I sat down to read Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher’s second novel, on the same day a former student emailed asking for a letter of recommendation to become a resident assistant on campus. As I scrolled through the email, I had to chuckle. Not only did I vaguely remember this student, but as I searched my memory (and previous online grade book), I realized this student did not do particularly well in my class nor did he demonstrate any of the qualities necessary for a resident assistantship.
So to is the woe of Jason Fitger, the epistolary novel’s witty anti-hero and beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, who chronicles a year’s time with the incessant requests for letters of recommendation from current and former students, many of whom do not possess the intelligence and/or the aptitude deemed essential for their sought after positions. Take the case of a Mr. Allen Trent for example. Professor Fitger writes, “Mr. Trent received a C- in my expository writing class last spring, which – given my newly streamlined and increasingly generous grading criteria – is quite the accomplishment. His final project consisted of a ten-page autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses and his (often futile) attempts to control them. He cited his dentist and his roommate as primary sources” (22). Some were requested by little known students like Melanie deRueda, who, Fitger explains, “I’ve known . . . for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes” (12). These student stories remind me of the video “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?” that I was introduced to in graduate school (2:00-2:17), a humorous yet all-too realistic take on the state of affairs in our field.
Others showcase bright students as products of academia and a hopeless job market, as Fitger explains: “You or any other employer will be very fortunate to hire a person such as Ms. Cuddigan . . . I hope you will not consign her to a windowless environment populated entirely by unsocialized clones who long ago abandoned the reading and discussion of literature in favor of creating more restrictive and meaningless ways in which humans are intended to make themselves known to one another” (88).
Although student shortcomings and our product-driven world are the focal points of many letters, taken as a whole, the novel acts as a beacon of social criticism. It highlights the travesty of minimalizing students, professors, and the profession into a stock, three-paragraph letter. There are quite a few instances in Schumacher’s book where Professor Fitger must complete a confidential, online letter, only to be cut off mid-sentence due to an imposed word limit. In one such application, the question reads, “Are there any other comments you would like to add,” to which Fitger angrily retorts, “Yes: I would like to finish my fucking sentences. I suppose your organization is to be commended for not resorting to the absurd array of little black boxes . . . but given that your damnable form has cut me off every time I initiate a” (55). It seems as though these letters also undermine the very subjects and lessons I teach, such as the larger social significance of ideas, the power of face-to-face interaction, and critical thinking.
I emailed my student back requesting a visit and a chat prior to the commencement of my letter writing. We met over coffee on campus, and I learned so much about my student’s hopes and dreams for his future. After our talk, I sat down and crafted a letter, adding in my own sincere request for a phone conference to discuss matters further at the end of the letter. So, during the crazed end of the fall semester, I’m reminded, thanks in part to Schumacher’s hilarious, social critique, not to lose sight of why I even got into this profession in the first place.
c 2014 Tara Friedman
“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.
Continue reading →
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 →
Good families have a proper evening meal, all members gathered around the dinner table. No television.
Good parents reserve dinnertime for wholesome conversation about the day. It is a forum to work toward solving problems and to reaffirm the grace and power of the family unit. A celebration of middle America, the family mealtime is a profound expression of togetherness.
I know this from watching American sitcoms.
Few actual families perform this revered ritual with any level of success, confidence, or consistency. I know this from experience and a good dose of common sense. But most believe in the ritual nonetheless. I am no exception. My wife and I think that we are good parents, but deep down we fear being exposed as frauds because we rarely sit down as a family for dinner. Mostly, we feed the kids (two of them) as they sit at the table and watch a television, or we set up trays for them in the den so they can watch a bigger television. As they eat, we go about making dinner for ourselves—something defined by ingredients rather than shapes. At no time do we all four sit down together, almost never.
If you want an image of what’s wrong with America, my house at dinnertime may be useful. An anthropologist could easily conclude that there is nothing cohesive or unifying about this “family” time at all. I’m inclined to agree.
As a teacher, one of my standard bits is to ask students to think about the normalizing influence of the sitcom and its role in shaping American culture. I usually ask them to talk about their own family dinners and relate them to many scenes from popular situation comedies that reenact that iconic moment with regularity. It is a valuable way to get students to recognize formulas within the art form. This is not to say that the sitcom dinner table is always defined as a bastion of family accord. Quite the contrary, the dinner table is often raucous. Even if the family discussion is contentious, however, the location of the dinner table has a calming influence. It perpetually gives the impression that at any moment everyone at the table could spontaneously hold hands and say “grace.”
Of the many tropes of sitcoms, the use of the dinner table (or kitchen table, etc.) as a gathering place is both logical and convenient, on one hand, and symbolically resonant and thematically useful, on the other. A family-based sitcom could hardly avoid using the eating table as a major setting. The convenience, however, also allows for sitcom writers to create an enduring statement of normalcy for the American viewing families, one whose features steadily blur distinctions between real American families and our models on television.
Implicit in asking students to discuss their own family dinner memories is the prodding goal of getting them to assess how well their families stack up to television families, and, moreover, how they feel about the spaces in between their reality and the created normalcy of the sitcom. For those interested in the study of the American sitcom as a cultural production, paying some attention to the family dinner table can be valuable. In this space, I would like to suggest that focusing on such scenes and imagery across a range of programs over time could be a productive exercise for students (for everyone). We will take just a short glimpse in this post. Perhaps others will add to the images in subsequent posts.
Few sitcoms resonate in our culture as deeply as Ozzie and Harriet, which ran on ABC from 1952 to 1966. Although it was not a blockbuster hit, it earned a steady and large following and has since become the preferred shorthand reference—from supporters and detracters—for the mainstream family ideals. My favorite reference is in the Coen Brothers film, Raising Arizona, as the aspiring father, H.I., in acknowledging his failures as a proper head of household, states, “Well, it’s not Ozzie and Harriet.” The image below captures the ideals represented by the show as symbolized by the family around the table. We should note, of course, that Harriet is firmly frozen in her role as housewife and mother, standing and serving the family. Likewise, all eyes are on the father as the source of the pleasant family moment. Gee, how does he do it (while wearing a sweater vest and white socks, to boot)?
Ozzie and Harriet, Defining the American Dinner Table
The show establishes a useful pattern that many sitcoms would follow over the years. If the scene around the table is breakfast, a conflict is introduced as the family shares a meal and either some plan or action is initiated to drive the episode; if the scene is around dinner, just as often the conflict is resolved. There are many variations of this theme. Even Ozzie and Harriet would allow the family eating routine to be punctuated by conflict, usually squabbles between the two brothers—enough conflict to set up the modest humor without introducing anything with deeper social tensions. An especially useful episode, “Separate Rooms,” aired February 6, 1953. Here is a YouTube link to the first part of the episode: http://www.youtube.com/watchNR=1&feature=endscreen&v=OCy0TF_z7a8