When humour turns black

Jokes in the classroom can get in the way of learning

The worst professor I’ve ever had was a very funny man. He would have been likeable if it weren’t for the fact that he was supposed to teach political science. There are times and places for jokes, but a lecture isn’t always one of them.

This professor was particularly fond of making jokes about George W. Bush. In a first-year lecture filled with impressionable young students, a joke is the perfect way to enhance biases. “George W. Bush is an idiot,” says the professor. “I knew it!” say a number of U0 students. “I was right all along!” Starting thus, it’s hard to do the very thing that is essential to learning: learning the other side of things.

What? Lighten up! Humour enlivens, challenges, gives energy to otherwise boring material.

Yes, it does. But a funny professor is not always better than a boring one. It depends on the context. In the political science class the professor’s humour was dismissive. Saying “George W. Bush is an idiot” does not explain his actions or even provide a broad overview of them; it dismisses them under the label of “stupidity” and moves on.

There is a Peanuts comic in which Lucy and Charlie are sitting on a couch. “I have three new philosophies,” Lucy says. “What difference does it make? Who cares? Life goes on,” she continues, smiling. “Profound, huh?” “Maybe a little too profound,” Charlie says. “What difference does it make?” Lucy says in response. “Who cares? Life goes on.”

Dismissing something and moving on is antithetical to pedagogy. All the best teachers I’ve had promoted understanding all sides of an issue. But when a professor ignores this by glossing over an issue with a laugh, it’s often overlooked.

The case is worse when the joke is meant to be ironic. That is, when the joke says one thing, but implies the opposite. When a professor says “Every great thinker has been a man” as a joke, the humour arises in the incongruity between what the joke says and what is actually the case. The joke has the potential to be funny, so long as the people laughing do so because they recognize the incongruity between the joke and the truth.

Clearly, however, these kind of statements can be detrimental to learning if the students don’t catch the irony. They can cause the person laughing to dismiss the significance of the claim or agree with it. It is not merely a shame that jokes can do this; in different pedagogical contexts which deal with more serious issues, this kind of humour is dangerous.

I recently attended a voluntary lecture on feminism where the four professors made jokes about issues of sexuality. The jokes were made ironically and most of the audience caught on. But some did not. One presenter said that the distinction between how women and men are generally perceived is that the former are “something to fuck.” Everyone laughed, but not for the same reason. An ironic laugh sounds different from an un-ironic laugh, and I heard blurts of the latter. Perhaps someone who laughed without irony went home and repeated what the professor said to their friends. Maybe they had a good chuckle. How funny that is! Women are something to fuck! And a feminist professor actually said that? Really? That’s hilarious!
“In me it is made very plain / That parables are told in vain / To those who have but little brain,” said an unknown 18th-century didactic poet. There is a certain kind of elitism involved in pedagogical humour. “Women are something to fuck” would have been an okay joke to make so long as everyone understood the speaker didn’t believe it. But some people didn’t. They laughed for a different reason, namely, because they agreed. Racist jokes are racist to a racist. Those that did not perceive the gap between that the joke and the truth – that is to say, those that did not understand the joke was intended to be satirical – laughed because they thought women are actually “something to fuck.” They went to a lecture on feminism only to have their misogynistic views reenforced, just as many U0 students attended a lecture on politics just to have their old biases reenforced. Consequently, the same beneficial effect that humour can have on learning strengthened their misogynistic views; that joke gave energy to the view that “women are something to fuck.” Laughing gave it life.

The word “elite” has connotations of exclusivity. But, to be sure, seeing satire as satire requires some degree of social awareness. Some regard South Park as making fun of, well, everything, and some take its irreverance literally. “Cartman is racist and homophobic and anti-Semitic,” people in the latter category say, “so it’s okay for me to be like that too!”

I am not arguing for elitist classrooms; I am arguing that professors should be aware that not everyone sees irony as such, so if a satirical joke has the potential to warp a major issue, it probably will. Of course this issue cannot be dichotomized so starkly, but that just emphasizes the degree to which humour is ambiguous in pedagogical contexts.

The professor said “Women are something to fuck” in hope of satirizing a misogynistic view of women. But the sad truth is that it perpetuated the one-sided view of many audience members, who didn’t catch the satire.