Theses Doctoral

Mathematics in Popular Culture: An Analysis of Mathematical Internet Memes

Benoit, Gregory

Popular culture has had a great deal of impact on our social, cultural, and political worlds; it is portrayed through different mediums, in different forms, and connects the world to ideas, beliefs, and different perspectives. Though this dissertation is part of a larger body of work that examines the complex relationship between popular culture and mathematical identity, this study takes a different perspective by examining it through the lens of mathematical Internet memes. This study was conducted with 31 secondary school participants and used a two-tiered approach (in-depth focus groups and an individual meme activity) at each of the five school sites visited around New York City.
Multiple sources of data were used to reveal that students are receiving messages about mathematics from memes in popular culture. In particular, participants described six core themes from the meme inventory: (1) stereotypical views of mathematics; (2) mathematics is too complicated; (3) no effort should be needed in mathematics; (4) mathematics is useless; (5) mathematics is not fun; and (6) sense of accomplishment from mathematics. Participants were also given free rein to create hypothetical mathematics memes. Findings demonstrate that not only are memes being used to depict mathematical stereotypes, thereby reinforcing negative messages, but also support social media practices (liking, commenting, sharing, and creating) that reify negative messages about mathematics with little to no resistance from opposing perspectives. In general, participants described mathematical memes in a specific manner that demonstrates them having influence over students’ mathematical identity but not entirely on the way one may think. Future research implications include explorations of the “new” online mathematical space students are utilizing; to wit, what makes these specific memes go viral? What are common misconceptions? Are commenters learning from their mistakes and other answer responses?
Implications for practice include the creation of formal spaces within classrooms and communities for students to debrief their thoughts and sentiments about mathematics, as well as informal opportunities for educators, students, and community members to engage positively about mathematics: because without these interventions the messages found in memes, whether positive or negative, are potentially legitimized through popular culture’s presentations. Moreover, the results of this study also show that students are unaware of the processes and proficiencies of mathematical learning. More specifically, teachers and others must help students understand knowledge is not transmitted by copying notes or that teaching strategies need to account for students being apprehensive to ask questions in a mathematics classroom. Memes can also be used to explore mathematics content, through error analysis and explanation of concepts.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Thesis Advisors
Walker, Erica
Smith, Philip J.
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
June 2, 2018