“Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds.” – Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
When I was a college freshman, a beloved English professor first introduced me to author Sherman Alexie. I have had the opportunity to pay it forward and teach Sherman Alexie (most notably his novel Flight) to freshman students for the past 6 years. Here are my top 4 reasons you should be doing the same.
1. He’s funny.
We teach in a modern, text-filled world where laughing out loud and rolling on the floor laughing are common phrases that now appear in our inboxes, piles of essays to grade, and classroom discussions. While this reliance on slang always reminds me to make a note, ‘AVOID SLANG’ in my syllabus, I am pleased to present an author who creates a safe space for readers to ‘lol’ and/or ‘rotfl’ and aim to generate a similar environment in my college classroom.
I usually introduce Alexie with a brief biography and a lot of excitement – I affectionately create an ‘S.A. Opening Day’ complete with an interactive Prezi on the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian from Wellpinit, Washington. In recent years, I have begun our discussions with clips from Time’s 10 Questions Series and Big Think’s Interview with Sherman Alexie below. While these videos help to promote different works, they also provide a context for young readers to see and hear from the author directly. When I ask for first impressions, students comment on Alexie’s passion about subjects like banned books, Native American history, and novel writing. They applaud his frankness and his ability to tell it like it is. Mostly, though, they talk about his humor. They continue to do so while reading his novel Flight.
2. He’s seriously funny.
In the midst of reading, students always exchange tales of laughter – they dog-ear pages to later share with classmates. Interestingly enough, students also inquire about another side of Alexie’s humor. They begin to question if they should be laughing at some of the outrageous stereotypes, politically incorrect statements, and explicit innuendos – and they dog-ear these pages as well. While they may not be aware of it, Alexie helps students become more active readers and critical thinkers. He helps them to formulate differences between types of humor such as slapstick, dark humor, and satire. Through satirical portrayals, he presents serious issues many of my students face on a daily basis such as alienation, peer pressure, and stereotyping.
In class, students create an ongoing list of ‘seriously funny moments’ from the novel, and explore these instances in their final papers. They use humor as a tool to talk about thoughtful social and cultural issues, an idea garnered from the pages of Alexie’s own work. For their final essays, they answer one or more of the following questions in an effort to explore, expand upon, and showcase their understanding of humor’s impact on society: How do humorists (like Sherman Alexie) use humor to get us to think about the world?; How does the type of humor in Alexie’s work impact, change, progress, and/or regress our worldview?; How, if at all, might this type of humor used in Alexie’s work help us to prioritize our values?; and How, if at all, might the instances of humor in Alexie’s work help us to change American society?
3. His writing is accessible.
I am a big proponent of challenging my students’ abilities – their writing skills, reading comprehension, and critical thinking – in my freshman English course. On the other hand, students often have a different agenda. With such a varied student population with an even more diverse set of skills in each classroom, I find their motivation to learn on a broader spectrum than ever before. Alexie’s writing, through culture references, simple sentence structure, and descriptive language, connects his characters’ thoughts to his readers’ world. Often, lofty diction and complicated sentence construction can alienate young readers. After a semester of trying to challenge their comprehension and deciphering skills, Alexie is a breath of fresh, easy air. Through his writing, he illustrates that language should promote critical thinking about sober, cultural issues plaguing the current American landscape.
His writing is also a great model for students. I often ask them to write and speak what they know – to avoid using the right-click feature found on their computers that allows them to replace their vocabulary with less familiar, obtuse words. I want them to focus on effectively communicating their ideas onto the page, and Alexie acts as a bestselling example.
4. He helps develop empathy in readers.
Call it what you will. Whether it is social consciousness, social awareness, or social understanding, Sherman Alexie has a true gift of facilitating empathy for other human experiences. As my freshman students study, humor, specifically the kind utilized by Alexie, helps to create a shared experience. These shared experiences produce stories, which are often told in the classroom, and build understanding and tolerance across different cultural boundaries. Alexie explores Native American stereotypes – the drunken Indian, the noble savage – and shows their harmful effects on the psyches of young men growing up both on and away from the reservation. He discusses cultural boundaries and often shatters preconceived notions of Native Americans, all in an effort not to acquire sympathy, but instead to illustrate the destructive force of willful ignorance. True understanding of another’s pain, isolation, and successes combats this deliberate cultural obliviousness. His interview with Bill Moyers, “Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Borders” is a poignant example for this discussion.
We spend a great deal of time on historical context as the novel presents it. History is important to Alexie, and it is often the place to begin a discussion on empathy. We discuss historical injustices, legendary battles, and prominent figures, such as Jackson’s dismissal of the Supreme Court ruling for the Cherokee nation, leading to the Trail of Tears, Custer’s Last Stand, and Crazy Horse. My young students grapple with an historical understanding of these cultural experiences, and in weekly reflections, they often discuss with their own values, ignorance, and biases, senses and stories of personal betrayal, alienation, and cultural seclusion. Considering different histories and perspectives aids in the development of a more informed, empathetic, and socially conscious society. While habitually reliant on bland, disingenuous phraseology regarding their emotions, twenty-first century readers learn through Alexie’s affirmation that true emotions and deep, sincere empathy builds lasting, valuable human connections.
© 2014 Tara Friedman
Tara E. Friedman currently teaches English and Professional Writing at Widener University in the outskirts of Philadelphia. She is ABD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and hopes to complete her dissertation on female resistance and agency in select late nineteenth and twentieth century American novels and graduate in 2014 with her PhD in Literature and Criticism. While she has presented on critical thinking and writing center theory and pedagogy at the CCCC, her other research interests include nineteenth century British novels, the sixties in America, and American humor.
In my introduction to literary genre course this semester, we had a running joke that all started with my introductory letter to students in January asking them to consider what humor could do. A bit of background: I begin and end each semester with the epistolary form – in August I introduce myself and my goals for the semester, as well as my rationale for selecting the various readings, and in May, my students craft their own letters back to me regarding their experiences in the course, their continuing struggles, and their diverse accomplishments. My students remark how these letters help them to reflect on everything they have learned, to express a new-found confidence they often feel as young writers and critical thinkers, to feel connected to their professor and their own learning, and to garner a sense of responsiveness and engagement for the future learning of peers who will take this course. Most students this semester examined their appreciation for the theme of our course, incorporating our joke in their responses: humor can do that!
You see, as a professor, like many of us I’m sure, I find myself constantly thinking about the progress of my students and my classes, especially while I’m performing tasks that permit my mind to wander and reflect, such as grocery shopping, waiting in line at the post office (yes, I still frequent the USPS), or trying to fall asleep. Recently, while sitting and waiting and waiting and waiting in my doctor’s office, I came across an abstract in an October 2003 issue of Science (see Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams’ abstract) detailing a study on the connectivity of social isolation to physical pain and instantly thought of my students. All semester long, they read plays, novels, short stories, and poems that showcased a variety of types of humor. I also supplemented their genre introduction with discussions on humor from physiological, economic, and psychological prospectives. This Science abstract, while not itself humorous, fit right into my theme, and I shared it with students via email as they were working hard to complete their final essays and reflective letters.
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Teaching American Humor:
What is funny?
I begin all courses on humor by polling students on their tastes. What do they find funny and why? It is a logical beginning from a pedagogical standpoint because it emphasizes the importance of their voice in the class while also asserting a key point of any study of humor: it’s always personal. Students bring an array of predispositions to the humorous material the course will cover. They know what they like, but they may not be so sure as to WHY they like it. We need to use that tension throughout the course. I must also make sure that while they explore their personal preferences that they also find connections to audiences across time and mediums. In short, they need to recognize that the personal responses also have historical, social, and political connections.
A questionnaire assessing students’ tastes in humor could take any number of forms and approaches, and I would love to hear other ideas. I am certain that many teachers do something very similar to what I am sharing here.
Here are the core questions focused on getting students to open up about their tastes:
**Do you have a good sense of humor?
Obviously, the class will respond overwhelmingly in the affirmative. “YES!!” they shout, “WE HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF HUMOR!” This is true, of course, and I congratulate them on this fine accomplishment. It does, however, set me up for obvious jokes as we discuss their answers to the next two questions wherein they provide examples in support of their good senses of humor.
**List two favorite funny films.
**List two favorite television situation comedies.
There is a wide range of answers to these questions, though they lean very heavy to the most recent hits. For example, The Hangover (1 and 2) has been popular for three semesters in a row, though I am certain that run will be gone by next fall–unless two or three more sequels are released this summer. But it is in no way dominant as a favorite. As for sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother rank high, but, as with the films, there are no real favorites. This list is broad, with most shows getting only one or two votes (out of 35-40 students).
The wide range is the hoped-for response. It gives us an opportunity to mention quite a few films and shows and seek common ground among the varied responses. The more substantive question follows:
**Judging from your favorite films and sitcoms, how would you define or classify your taste in humor?
This is a key moment in the self-assessment. Students cannot just name a recent familiar title; rather, they have to justify it by defining the attributes that lead to laughter. Here is a rather typical range of the phrases they provide:
–Dry, Witty, Intellectual, Sarcastic
–Vulgar, Unnatural, Tasteless, Crude
–Simple, Physical, Stupid
The two largest responses are consistently the first two above, and they are generally equally represented even though they seem contradictory. A significant group of students always values wit above all else. An equally large group values crudity above all else. Some students see themselves in both. The inherent tensions between these two seemingly opposite taste preferences is the crux of the course, perhaps, as students explore the cultural values that encourage–demand–both strains in American humor.
The next question gets to important issues related to how we experience humor:
**Which is funniest scenario? Choose one:
1. –A man slips on a banana peel.
2. –A man who is showing off his skills as a dancer slips on a banana peel.
3. –A man who has just been dumped by his girlfriend slips on a banana peel as he walks away.
The battle for supremacy is waged between answers 2 and 3. A Few students will choose number 1 because they hesitate to admit any pleasure in the pain of others. A man slipping on a banana peel is enough–small harm, small chuckle. When you add in an element of hubris, then the humor potential jumps up exponentially. The guy showing off deserves humbling; that is an easy choice to make. An equal number of students, however, will opt for the other guy in number 3, the one they call “the loser.” What does he deserve? Well, that hardly matters; we simply love someone falling down, the further the better. In all cases, of course, we are all simply thankful that we are not the victim of the vagaries of banana peels and their inexplicable powers for being so damned slippery. It’s a cold world.
The final question ascertaining students’ taste in humor is the easiest one.
**Which is the funnier scenario? Choose one:
–a group of cows
–a group of sheep
Everybody knows that cows are funnier than sheep. Everybody.
College football has always been funny. From the inherent cartoonish comedy of young men dressed in animal costumes roaming the sidelines (to be clear, I mean the mascots) to the more nuanced ironies and absurdities surrounding conference realignments. How many schools can be in the Big 10? It’s all very funny stuff for a wide range of comedic interests. And all very American.
Many categories and characteristics and contexts of comedy could be offered up as the most definitive of American culture and its traditions, but surely one of the easiest arguments to make would be in support of placing college football at the top of the list. American college football is, well, exceptional. Of course, we would need a computer system in conjunction with votes from academics and comedic performers to be absolutely sure. And it wouldn’t hurt to have some prime locations for conferences to draw in folks for post-semester debates and parades. But I digress. Here is the fact: college football is an American cultural phenomenon as well as an economic and political, pop-cultural juggernaut that has few rivals as a forum and catalyst for American humor year after year. Disappointed in the overall quality and quantity of humor based on and derived from college football this year? Wait until next year! And don’t forget the off-season–just ask Bobby Petrino.
In celebration of the BCS championship game this evening (January 7), I thought I would simply cull together a few exceptional links to humor built around the cultural obsession that is college football. This, at the very least, should suggest many more possible choices, and I hope others will build on this modest beginning.
Let’s start with two examples of the earliest use of football as fodder for physical humor from masters of the art form: The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.
The Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers (1932) takes on higher education in general as its target of respectability in this film. The plot revolves around corruption of college football via the recruiting of illegal players to win games. Imagine that! Fortunately, such things do not occur anymore, but it was certainly common enough in the 1930s for the Marx Brothers to use it for a running joke (that’s a college football pun).
Tracy Wuster, Founding Editor
From time to time, I have seen fit to print reports on the general progress of this website as a publishing venture. As the editor, I feel it is my prerogative, stretching back to the great tradition of 19th century magazine editors to speak my mind and address our readers—both real and imagined. Also in the tradition of those editors, I have not been able to resist the urge to explain what I think we are up to with our publication and to, in addition, engage in that greatest of all editorial goals—filling space.
Upon reaching one hundred thousand views, today December 2, 2012, I cannot resist expounding on some of the statistics that have accumulated for us to reach this milestone. I have no idea if this is a lot of views for a publication of this sort—although there are not a whole lot of publications of this sort for me to compare to. I will choose to treat it as a grand milestone, one worthy of reflection. Plus, I have long been obsessed with statistics and milestones, and the WordPress statistics page, which tallies the use of the site in real-time, has been a boon to my obsession.
Number of Contributors: 23
Number of Posts: 214
June 24, 2011
Total views: 5
1st Official Post (Public Launch):
by M. Thomas Inge
August 11, 2011
Total Views: 2405
A re-post of M. Thomas Inge’s piece, “Politics and the American Sense of Humor.” This piece marked our official launch into the world one year ago today.
M. THOMAS INGE
If incongruity is at the heart of humor and what makes people laugh, as some theorists have maintained, then nowhere is there a greater disparity between the ideal and the real, between the dream and our failure to achieve it, than in American politics.
The democratic system posits higher values than we can live up to—not only life and liberty, but the pursuit of happiness for heaven’s sake! Not to mention equality, justice, and freedom of speech. And then there are the politicians entrusted with achieving them. We still laugh, unfortunately, at Mark Twain’s quip, “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”
A gauge of the success of our system is our willingness to make fun of ourselves and celebrate our failures with the horse laugh. We hold nothing above ridicule—the law, government, religion, or the President—and we seek redress through satire.
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Tracy Wuster, Managing Editor
Reader, you may have noticed, or you will notice, that “Humor in America” now has a number of advertisements on the sidebar and at the end of certain posts. These ads are for Powell’s bookstore, an independent bookstore in Portland, OR. I chose Powell’s because of its ease of integration, its clear policies on advertising, and because I support independent bookstores, in general, and love Powell’s specifically.
Some explanation: we do not get paid for these ads directly. The website will earn a 7.5% commission on purchases our readers make through Powell’s after clicking through one of the ads. So, I encourage you to purchase books through the website to help support “Humor in America.” We may also be including a small number of other advertisements in non-intrusive places on the website. Contributors will have the choice of whether ads appear in their posts.
The aim of these advertisements is to support the website and its continued growth. Money coming in will be used in the following ways:
1) operating expenses: payment for domain name and other wordpress necessities
2) payment for contributors: a modest payment for contributions (the details are being worked out by the editors and will be publicized when decided)
3) a scholarship for a graduate student working in humor studies (details to be announced)
4) payment to the managing editor: this would be after other expenses, if the website develops beyond an academic endeavor into a part-time job; this decision and option is a few years down the road.
I am not sure how much money will be made via advertising. For now, the goal is to cover expenses and see how the situation develops. I will be open about the financial aspect of the site. Please feel free to ask me questions via email.
See below for sample ads from some of our contributors. Thank you. Tracy