“Can I get to that heart? Can I get to that mind?”A tribute to the frank, contested humor of intense teachers—and to Henry Higgins
Nine years ago in my first class in graduate school, a course on approaches to teaching writing, we read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a break from composition theory. I was thrilled, but I reigned in my enthusiasm when I noted that others in the class, including my professor who I respected immensely, felt apologetic about the book. Words like abusive and misogynistic were thrown casually around the seminar table, as they sometimes are in graduate seminars. Why was there this worry about the teacher in the story—about Henry Higgins? I was surprised that so many disliked his method because I had always thought of him as an effective teacher. My only real support for this inkling was that I found him . . . funny.
Did I have this wrong and, if so, what was the source of my misunderstanding? Or, if I was right that Henry Higgins was a funny and therefore benevolent man (I had collapsed the two conditions in my mind), what caused the confusion among others in my graduate school class? Why had everyone else failed to note his humor? And what did I see in his humor anyway? Could it be that I thought his humor lightened—or even completely neutralized—his seemingly harsh dealings with Eliza Doolittle? Or did we all have it wrong? Did a “correct” reading of the play really fall somewhere in the middle—was it really that Higgins was both funny and harsh? I began to doubt my first intuition about professor Higgins, as I seemed to be faced with a more complicated story.
The irony was that my own professor in this class, a good man with a fiery heart, who was, that very semester, dying of cancer (this would be his last seminar on teaching writing), was a gruff man himself. He and Henry Higgins shared a vocational intensity. In fact, like Henry Higgins, this professor had made it his life’s work to teach writing (or “speech”) to the underserved, hugely advancing the trend in what is now called “access” education at top universities. He was passionately focused on this until his last breaths—and he was passionately focused on us, his students; he read our final papers days before he died. Although we, his students, didn’t have a personal rapport with him—we would never have imagined going out for a beer with this man—our engagement with theories of speech and writing, particularly where low-income populations were concerned, kept him alert, stubborn, and justifiably cranky until the end.
My experience using political cartoons when teaching political or cultural history has been that when I find a drawing that is apropos for college students, it garners little if any reaction from the students. It makes me wonder, how many of the students actually understand the cartoon and what the artist is suggesting in its rendering? An article in Journalism Quarterly from 1968 probably answers my question—and the answer is a resounding—NO.
According to author Leroy Carl, only 15% of Americans understand the artist’s intended message, and another 15% of Americans partially understand the artist’s message. That leaves 70% of Americans in the dark. What that means is in a classroom the teacher is enlightening 15% of his/her students, confusing 15%, and frustrating 70% unless there is a way of teaching students how to better understand political cartoons.
Teaching how to better understand editorial cartoons presumes that the understanding of cartoons is not inherent (kind of like learning perfect pitch—you either have it or you don’t). If it is not inherent, how does one go about teaching it? On-line resources on how to teach political cartoons are pitching someone’s teaching resources more than explaining a process– except for an article by Jonathan Burack, a former history instructor and editor of Newscurrents. The problem with Burack’s system, found at http://teachinghistory.org/teaching-materials/teaching-guides/21733, is that it assumes students know too much.
The first things that students must identify is from the journalistic dictum of who, what, where, and when. After all, cartoons are journalistic opinions. After that, one can either use Burack’s system of analyzing “symbol and metaphor,” visual distortion, “irony in words and images,” “and stereotype and caricature,” but how many college frosh can pick out an irony—in anything? I suggest that there are two more steps: Many cartoons either make comparisons or exaggerate (or understate) a concept, or both. Ask students to identify the humorous effect that the artist is using—even if the cartoon is not humorous. Eventually, students should get to the “why” in the cartoon. Why is this important? What is the artist’s intended message? Finally, discuss whether the cartoon is fair to the subject.
Consider the following cartoon by Jeff Danziger and dated on January 19, 2014:
Who: Wall Street Bankers and investors
What: New York Stock Exchange and the movie Wolves of Wall Street. Note the sign: “Warning: Members New York Stock Exchange.” The pig denies that any of the brokers in the office are wolves.
Where: A broker’s office (note that it is the home turf of the brokers).
When: 2014 (when using historical cartoons that may be more difficult to ascertain, and some contemporary cartoons are actually set at some time in the past for reasons of comparison).
Comparisons: The movie title compares stock brokers to wolves, a carnivorous predator. The cartoonist compares stock brokers to vultures, those who prey on carrion; tigers, another carnivorous predator; snakes, known for their “cold-blooded killing,” and their trickery as depicted in Genesis in the Bible; and pigs, stereotyped as sloppy-eaters that consume whatever they can get their mouths on.
Intended message: The artist suggests that labeling Wall Street brokers and bankers as wolves is an understatement. They also have the characteristics of vultures, tigers, snakes, and pigs.
At this point, much of Burack’s discussion can be incorporated: The man is trapped by the body of the snake. What the pig says is ironic in that he denies his and his partners’ “wolfishness.” Discuss “anthropomorphism.” Would this cartoon be as effective if a human were talking and the animals were described as his/her partners? Do most signs identifying an entity as a member of the New York Stock Exchange carry a warning?
Finally, from Burack’s lesson, is this a fair statement about bankers and brokers? Why or why not?
The question is whether understanding political cartoons and the depictions therein is actually teachable? If it is, is it a necessary skill? If not, what do teachers do with the wealth of political cartoons that are in history books? I am going to try teaching American History using political cartoons, and I would like my lessons to be effective. Therefore, I welcome helpful comments from readers of this blog.
Around this time of year, I can always feel the tension whenever I walk into the building. Everyone I greet has puffy eyes, the bags under them extending all the way to their knees, from too many late nights, too many hours hunched over computer screens, books, and essays, frantically trying to get it all done before the deadline.
And those are just the instructors.
The students, though they have the resilience of youth on their side, tend to be in even worse shape, all of their tension exacerbated by too many dining hall meals, homesickness, lingering self-doubt, and being rousted out of bed or the shower in the wee small hours of the morning by fire alarms pulled in the dorms.
And yet, the serious business of learning must continue, and it must continue to be effective.
Humor can be a useful tool to deflect the tension and keep us focused on what matters. It can also be an extremely effective mnemonic device if it hammers home a concept. But I have discovered over the years, for myself anyway, that it isn’t a good idea to wait until this time of the year to try to inject that sanity-saving humor. It works best if by this time of the semester, it is already a habit.
Numerous studies have explored the links between laughter and learning, demonstrating that when humor complements and reinforces the concepts — not distracting from them — students retain more, their anxiety levels drop, and their motivation increases (Garner 2006). Self-deprecating humor on the part of professors relaxes students and makes them seem more approachable or understandable (Shatz and LoSchiavo 2005). The focus must always remain on learning, and a teacher must be careful not to undercut his or her purpose or credibility by becoming more of an entertainer in students’ eyes (Bryant and Zillman 2005).
A teacher must never forget the power dynamic in the room, either, and use humor to target a student or group of students (Gorham and Christophel 1990), or “put them in their place.” Such humor is far too aggressive and has no place in the classroom. As I’ve written elsewhere on Humor in America (Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?), humor depends upon some level of shared ground, and because of this reveals the boundaries of a particular community. Making a student or group of students the butt of a joke sets them outside the community rather than bringing them in, and further, raises anxiety levels in all of the students, causing them to wonder what would make them become a target. This doesn’t mean that you can’t kid around with students or gently tease them, but the focus must always be on enhancing their learning or reassuring them that you don’t doubt their abilities. You can never forget who holds the real power in the classroom, or the damage you can casually do.
Humor shouldn’t be forced or feel obligatory either. It isn’t for everyone, but it sure gets me through the day, and my students seem to enjoy it. More important, they learn, doing themselves and me proud.
I teach writing and literature, with a focus on research. Much of the humor I use in the classroom is geared toward revealing the absurdity behind bad habits of writing or sloppy thinking, or toward removing some of the mystery about what makes good scholars, writers, and researchers — and students’ anxiety about whether they have what it takes.
Because many of them come to the classroom well-trained in timed exam writing, they tend to want to have a thesis before they start writing, to need to know what they want to say before they begin, before they really look into the evidence. I’ve kidded around with them about this for years — if a thesis is an interpretation of evidence, how can you interpret what you haven’t got yet? But this video is the best thing I’ve found for helping students see that when you narrow your focus too soon, you cherry-pick the evidence, seeing only what you want to see or have decided that you will see — and often miss the best part in the process:
After watching this video, I have a ready-made shorthand for marginal comments or conferences. As the video says, “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for,” so it is dangerous to have a thesis too early, and in the evidence-gathering part of the process, you must remain open to what is there. When a student is having problems with this, I can just point out briefly that there seem to be some moonwalking bears around. And instead of getting defensive, they laugh ruefully, and settle in to talk about what else might be there.
Another problem students often have is missing key facts in a text, reading hurriedly or sloppily, and ending up with arguments that cannot be supported because the facts are against them. While there is never one correct interpretation of a text, there are wrong ones, interpretations that violate or ignore facts. But when you point out that a student is doing this, s/he often feels defensive, stupid. Humor can help. So I tell students, “You can’t make a stunningly brilliant argument about the symbolic significance of a yellow shirt if . . . Continue reading →
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.
Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s UniversityAmy Nathan
Wright, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s University
Tracy Wuster, Adjunct Professor, The University of Texas at Austin
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally written for the newsletter of the Association of General and Liberal Studies, but the newsletter was discontinued. Amy and Laura agreed that we could publish it here.
“…liberal learning—the development of knowledge, skills, values, and habits of mind characteristic of an educated person.” –AGLS Mission Statement
Whether humor is used as a strategy for teaching or as content in a general education course, one major goal of a liberal education should be the development of our students’ senses of humor—the skills and habits of mind to interpret and use humor well.
The cliché with humor is that if you have to explain a joke, then it ceases to be funny. The implication is that we, as educators, don’t really need to teach humor, since students either get it or they don’t, and that by explaining humor, we take the fun out of it.
This is true, insofar as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Humor cannot be translated into a non-funny statement of fact or analysis, which is the meaning most people mean when warning against explaining humor. But instances of humor can be contextualized, historicized, and interpreted in ways that can deepen students’ understanding of key subjects, of other people’s points of view, and of a society in which humor has long been a central means of communicating and contesting societal visions and values.
Humor is especially useful in general education classes to introduce, explore, and deepen the understanding of difficult subjects, such as race and gender, for a diverse population of students. In these cases, teachers must help students come to a rich and nuanced understanding of humor, or its can end up accomplishing the opposite of one’s intentions—it can reinforce stereotypes and divide people.
How do we help students distinguish between racial humor and racist humor? How do we help students distinguish between gender-based humor and sexist humor? How do we get students to take race and gender seriously? How do we use humor in the classroom, whether telling the jokes ourselves or providing comedic examples, while engaging students’ critical thinking skills so they get the joke?
Don and Alleen Nilsen
An essay based on a lesson, the Powerpoint of which can be found (along with many others) here.
In the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs wrote that parody is the hardest form of creative writing because the style of the subject must be reproduced in slightly enlarged form, while at the same time holding the interest of people who haven’t read the original. Further complications are posed since it must entertain at the same time that it criticizes and must be written in a style that is not the writer’s own. He concluded that the only thing that would make it more difficult would be to write it in Cantonese.
Obviously, it is easier for people to enjoy a parody if they know what the original was. In our increasingly diverse culture, memories of “classic” children’s books may be one of the few things we have in common. Advertisers, broadcasters, cartoonists, journalists, politicians, bloggers, and everyone else who wants to communicate with large numbers of people, therefore turn to the array of exaggerated characters that we remember from childhood books. Chicken Little represented alarmists; Pinocchio stood for liars;The Big Bad Wolf warned us of danger; Humpty Dumpty demonstrated how easy it is to fall from grace; The Frog Prince gave hope to women of all ages; and Judith Viorst’s The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day lets us know that we all have really bad days.
Some of Lewis Carroll’s parodies were just for fun. When Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of the poem “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. How I wonder where you are,” it became, “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat. How I wonder where you’re at.” This is merely fun word play. But some of Carroll’s parodies had a deeper significance. Lewis Carroll lived in a time when the Victorian poetry tended to be filled with sentimentality and didacticism, so many of Carroll’s poems parodied that sentimentality and didacticism. G. W. Langford wrote a poem that not only preached to parents, but also reminded them of the high mortality rate for young children: “Speak gently to the little child! / It’s love be sure to gain; / Teach it in accents soft and mild; It may not long remain.” Carroll’s parody turned this poem into a song for the Duchess to sing to a piglet wrapped in baby clothes: “Speak roughly to your little boy. And beat him when he sneezes. / He only does it to annoy / Because he knows it teases.” The poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” by Isaac Watts read as follows: “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour / and gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!” Lewis Carroll’s parody is much more fun, and much less didactic: “How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale?”
Hello all. Do you teach classes on humor or related topics?
One of our goals here at “Humor in America” is the discussion of humor studies pedagogy. Such as:
Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies by Jeff Melton
Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically) by Jeff Melton
Today, our goal is to extend this conversation by politely request that any and all of you who teach, or have taught, humor studies courses (broadly defined) submit them to us to post here (as well as on the website of the American Humor Studies Association, with your permission of course). The plan is to create a single post with a number of links to various syllabi as a resource for teachers and scholars. You can send it as a word doc or pdf.
So, please send us your syllabi for courses on humor, Mark Twain, comics, Kurt Vonnegut, etc. etc. to: firstname.lastname@example.org …. Let me know if you have any questions. Thank you. Tracy, editor.
June 20 is the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, one of the most important authors and humorists of the Gilded Age. Chesnutt (1858-19320) is often discussed in terms of the humor of his works, especially the short stories of his two collections The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, both published in 1899. In a journal entry from 1879, Chesnutt wrote of the purposes of his fiction, which he viewed as elevating not the black race but the white. He wrote:
But the subtle almost indefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro, which is common to most Americans—and easily enough accounted for—, cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.
So instead of the “assault of laughter,” Chesnutt saw his goal as using humor to subtly influence feeling, or as he put it: “while amusing them to lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling.” The entire journal entry is printed below. But, first, I will discuss the ways in which I have taught Chesnutt as a figure in the plantation school of American literature.