Brow Beat

Dear U.S. Dept. of Education, Here’s How to Use Memes Without Offending Everyone

Someone at the U.S. Department of Education learned the hard way that adults should not try to be cool, after tweeting out a totally hipified reminder to college students that it is time to submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). You know what I heard the kids are totally into these days? Memes. Ermahgerd! I can haz funny! Amirite?

Alas, the Office of Federal Student Aid was not content to appear middle-aged and uncool (a perfectly fine state of affairs, if you ask me), and the meme they tweeted out not only tried way too hard, but also was wildly insensitive to low-income students. Taking a meme in which a drunk and disorderly Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids pouts to a flight attendant and says, “Help me, I’m poor,” the Office of Federal Student Aid added the caption, “If this is you, you better fill out your FAFSA:” The department quickly deleted the tweet and apologized for it (“It was an ill-conceived attempt at reaching students through social media,” says chagrinned spokesperson Dorie Nolt), but not before others were able to take a screenshot.

Given that crushing student debt is one of the most serious issues our recent grads currently face, the response was about what you’d expect:

As a result of the kerfuffle, the Office of Federal Student Aid will be, according to Nolt, “reviewing [their] process for approving social media content to ensure it reflects the high standards we expect at the U.S. Department of Education,” which is great. But all they really need to do is step up their meme game. And not even very much.

I know from experience that to students, people like me (and presumably the staff of the Student Aid office) are nightmarishly decrepit. I once asked an undergrad if he, à la Gilgamesh in his eponymous epic, would eat a magic plant that would grant him eternal life. Without missing a beat, he said, “Only if I could stay under 35.” Yes, my students would rather die than spend eternity two years younger than I am now.

So look, nothing professors do—or a government office does—will ever be cool. But I think students do appreciate adults’ corny efforts to speak their language. All we have to do is not actively insult them in the process.

And I love my country, so I’m willing to do my part. I can’t imagine the Department of Education will be tweeting any more memes anytime soon, but in case they do, I humbly offer these. Sure, they’re embarrassing and old (just like me), but what they do manage is not to use the word “poor” derogatorily. (And students: It really is time to submit that FAFSA!)