Students text memes to each other under the table during your class. Instead of doing their schoolwork, they laugh at Facebook videos making fun of hipsters or old people (you know, people over 25). They watch Saturday Night Live. They watch South Park re-runs and streaming series like The Tick. They laugh and they laugh.
They’re enjoying satire. They just don’t know that’s what it’s called.
That’s where you come in. I used to teach satire as a supporting lesson after the class read Orwell’s Animal Farm. If I could go back in time and try again, I would A) probably not teach Animal Farm, and B) first teach satire in the context of media they already know and like. I would have shown them Eddie Murphy in SNL’s “White Like Me” discovering that white people give free money to other white people when there aren’t any black folks around.
Just because a meme takes a nanosecond to read, that doesn’t make it less satirical. Think of the most devastating political cartoon you’ve ever seen. That’s a legit form of satirical literature. Sure, Animal Farm is a more complex, nuanced satire that skewers lots of different ideas and attitudes and is more relevant than ever in our current political climate. But maybe that book should be handed to particular students, the ones who wear t-shirts with sarcastic political slogans and who think every other student is a blind, deluded lemming.
Information in the world we live in has become increasingly fragmented and concise. Clever, insightful things have actually been said on Twitter. Take those six-word poems, for example. It takes an insane degree of discipline to say something substantive in six words. Try it. It’s hard. Remember that famous, ultra-short-short story, supposedly written by Hemingway? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Our job is to teach our students to make sense of the world around them and to make it their own. Start with the familiar. Start by legitimizing their pre-existing knowledge. Start by parsing what’s funny about an article in The Onion. Later, if you want, you can connect it to a larger satirical universe, like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. But it’s always a good idea to first step into their world for a moment before escorting them into new territory.