No Joke

Terry Caesar wonders about our ability to laugh in the classroom.

August 1, 2005

Scene: a foreign language classroom. Subject of the lesson: the Spanish verb, gustar, meaning, "to like," whose declension is most irregular. Teacher has students practice with each other by making up formulaic questions, such as, "What do Americans like?" Reply: "Hamburgers."

Two students give the following: "What don't the French like? They don't like to take showers."

Wait a minute! Suddenly an African-American student jumps up and protests -- in English -- at the student who gave this last answer. How dare he! The comment is "racist." Her great-grandfather was from Martinique. French was spoken in his household. Is her colleague now implying either her grandfather or she herself smells? The
African-American student demands an apology on the spot.

The teacher who told me this incident said that the whole class was dumbfounded. Literally speechless. Nobody laughed. And yet it's hard to hear of it without imagining somebody wanted to laugh. An African-American student who makes the accusation of racism not because she's African-American but because she's French! Not to mention a student who confuses a language lesson with a truth claim.

Or with a joke. Among a number or comments that could be made about this incident, the one that strikes me is that at the center is a hoary old joke about the French. It's stupid. The national or racial stereotypes upon which so much humor is based are all stupid. However, this hasn't stopped people continuing to purvey such stereotypes in the form of jokes. Of course much depends on the context in which these jokes are told. The classroom is no longer one of these contexts.
The above incident illustrates why: somebody is bound to be offended, and you can't predict who. Worse, someone is likely to protest -- either immediately or afterwards, perhaps to the dean. Fiction may deal with the consequences better than journalism. In one of my favorite academic novels, Mustang Sally, by Bruce Allen, the hero is foolish enough to tell a joke about a woman who asks a man to give her a seat on the bus because she's pregnant. When the man asks how long, she looks at her watch and says, "About 45 minutes." Some students file a written complaint, charging sexual harassment.

To relate an official response to some example of a joke, or even an unintended joke, on American campuses today is itself to appear to be telling a joke. Yet everybody knows speech codes that ban "inappropriately directed laughter" (say) are no joke. It's not clear to me if a professor can be held accountable for a student who spontaneously tells a joke in class. But a professor in 2005 who tells a joke or his or her own would be a fool.

No matter if a careful framework had been laid out prior to the telling or if the joke was told to "illustrate a point." Better to keep the framework humorless or the point abstract. Of course there are times in the classroom when the humor is there, suddenly, inescapably. Odd words are spoken or a stray thing happens; a professorial wink, nod, or comment is scarcely necessary to mark the comedy.  Everybody laughs. And then discussion continues. (Part of the pathos of the above incident with which I began is that this did not happen.) In such contrast, a joke is a deliberate act, emanating from the person of the teller. The joke doesn't emerge from the context. It's imposed upon it.

Or is it? "Context" is a tricky affair. If there are actually teachers who still tell jokes to their students on a regular basis, presumably they do so either to solidify a context, or else to develop one. But the "context" of a classroom is different than that of, say, a commencement speech. I read the other day that Chris Matthews, host of an MSNBC talk show, told at this past year's commencement a joke he once heard from Nelson Mandela, about Joseph begging the innkeeper for a room: "My  wife is pregnant." "It's not my fault," protests the innkeeper. "It's not my fault either," answers Joseph.

We are not told where Matthews spoke. Presumably it wasn't at a religious college. Or is the point that the authority of Mandela enables Matthews to elude a charge of mild irreverence? Or is it that commencement speakers, unlike professors, are culturally authorized to tell jokes? Of course we could extend these questions no end, including how a joke is different than a quip, a squib, or a witticism, or how laughter is not the same thing as
a smile.

My point begs to be a simple one: Jokes no longer play a significant role in American higher education because they have been effectively banished from the classroom. Why? Paradoxically, because the bonds of campus "community" are so frail. No jokes at least insures that none will be offended. Alas, it also insures that few will feel affirmed.  

"Community" of course forms one of our core values, invoked everywhere from an instructor's class syllabus to the president's last public speech. But this community at the present time is, as we say, no joke.

In a brilliant discussion of jokes in her book, Implicit Meanings, the anthropologist Mary Douglas gives the following logic: "The joke merely affords the opportunity for realizing that an accepted pattern has no necessity. Its excitement lies in the suggestion that any particular ordering of experience may be arbitrary and subjective." Just so, what is a community but its necessary and accepted patterns? A joke tests these, each time. A strong community survives the test. A weak one fails it. Whatever the word means, and perhaps especially if it really doesn't mean anything, academic "community" appears too fragile for the deliberate act of humor to be committed in the form of a joke.

Never mind if a hundred or a thousand exceptions come to mind. Each of them proves the rule. And, as so often in academic life, enforcement of the rule begins in the classroom with the figure of the professor. Personifying the community, he or she is empowered with authority but not the authority to tell jokes. Having begun with an incident that is founded upon a joke but was not manifest in that form, let me conclude with a similar incident from my own experience.

It took place in a composition classroom, many years ago. I had decided to experiment, and let students write anything they wanted to. No grades. The only thing they had to do, besides come in and write, was to show the results to me three times during the semester. In order to make it possible for all students to be seen regularly, I had to employ a student assistant.
Fortunately, I had at my disposal Pat, one of my best students. I told Pat to disallow nothing out of hand; just subject it to formal criteria of some sort, no matter how long or how short the writing. Above all, never laugh at anything. Toward the end of class one day, I was shocked to hear Pat suddenly begin howling! He couldn't stop laughing. The class started laughing.

Next to Pat was one of our poorest students, who seemed to be, Pat had told me, improving. How? Through frequent visits with Pat, who praised his "narrative organization." Trouble is, it was getting harder to judge the writing because the student was in effect telling jokes. Were jokes acceptable?

This particular day, I concluded that one of the jokes had anyway been irresistible. I was angry with Pat for laughing. But when I asked the student for his notebook the next class, I couldn't help but laugh pretty hard myself.

He began by telling about his father, a long-distance trucker. Often when the father was home, he would take his son out to the local truck stop, just to hang out together with him, usually at the counter. Late one recent night, two women came in. They looked rough. One had on a skimpy dress. She spread out her legs after sitting down in a booth. Father and son could see she wore no panties. They tried to stop looking. Finally, the woman sneered at them: "What's the matter? You came out of one of these, you know." The student blushed. His father replied: "Yeah, but I never saw one I could climb back into."
Did somebody say, "context"? I can't imagine one today that would justify me telling this joke (just to call it that) in the classroom. Did somebody say, "community"? I can't imagine any that at the present time would authorize me, as a professor, to tell this joke. (And few communities in which my freedom to do so, however misplaced, would be affirmed.) And yet the joke -- just to continue to call it that -- was told, in a manner of speaking, er, writing. Moreover, it was told at the heart of the practice of earnest classroom instruction.

By today's standards, should I have marched the student down to the dean's office, where he would be duly censured for sexism? Perhaps by these same standards I should have marched myself down, and written up a self-censure on the spot. If we no longer have to be confronted with jokes, what do we do with the ones that suddenly arise? Make a nervous quip about the return of the repressed? One thing for sure: the humor -- such as it is -- that we still enjoy in the classroom is a function of this same repression. It's no joke.


Terry Caesar's last column was about academic integrity (and lack thereof).


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