Social Media Explainer Assignment–with student examples

I tried out a new type of assignment this fall for the midterm in my existentialism class, and it worked so well I wanted to share both the assignment itself and some of the smart, sophisticated work that my students did (all shared with permission from them). 

These were really fun to grade! (And let me be honest here: anything that makes grading less of a chore is OK by me.) And I learned that by letting students choose which medium they wanted to work in and encouraging them to be creative in leveraging the affordances of that medium, students were able to demonstrate a higher degree of understanding–both of course content itself and why that content was relevant to them–than is typically reflected in a more traditional short answer exam. Many students said they had fun doing this assignment and appreciated the ability to work outside the traditional essay format.

The short version of the assignment is to take one idea, concept, or argument from one of the readings we have done so far and explain it clearly to an audience of laypeople in a short social-media based format. Think Twitter thread, TikTok, infographic, or meme. My aim with the assignment was to give students practice communicating philosophical ideas in languages and media they use in their everyday lives. You can find the details of the assignment here

I wanted to share some of the best examples because (1) it’s great work that deserves to be seen by more than just me and (2) hopefully it will convince more people that this sort of assignment can produce just as if not more sophisticated philosophical thinking than the traditional essay/short answer exam.

First up, the TikToks. I was very impressed how both of these assignments used TikTok conventions and tropes to make some pretty abstract and sophisticated philosophical concepts interesting and accessible…and enjoyable content to watch. Here is Bradey Swineford on the “Absolute/Other” dynamic in the introduction to Beauvoir’s Second Sex. And here is Cole Jones on Beauvoir’s theory of freedom and oppression in The Ethics of Ambiguity.

I received one assignment that used the meme-world convention of using screenshots of TV characters talking one another as the architecture for a dialogue between two positions. Eli Hockett wrote this dialogue between Seinfeld and Kramer where Jerry mourns the fact that he’s been “cancelled” and Kramer uses Beauvoir’s critique of “reverse oppression” (the “you are infringing my freedom to infringe other people’s freedom!” line common these days) to refute Jerry. Like with Bradey and Cole’s assignments, Eli did a great job using humor; I definitely laughed when grading their assignments.

Selwa Douleh wrote this Twitter thread on Beauvoir’s concepts of freedom and of the “serious man” as a figure of unfreedom; I thought the rhythm and the use of Twitter emojis and gifs was really strong in her assignment. Joelle Bailey also wrote a Twitter thread, this time on Fanon’s concept of “ontological resistance” from Black Skins, White Masks. I thought she did a superb job explaining a VERY abstract concept in relatable, clear terms. And taking us all the way back to the oldest form of philosophical writing in the West, Kyle Pollard wrote a dialogue between two interlocutors explaining Beauvoir’s concepts of freedom and of the “serious man.

I hope you will check out these students’ work, if only for the fact that it’s fun and enjoyable to interact with, and philosophy should be fun and enjoyable to do. If you do this assignment in your class, I’d love to hear about it and what sorts of work your students do.