Remote Reflections: A Call for Memes
When I graduated with my BA in history from the University of Oklahoma 16 years ago, I didn’t know a single other history major standing in line with me at convocation. I recognized a few faces but did not realize until graduation day that they, too, had been history majors. Without a community, history majors can feel isolated on campus, all but invisible due to the focus on STEM education.
I am now the professional academic advisor at the University of Oklahoma for the history department and the staff sponsor for the university’s History Club. It is my goal that all students can look around at their graduation and recognize their fellow majors. Since stepping into this role four years ago, I have made it a priority to cultivate community among our students. When two undergraduates created the History Club two years ago, they created a space where history majors could meet and relate to each other over shared interests. When COVID closed the university for the spring semester on March 23, I wondered how the community of historians we built would survive without students on campus or our regular club events.
The department’s Twitter account, @OUHistDept, quickly emerged as one of the best tools I had to sustain our community through social distancing. While not all students use this platform, the account reaches approximately one-third of our current students. I began the account in August 2016 but did not reach 1,000 followers until December 2019. During that time, I worked diligently to observe students on Twitter: I listened to their perspectives, paid attention to what was important to them, and learned how they used Twitter. I took a cue from what advising professionals call “intrusive advising” and began following as many of our students as I could find. Over time, I established a rapport with our students through direct engagement, usually in a playful or humorous tone. Rather than using the account as a tool for department announcements, I strived to make our voice interactive and fun. Unsolicited, students who weren’t even majors began telling me that people on campus were talking about the account.
When COVID closed campus, our funny and insightful students continued to discuss “these uncertain times” on Twitter. At the end of March, an idea came to me: the department’s Twitter should send out a call for memes. Internet memes are humorous pictures or videos with captions, spread through social media. A parody of an academic call for papers (CFP), I based some of the text for this call for memes on a CFP from the Organization of American Historians. A flood of memes came in, both from the wider #twitterstorians community and our own students and alumni.
The call for memes was successful because it was an extension of the brand I had already developed for the account: irreverent, not afraid to poke fun at ourselves and STEM majors, and student-centered. In response to the call for memes, I observed our students interacting with each other, so I created a Twitter list of just OU students: current, alumni, undergraduate, and graduate. This list helped history majors who had never been in class together begin forging friendships online.
Rather than using the Twitter account as a tool for department announcements, I strived to make our voice interactive and fun.
I was confident that using dark humor to build community would be a successful strategy because I was following the lead of OU’s History Club students, who I treat as colleagues and co-conspirators. As the club’s sponsor, I trust them to use their best judgment in regard to dark humor, just as the history department’s faculty and administration have trusted me to manage our social media brand. Support for their irreverent and sometimes dark humor extends beyond the department. In the last year, our History Club vice president (and incoming president) Sally Johnson elevated the club’s online presence through bold and popular tweets that weren’t afraid to proactively assert the value and worth of studying the humanities.
A week after my call for memes, Johnson created a History Fight Twitter Bracket for the History Club. This meme was particularly successful. First-year history major Ian Fowler wrote about it for his English composition class. He explained that the bracket “sparked lots of interaction with the page, with some followers even saying that it was the highlight of their week.” OU Daily covered the bracket as well, noting that, “social media accounts like the OU History Club’s have become more important than ever for students across the country seeking to stay connected with college friends, some from many miles apart.” The paper also recognized that the “lighthearted mix of memes and creative community engagement” were successful strategies for engaging audiences online.
We couldn’t be together, but the community we created online is surviving (and even laughing a little) amidst a pandemic.
Despite the university closure and our inability to hold History Club events, the combination of our departmental and club Twitter accounts united many of our students. In an email to the club’s new vice president, who originally connected with the club over Twitter, Johnson wrote, “I think my favorite thing about the club is the community it has given me. When Sarah reached out to me around this time last year . . . I had never been to a meeting or even known that we had a club, and I definitely didn’t have any friends who cared about history. Fast forward a year and it’s the best thing that’s happened to me at OU.”
The call for memes was a fun way to connect our students and lighten the mood momentarily while respecting the unique nature of the times we find ourselves in. As major Lacey Pogue tweeted, memes represent “the feeling of being seen but not known.” Especially for history students, who are well-versed in global events and patterns, meme culture is just one more way they are conversant in the shared human experience. We couldn’t be together, but the community we created online is surviving (and even laughing a little) amidst a pandemic.
All quotations from unpublished student papers and personal emails are used with permission.
Sarah Olzawski is a senior academic counselor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, where she advises students in history, Judaic studies, environmental studies, and African and African American studies. She tweets @OUHistDept.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.