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Feeding Two Birds With One Scone

Posted December 4, 2003: Tim Murphey chats with Marilyn Kupetz about memes. See Richard Watson Todd's "Memes and the Teaching of English," Essential Teacher, Winter 2003 (pp. 54-56).

TM: Todd assumes that teachers can choose a selection of words and phrases likely to be replicated in their environment and asks how we can get learners to pay attention to and retain the chosen memes (or self-replicating phrases, ideas, behaviors, or practices; for other definitions, search for meme at, He suggests frequency and saliency. I would further suggest usefulness and meaningfulness.

MK: What about playfulness and pleasure? Good language learners that I've met take pleasure both in having fun with the second language and in getting the wordplays that appear in literature for native speakers. For example, it's impossible to understand the headlines in most newspaper articles unless you understand puns, idioms, and popular culture. Here's a sampling from the Washington Post archives (

  • "Born to be Wild"
  • "Philly's Tomato Base"
  • "Celling a Friend Short"
  • "Escape Keys"

TM: Playfulness and pleasure, of course! One phrase that's been circulating in my Internet community is feed two birds with one scone, drawing on killing two birds with one stoneand creating a smile at the nonviolent and gracious suggestion. As teachers look at memes in their own lives, they might recognize them as being situated in a process of becoming, being, and receding. However, how much does anyone actually need to understand a meme's original source and history to use it?

MK: We don't for the most part, but isn't part of education learning to perceive what's behind what you know? Especially given that a lot of what people think they know isn't necessarily true? (See, for example, the "false EFL rules" Phil Quirke discusses in the Winter 2003 issue of Essential Teacher, p. 46.)

TM: Yes, like words, memes do not have a conscience and a sense of right or wrong or truth, but depend on the people who use them. That means teachers are moral agents (see Johnston, 2003) and should earn the trust of students by explaining and teaching material with value in their environment.

But why would students be interested any of this? How could it be useful for their learning? Are teachers pedantic when they look at the history of such memes, or can it really help learning?

MK: Exposition would be intolerable if the teacher engaged in it all the time, sure. But what if the digging were used as a way to

  • learn how to do research with Google ( or another search engine? For example, searching on red in tooth and claw, one of the memes Todd cites, yields many hits about Darwin before a site on Alfred Lord Tennyson shows up (In Memoriam, A.H.H. by Alfred Tennyson, 2000, to explain why.
  • understand word play in the media and its political implications? Thomas Hobbes's observation that life is nasty, brutish, and short (another meme cited by Todd) makes many appearances in political headlines, as even a quick Web search shows. Wouldn't an observant learner want to know the source as a way of understanding why the phrase is so often used?
  • approach critical thinking? Take another of the memes that Todd cites: survival of the fittest. The original meaning of Charles Darwin's phrase is the basis for some of the writing of biologist Stephen Jay Gould. In Wonderful Life, Gould (1989) suggests that biological diversity is a result not just of fitness but also of chance. So examining the meme is part of thinking critically about important, pervasive ideas.

TM: Yes, let's not throw out the memes with the bathwater. Then life would be memingless!


Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful life: The Burgess Shale and the nature of history. New York: W. W. Norton.

In memoriam, A.H.H. by Alfred Tennyson. (2000). Tapestry: The Institute for Philosophy, Religion, and the Life Sciences. Retrieved August 6, 2003, from

Johnston, B. (2003). Values in English language teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Tim Murphey teaches at Dokkyo University, in Japan. Marilyn Kupetz is TESOL's managing editor.