Memes, Hobbits, Ads and Global Economics

students reviewing materials on a white board

March 07, 2019
Alyssa Cink ('20)

One of the most engaging and innovative aspects of the revised core curriculum adopted in 2016 was the introduction of first-year seminars. The intent is to provide freshmen and transfer students a unique look at academics at Gonzaga, studying unusual topics in a fresh format and from the perspectives of multiple disciplines. Students and faculty alike love that the seminars feature the freedom to be as creative as possible. Here’s a look at four examples from the fall 2018 semester. 


sculpture of a pink cow's head with patches of blue
"If you give a man some meat" by Laura Marck ('18), on display in the 2018 Senior Art Exhibit

The Semiotics of Advertising 

In an age where advertising takes a front-seat role in crafting the consumer experience, Tony Osborne, a professor in the communication studies department, teaches students to analyze advertisements as artifacts of American culture.

Semiotics of Advertising is a first-year seminar (FYS) focused on the central motif that advertisements, like artifacts, reflect the changing values that have defined American culture. Throughout the course, Osborne says students explore the development of advertising, “from its crude infancy through its scientific era,” using a variety of disciplines such as semiotics, anthropology, phenomenology, and communication studies. Rather than testing his students using traditional exams, he takes a more interactive approach. In October, the students analyzed an advertisement of their own choosing and presented their discoveries about persuasion and American culture. 

Osborne describes semiotics as “the science of signs,” which “explores how signs are collectively imbued with meaning, or coded or re-coded.” 

“A signifier is a word or an image which carries an intended meaning, called the signified,” Osborne says. “Meaning is a function of context. Culture is a context. As the context changes, so does a sign’s meaning. For example, a comic strip is throw-away culture, while a painting of the same strip hanging in a museum is high art." 

Students analyzed their advertisements by answering the questions, what messages do the artifacts communicate, how are they communicated, and what do these messages tell us about persuasive advertising or consumer culture in America? 

Two common terms emerged during the presentations: lifestyle and values. Junior nursing major Samridhi “Sam” Singh (’20) presented an ad for the weight-loss pill Zantrex. She said the slogan, “One size down, two to go,” signifies a transformation, and the image of a woman looking at the ad signifies that the woman is the “wrong” size. Although the ad appeals to America’s goal-oriented culture, Singh argues that it also overturns the American value of industriousness. Rather than encouraging Americans to practice healthy habits or work hard for what they want, the ad instead encourages people – especially women – to consume a pill that could have health risks. 

“Dr. Osborne’s Semiotics of Advertising First-Year Seminar made me look at the world around me with a keen awareness. It was eye-opening to realize the many hidden ways the advertisers try to trick us. Dr. Osborne connected teaching with real life, rather than just giving assignments or making us study for tests,” Singh reflects. “Overall, this class taught me not just about advertising. [It] gave me some life lessons, and also helped me make informed decisions and become an aware consumer of products, services, and media.”

After each presentation, Osborne and students shared recommendations for improvement, messages of encouragement and highlights of what they found interesting. The class discussion after Singh’s presentation spurred questions around what it means to have a healthy body or to look beautiful in America. 

In comparison to traditional college courses, where the syllabi are often more rigid, Osborne enjoys teaching a first-year seminar because it allows more flexibility and creativity. With consultation from students, he adjusted the syllabus midway through the semester to develop a more creative learning experience. With this FYS, Osborne loves the “radical idea of being able to improvise … to make the experience as meaningful as possible for the students.” First-year seminars leave more room for experimentation, where students can engage with and demonstrate mastery of the course’s core concepts, while also applying these concepts to the topics and issues they find personally interesting. 

“With this class,” Osborne says, “we can go anywhere.”

open book 

Tolkien and the Philosophy of Language

For students interested in philosophy, theology, language studies and the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien, Dan Bradley, associate professor of philosophy, teaches a first-year seminar (FYS) where all of these interests collide.

Tolkien and the Philosophy of Language offers an interdisciplinary approach, balancing reason, theology, the philosophy of language, and literary criticism to make sense of complex themes. 
Class discussions, led by alternating students, engage in dialogue about the ways the Lord of the Rings series challenges contemporary ideas about friendship, corruption and our mechanistic views of nature.

“This course wants to cultivate language with its ties to story and culture,” Bradley explains. “It is the interdisciplinary desire that animates the idea of the first-year seminar in general.”
A few students had already read the Lord of the Rings at least once. Bradley, however, invites them to navigate the famous series through new perspectives. By October 2018, the students were discussing only the beginning of Frodo’s treacherous mission to deliver the One Ring to Mordor. Rather than diving into The Fellowship of the Ring at the start of the semester, Bradley wanted his students to first develop a contextual understanding of Tolkien’s theory. 

"You don't just discuss LOTR like a book club [in the FYS],” says Jonathan Hayes (’21). “Dr. Bradley teaches you the underlying principles and symbolism that went through Tolkien's mind. He teaches you what makes Tolkien a great thinker rather than just a great writer of fiction.”

While following Frodo’s journey through Middle Earth, students have learned to recognize several dominant themes, like the nature and morality of evil, friendship, and enchantment. For example, four of the main characters in the series are Hobbits – a small, humanoid race of creatures who enjoy the simple pleasures in life like food and music. Hobbits possess a seemingly-magical ability to blend into the natural world, although this magic is not a form of manipulation, Bradley explains. Instead, this is a magic that arises through an instinctive friendship with nature. 

“This class is for both the Lord of the Rings fans as well as those who don't know what a hobbit is. Overall, it's for those who have a general curiosity about life, people, and enchantment,” says Anna Gilbert (’22). “This was the first class I had on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the only class I was excited to wake up to attend. The professor's constant upbeat attitude was more than enough to get our class through the dark lands of Mordor.”

In addition to reading Tolkien’s own philosophical theory, the FYS also studies sacramental theology. Although God does not make a direct appearance in the Lord of the Rings, Bradley says, Tolkien’s goal was to make God present in the natural world. Whereas American theology tends to disconnect the spirit from the body, Tolkien’s stories emulate “breathing and spirit intertwined.”
The FYS experience has given Bradley an “explicit chance to talk about the Jesuit tradition, thematically, with a focus on building an intellectual life,” and the smaller class sizes have created “better opportunities for discussion.”

Emmett Simmons (’21) enjoyed the FYS for two main reasons. “First,” Simmons reflects, “the class was based around engaging readings that tackled the central issues of language formation and ethics from diverse angles. Second, class time was used to expand upon and discuss readings and concepts instead of relying solely on lectures.  This made this class much more interesting and educationally valuable.”

“Language is full of ambiguity that we need to clarify with literary analysis,” Bradley says. “[This analysis means] paying attention to the world and not just to the characters, our world through enchanted eyes.”

meme depicting a character storming in and out of a door

Internet Memes and Digital Cultures

In the last 20 years, internet users have seen, heard and used the word “meme” with growing popularity. A meme is a picture, video, icon or text shared between people, with the purpose of conveying some aspect of a culture. In his first-year seminar (FYS), Chase Bollig, assistant professor of English at Gonzaga, taught students to analyze meme creation and circulation as a cultural phenomenon, art form and expression of personal identity. 

Through individual readings, research and writing assignments, as well as in-class discussions and presentations, Internet Memes and Digital Cultures invited students to understand the nature of memes, the cultures they reflect and the ideas they embody. One of the course’s primary goals, Bollig explains, is to help students make sense of something they regularly interact with online.
“I think taking an academic approach to something like internet memes offers an opportunity to be more self-aware of our culture, and more introspective,” Bollig says. “Some of it is to help give students and myself a lens to understand the culture that we're steeped in. 'Why did this happen?' is a powerful question, and memes are part of what's happening.”

Bollig has introduced a condensed teaching of meme studies in his past writing courses. The first-year seminar has allowed him and his students to explore the topic more thoroughly and with greater interdisciplinarity. Although Bollig has worked with first-year students in previous courses, the FYS experience focuses more on the exploration of different perspectives than his traditional, core writing classes.  

“I really appreciate that the first-year seminar is not about content, but experience. I've watched students debate more consistently and frequently than in my other classes.” Students are free to “nerd out” on a topic without the same kind of stress they would normally have, Bollig says.

Before students could create their own memes, they first learned how to define memes as a concept, then analyze them through the lens of scientific inquiry. 

“If we were just looking at memes as cultural artifacts, it gets a little bit difficult. Some of these memes make no sense as cultural artifacts except for the people who are actually making them. When you dig down you see that they're critiquing not strictly American culture, but also specifically meme cultures online.”

Finally, through an art history lens, the students critiqued memes as art forms with aesthetic value. When students look at memes using figuration, color balance, depth and other characteristics associated with “high art” studies, they begin to consider memes according to their assigned quality and aesthetic significance.

“Very often, the ideas that we have about art are specifically connected to what we would call 'high art,' like paintings in museums, probably by famous people made probably for rich people. Memes are not that. Memes are very often junk, and people share them as garbage,” Bollig explains. “Some of these memes tap into art history by grabbing the visuals from art history, whether that's a portrait artist who is then remixed in order to make specific hip-hop references. But what I'm really, deeply invested in is how we, as a culture, construct what is or isn't valuable, what is or isn't transformative, what is or isn't art.”

At the end of the semester, the FYS students created several memes and presented their favorites as a showcase for their final exam. Many projects reflected students’ own identities at GU, like characteristics integral to specific dorm communities or the experience of registering for classes.

Cameron Weaver (’22) crafted two memes based on two light-hearted but real experiences. Using the “Storm in / Storm out”* meme, she expresses her anticipation for a grilled cheese sandwich – a traditional Monday selection in the COG. She shared with classmates, “This meme format has always made me laugh and it was fun to make my own, Gonzaga-related version of it. It’s so ridiculous and dramatic and accurately depicts the uncalled-for anger I felt in this situation.” 

Her second selection, the “Decision-Button”* meme, was ideal for expressing the dilemma of classwork over tenting to get tickets to a men’s basketball game. “Part of GU’s culture is being very involved, especially when it comes to basketball season,” says Weaver. “On one hand, you want to avoid stress and get your homework done. On the other hand, you want to be included in the hype and make fun memories.” 

Reflecting on her semester in this FYS, Weaver says she enjoyed the experience. “It was interesting to take a look at memes under different lenses and dig deeper into the whys and hows of Internet cultures,” she explains. “The best part of the class was sharing our final projects. It was so much fun to analyze and decipher each other’s creations and use the knowledge we accumulated through the course. I never thought I could take a class about memes, but I'm glad I had the chance.”

*The “Storm in/Storm out” meme format Weaver applies in the image above originates from a web comic posted to Twitter in May 2017, by British artist Dan Martin. 

a pile of quarters

Global Economic Inequality

Growing a stronger economy is one of many passions that prospective college students may have as they think about career options and selecting the right school and degree. Gonzaga aspires to be a place where students who want to have that kind of impact on the world can gain the understanding and skills to do so, but a course dedicated to economic inequality studies was missing … until Ryan Herzog, associate professor of economics, noticed the gap. What resulted was a new first-year seminar called Global Economic Inequality. 

 “'If the future of the world requires sustainable, abundant economic growth,’ as Gonzaga’s web site said, “then we have to recognize different forms of inequality, the growing costs that arise from economic inequality, and where we see it in the world around us,” Herzog says. 

His FYS combined economics, sociology and international studies to define and explore concepts such as income inequality, income distribution, economic growth, inequality of opportunity, and social mobility. Herzog wanted students to become curious about the inequality tied to both income and opportunity, which most students are unaware of and don’t understand to their full extents. 
“If I tell you unemployment is 3.7% and that's the lowest it's ever been in 60 years, you're going to think inequality is not a problem. But if you learn what that doesn't include and how it differs regionally, then you start to see inequality. There are parts of this country that are struggling to catch up to where they were 5, 10 and even 40 years ago,” Herzog explains.

Because the majority of the students were not economics majors, the course began with an introduction to the key terms and information that would facilitate classroom engagement later on. 
“We have to understand when we say inequality, what the term means. When people say income inequality harmed economic growth, or raising the minimum wage is good for society, we need to know how to interpret the numbers behind these arguments. We hear so many things in the media number-wise, I wanted to give the students the tools to understand them,” Herzog says. 

The students completed a variety of projects throughout the semester to develop a stronger understanding of what economic inequality looks like. One project, for example, focused on the relationship between one’s zip code and one’s opportunities for social mobility. During a unit about defining the middle class, Herzog asked students to interview faculty, staff and other GU students about their perceptions of middle class. Many participants perceived middle class income as being much higher than it actually is. 

“When we're looking at these official calculations of middle class, all of the thresholds that the students reported were well above official measures of the middle class,” Herzog explains. “We all come from diverse backgrounds, and I want them to be aware of where they are in the system, and in this society. It was a moment that changed the dynamic of the course. It was a chance to get them to experiment and observe inequality. On this campus, we don't have a great sense of what inequality is.”

In a final project, students presented the pros and cons of a global economic policy they found interesting. One student, ’22 Lauren Fisher, evaluated the effects of universal preschool, a policy instituted in countries like the UK to give children greater opportunities for social mobility later in life. ’20 Sidney Hur discussed higher minimum wage and reduced work hours in South Korea. These policies improved South Korea’s standard of living and work-life balance, but with the burden of greater restrictions and more intense workloads. 

Having already completed her upper division economics credits, Hur was initially not interested in the course. However, by the semester’s end, Herzog’s projects and material-oriented teaching style in the FYS experience left a different impression.

“Presenting the policy in front of my peers was the best part,” Hur explains. “It’s notorious of us college students that we just tunnel in on our letter grade and not actually absorb relevant material. With the combination of presenting a policy of relevance to us today and not focusing on just a letter grade, I took away a lot more respect and knowledge from this course than I had originally expected to.”

Compared to his traditional economics courses, Herzog was surprised how frequently the first-year seminar changed. Whereas other courses are more textbook-oriented, his FYS gave him the space to create more reflective assignments. It also felt more casual, with more opportunities for natural, unrushed, classroom conversations, watching videos, short clips and movies, and reading current articles. 

“It was great to be able to let conversations unfold organically without having to force them,” Herzog says. “When they had lively discussions, they could tie technical terms into what we're experiencing today, and sometimes those discussions lasted an entire class period.”