Wednesday, October 23, 2013
"Comedy isn't pretty." -- Steve Martin
I worry quite a bit about the impact of humor on our weakest students. Everybody likes funny. Students say it makes class more interesting, academic studies sing its praises, and, frankly, "funny" makes teaching a lot more fun.
For years, one of the most common comments on student evaluations regarding my teaching is how "funny" I am. I don't want to give the impression I am up in front of the class doing Who's on First routines all day long. A lot of it is simply personality and teaching style, but sometimes I actively try to be funny. One of the biggest challenges I've found in Academic Success is that I have never been able to put on a program that was given for credit or required--everything I have ever done across four different law schools has been absolutely voluntary, and I imagine most of us are in the same boat. Consequently, I take a lot of cues from advertising to attract and engage students in any way I can. And, like the Dodge Durango or Dos Equis, one of the things I try to use is "funny."
For example, for a sign advertising a Workshop on Outlining, after saying the Workshop was provided by "Your Friends at Academic Support," I followed it with the following disclaimer:
*Such mention of “friendship” is not meant to create a legally binding contract or other agreement between you and the Academic Support Office. While we in the Office, of course, consider you friends, such a promise of friendship does not necessarily mean that we’d have you in our wedding or name a pet after you, or at least not a large pet, maybe a fish, definitely a plant, at least if the plant was something other than a cactus, as the naming of a cactus is a deeply personal undertaking and we would like to make sure that the cactus’s name does reflect its southwestern origins. “Friend” means one favorably disposed. Ned v. Robinson, 181 Okl. 507, 74 P.2d 1156. This varies in degree from greatest intimacy to acquaintance more or less casual. U.S. Trust Co. of Newark v. Montclair Trust Co., 133 N.J.Eq. 579, 33 A.2d 901. In Old English Law, a “friendless man” was an outlaw, so called because he was denied all the help of his friends – of course, we are not imputing this to you, and by reading this, you of course acknowledge, uphold, and agree that any such notices given by the Academic Support Office are in no way meant to impute anything upon anyone. Imputing is not our bag! We neither impute, implode, impact, impair, impeach, impress, imbide, imprint, immolate, immunize, imminent, immigrate, imitate, or ingratiate. In fact, whatever we say, by reading this, goes, and the party of the first part who reads the party of the second part should probably mind their own business and stick with the party of the first part because God forbid that the party of the third part finds out, because we heard he’s a really big guy, and we really don’t want to deal with such nonsense. For the remainder of this disclaimer, please contact the General Law Office of the Academic Support Office where some nice person may or may not help you because who knows really – they could be busy. They could be out to lunch. Or saving a dog. Or a cactus. We’d save a dog over a cactus, but not a cat over a cactus, as we’re not so sure about cats.......
Now, that might not actually be funny, but that would be an entirely different issue.
There is a general belief in academia that humor in the classroom is a good thing, and lots of scholarly articles support that belief. A simple Google search for ''humor in the classroom" turns up dozens of articles touting the benefits of using humor to engage and connect with students. I imagine many of us have comments in our evaluations praising our use of humor in one way or another.
But, every year, when I tell students about my own or their professors' experiences in law school, my weakest students make comments along the lines of "well, you were an expert student, so all of this was easy for you" or "my professor is so smart she can just spit this stuff out," and I've been wondering if humor might sometimes support the feeling that law teachers are in some different league from their students -- a league that a student, no matter how much work and intelligence he or she puts into law school, can only hope to join. Humor requires a recognition of signs and symbols to make the joke funny, and our weakest students, or students with very different academic or social backgrounds, might not get them. It also tends to imply an "other" -- for example, the above sign implies a ridiculous "other" who would actually think such a disclaimer was necessary or a good idea. For the weakest students, they probably feel like an "other" as it is, and I worry about humor building a fence instead of a bridge between these students and their learning.
So, this year, I haven't used "funny" as an intentional advertising strategy, and I've tried to tone it down when I teach. I'm still getting tons of students, and while "funny" might have attracted me as a 22-year-old law student, I have decided to retire "funny" so as not to inadvertantly alienate those who most need my help. (Alex Ruskell)