, I took two summer classes, one of which was Physics 101 and Lab.
Between classes Monday through Thursday, working at the Waffle House Friday through Sunday, planning my wedding and trying to actually enjoy my summer, I was so overwhelmed that I narrowly escaped a panic attack one day in the lab.
My physics professor, David Red, not only followed me out of class that day to make sure I was okay, but his class demonstrations, silly stories and general antics made that hectic semester much more bearable.
If you think the name “David Red” sounds familiar, it’s because he went viral last year when Bored Panda picked up his dank memes:
As you can see, Red is a naturally gifted comedian. If a student answers a question correctly in class, he’ll even give them a prize.
“I give out a lot of soup, that’s a standard prize,” Red told Study International. “Also taco seasoning, a toaster once (I had gotten a new one and gave away the old one)…mostly food items because I figure college kids are hungry.”
His tests and quizzes are themed and full of pop culture references. Mean Girls is one of his favorites: “If the super fetch purse is thrown from the helicopter from a height of 100 metres and at a velocity of 20 metres per second at an angle of 30 degrees above the horizontal, then where will it land?”
If there’s one teacher who goes the extra mile to keep his students engaged, it’s Red. Here’s what he had to say to Study International about holding his students’ attention in the era of the internet:
Q: How long have you been teaching?
A: I’m entering my 18th year of full-time teaching, with four additional years as a teaching assistant in grad school.
Q: What inspired you to make memes?
A: The first of my teacher memes came from the end-of-semester grading frustration that all teachers experience. I was procrastinating and saw a meme that expressed the annoyance of having to do laundry that featured two pictures of Golum, one smiling with the caption, “We have to do the laundry,” and the second with him angrily saying, “BUT WE HATES IT!”
I was sitting in my office and took two quick photos of myself, trying to look happy and angry, then captioned them similarly but with grading replacing laundry.
People enjoyed it, and then I started seeing so many ways that common teacher experiences could be expressed using the most well-known memes. Once my wife got involved, they skyrocketed in quality because she would custom craft costumes, make-up, wigs, and set scenery and pose me for them so that they would more accurately recreate the originals.
Eventually people asked me to make them public (the default setting of all my posts is “friends only”) and suddenly it exploded. It was just for fun, but I am so glad people have generally enjoyed them and used them.
I use them in/with classes too now, with things like “Meme-orandums” that I will send out as part of class announcements. I have also had stickers printed up of many of them that I apply when grading tests.
Q: In your opinion, how has internet culture influenced your teaching style and the classroom environment in general?
A: Internet culture has had an ever growing influence on what happens in my classroom. The internet was vastly smaller in every way 17 years ago and its influence on culture in general was correspondingly close to negligible as compared to now. At this point, my students have grown up with it (my entering freshmen this year were born as I began teaching) and it is a large part of their lives and their culture.
My general teaching philosophy has always been to do whatever I can to keep the students’ attention while delivering the material and concepts, and this has often involved references to pop culture. That has often been with references to songs (“When I Move You Move” is a Ludacris lyric that I used in the past when talking about relative motion) or movies (Mean Girls references, for example) but more and more, the “common ground” reference points are on the internet, so that’s where I go to.
In addition, there are things that my students see on the internet that relate to our physics classroom…they see Flat Earthers and theories about the moon landing(s) being faked. Rather than ignoring those, I can take them as opportunities to discuss both the specific physics involved as well as the larger notion of how we know things and what constitutes sound evidence and reasoning.
I had my first Flat Earther student just this past year and I tried to make it into a hopefully confrontational opportunity as much as I could. The dress that everyone saw as different colors about four years ago (I think) was similarly an opportunity to talk about colour and colour vision, which are fascinating topics really.
Q: Do you have any memes in the works at the moment?
A: As I’m off from teaching for the summer, the memes are on hiatus. Generally, I’ve done them at the starts and ends of semesters as those are the times when teaching issues are most intense (begging for extra credit for example is an end-of-semester tendency) and when people are most receptive to seeing them.
I will probably do some in August when my academic year begins anew, but there are no plans for specific memes. I will have to see what memes are out there in the internet world at the time and go from there.
Generally, it’s been getting harder since I’ve already done many of the “classic” memes and the internet is moving more towards gifs. There also seems to be a rise in cartoon characters as memes, and when I’ve tried those, they don’t tend to come out as well.
I don’t want to force them and turn it into some kind of work that I must do. My wife and I make them into projects, and it is something we have fun doing together, and I won’t keep doing them if they don’t spring from what feels like fun ideas that turn into fun little day projects for us (shopping at thrift stores for materials is like a scavenger hunt, for example).
Q: If you could give educators one piece of advice about keeping students engaged in a world of constant connection, what would it be?
A: Students are, as you said, in a world of constant connection. Even their watches now are buzzing at them regularly to tell them about something other than what you are talking about during a 50-minute lecture or 150-minute lab or more, especially in the case of night or weekend courses.
My entire teaching philosophy is predicated on the idea that the student’s brain can learn the material (if they can’t, then it doesn’t matter what I do) if I can keep that brain engaged and focused on the material.
Obviously, much of the onus for staying tuned in falls on the student, but to say that none of it falls on me is shirking part of my end of the deal. And that is getting harder for both of us, student and teacher, because of the constant buzzing and distraction of devices.
I don’t think any of what I just said is news to any of us, but it is a reality that we have to acknowledge and work with. Doing anything to shake up the room when it gets stagnant, short of shouting offensive things, of course, helps.
In my case, physical demonstrations sometimes help, but giving out random prizes for answering questions or telling them a ridiculous story that you then use for teaching purposes, or flashing a meme of yourself on the screen, or just anything you can do to not zombie-stagger through the motions of the day is a positive for everyone (maybe most especially the teacher).
And there you have it: tips for keeping kids focused in an age of constant distraction, straight from the mind of a comedic genius. You don’t have to recreate the internet’s hottest memes (or go viral doing it). You simply have to make an effort to relate to your students on some level. Red’s approach proves that learning doesn’t have to be all work and no play.