Humor as Ridicule: The Case of UVa
Like many people in academia, I have been intensely interested in the recent events at the University of Virginia. For those who don’t know the story, this might be a place to start. There has been a lot of good commentary on the Board of Visitors surprise and controversial decision to oust the popular president–serious commentary, deep thought, insightful introspection.
All very interesting and important. But what has struck me, in my capacity as editor of this blog, is the humor. Friends at UVa and at other schools have posted several pieces of satire aimed at the Board of Visitors and their decision. This is not good-natured humor, or subtle humor; it is attack humor–humor aimed at immediate change. Superiority humor: laughing at people and encouraging others to do so by making fun of them.
Kieran Healy’s “Declaration of Independence” (published June 20th) certainly fits this mold. Read the whole thing, but here is a taste:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Universities are endowed by their Donors with certain unalienable Goals, that among these are Strategy, Dynamism, and the pursuit of some sort of Online Degree delivered via the Interwebs,—That to secure these goals, Presidents are appointed, deriving their just powers from the half-baked ideas of idle Billionaires,—That whenever any University President becomes destructive of these Goals, it is the Right of the BoV to institute a new President, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect Strategy, Dynamism, and Strategic Dynamism.
Healy, a sociology professor at Duke, certainly captured the phrase that will undoubtedly become a punchline in academic circles: “strategic dynamism.”
Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at UVa, joined in by providing a written evaluation of the work of the Rector and Vice-Rector (hint: it’s not a good grade). Here is the introduction (read the whole thing here):
Dear Ms. Dragas & Mr. Kington:
I’m writing to let you know your grade for the Digital Learning Project, as part of your larger grade as Rector and Vice Rector. I wish I brought better news.
On the bright side, let me complement you on your font choice and the formatting of your emails. Further, they feature some unusual words, and a spirit of verve throughout.
But I’m afraid these bright spots pale in comparison to the problems: an immature analysis brought on by terribly shallow research.
In searching for humor about the concept of “strategic dynamism,” I found the paper “It’s All About Me: Narcissistic CEOs and Their Effects on Company Strategy and Performance” by Arijit Chatterjee of Penn State University, which argues that narcissistic leaders favor dramatic action but demonstrate no better performance than incremental leaders, but instead produce results that are either very good or very bad. I think we know which way the Board’s decision has gone. Not intentionally funny, but funny in this situation:
As we shall now argue, narcissistic CEOs, thus favor strategic dynamism and grandiosity, as opposed to strategic incrementalism and stability. And narcissistic CEOs tend to deliver extreme performance (big wins or big losses) and fluctuating performance for their organizations.
Narcissistic CEOs can be expected to favor strategic dynamism. It is through new strategic initiatives, or taking a new direction, that narcissistic CEOs can engage in the exhibitionism that will garner an attentive audience. Merely maintaining the status quo, or simply refining and elaborating on an existing strategy, may seem a reasonable course of action for a CEO who is less narcissistic… But incrementalism is too invisible, too mundane, to suit the needs of the highly narcissistic CEO.
In other news:
*The Cavalier Daily has collected a sample of funny tweets about the situation here.
*A satiric twitter account of Rector Dragas is suspended.
*A film version of the saga already has some casting choices.
*A translation of Rector Dragas’s statement.
*And since all things UVa seem to require a Thomas Jefferson quote: “Good humor is one of the preservatives of our peace and tranquility.” On Jefferson and humor.
*And students at UVa would undoubtedly get a better view of the situation by taking Stephen Railton’s Mark Twain course.
* A cartoon posted to the Facebook account of at least one UVa prof:
*Here is the final exam for the Board of Visitors.
*A few cartoons:
A larger question: Is ridiculing through laughter progressive or conservative?