Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Thu, 12 May 1994

Well, it happened again this morning, and my blood started bubbling with annoyance. "This has to be the stupidest thing I ever heard," a colleague from the English Department said as he stopped and cornered me in the hall. "Listen to this: 'Blacks couldn't become cowboy heroes in the movies because they weren't allow to ride white horses.' And, you think all students belong in college?"

"Hey, we made those same mistakes when we were students."

"We were different students back then."

"Maybe, but so would that student be if you used that statement to help him to learn how to express himself accurately instead of making fun of him to me."

Not appreciating my unwillingness to laugh with him or my less than subtle jab, he exclaimed with some exasperation, "Boy, you're a spoilsport! I read it to the class along with some others and we all had a good chuckle. No one saw anything wrong in them. We all thought they were funny. And you don't. Lighten up! Get a sense of humor!"

Ignoring him, I answered, "I bet the student that wrote it must have been rolling in the aisle."

"I do this all the time in order to teach them what not to do next time."

I thought to myself, "Where have I heard that before?" Out loud I asked, "Do you really think that is what the students think? It's not exactly a confidence builder. I can think of more understanding and less embarrassing ways to teach."

"What would you do?" he asked with some annoyance.

"Whatever I would do, I wouldn't do it in public like that."

"I didn't use anyone's name. Hey, I know better than that."

"Does that matter? Anyway, I would treat that statement as a 'magnificent mistake,' turn it into something positive, and use it as one of those 'teaching moments.'" I'd talk to the students privately. Ask them if they understood what they wrote and is it what they wanted to say. Ask them what they really meant to say. See what their train of thought was. Ask them to think of another way of saying what they wanted to say. If necessary, show them how to tighten up their thinking and language. Let them rewrite it. You could do a whole bunch of constructive things to teach them how to improve their skills."

Well, the conversation continued on for a while, and as he left I thought of a donnybrook I had been involved in earlier with some professors on e-mail that was over the same issue of student bloopers. I think it wound up with me against the vocal members of the list after I responded to examples of student bloopers on exams in a manner similar to my conversation with my colleague.

It started when I wrote about a brief conversation in which I was partially involved that took place in the History department a couple of years ago. It went something like this:

"Hey, listen to this one," one of my colleagues proclaimed as he came out of his office into the department reception area with a huge smile on his face. I was at the copy machine. Two other colleagues were getting their mail. There was the secretary and two student assistants. "This one is funny," he said as he read from a student's exam. "Did you all know that 'Jay Gould was a famous captain of industry because he invented Goulden Mustard?' Ha, where do they get this dumb stuff from?"

"That IS a pretty good one," one of my colleagues snickered. He then unsympathetically sighed "That's what we have to put up with. Oh, well."

"It's really pathetic," said another colleague. "I sometimes wonder if they really belong here."

"Don't you think that's funny?" my colleague thoughtlessly asked the students.

"Yeah, it's pretty good," they answered as they nervously snickered.

"Schmier, you're not laughing," he said to me.

I turned around and said, "I don't think it's funny."

"Damn, you can be such a tight ass at times. Lighten up!"

I didn't answer. Knowing him as I did, I decided it would have been futile to have attempted. Immediately after my colleagues left the area, I overheard one of the students whisper, "who does he think he is, makin' fun of us? He's the ass."

So, I ask about the humor of what I considered "put down" student bloopers. To whom are they funny? Now, I am not an avid supporter of political correctness. One person's humor, however, is another's hurt. As I see it, the depreciating blooper humor about students is just another variation of that kind of gallows humor which denigrates rather than elevates, boos rather than applauds, bemoans rather than exalts, ridicules rather than praises, spotlights weakness rather than celebrates strength, that ignores the advise of the 1940s song by accentuating the negative while eliminating the positive. It's in the same category of, thankfully, now unacceptable ethnic, gender, and disability jokes. I wonder what you women out there REALLY feel about those supposedly "harmless" girl jokes or dumb blonde jokes bantered about by the men. I wonder how you of noble Polish ancestry REALLY react inside to those supposedly "loosen up" Polish jokes. I wonder what you of Jewish or Catholic or Moslem persuasion REALLY feel others are thinking when your hear the "Jew", "papist" or "arab" jokes labelled as "light hearted" humor. I wonder what you with Italian blood running in your veins truly judge the value of those "meaningless" Italian jokes. I wonder how you African-Americans and Hispanics HONESTLY react to the "where's your sense of humor" racial jokes. I wonder how much pride you special people REALLY feel when you hear "good natured" people telling those "spastic" or "retard" or "blind" jokes. I wonder what all of you who have individually or as a group have been the object of such "nothing is meant by it" humor feel. And, I wonder how many of you out there REALLY felt when as students you were the target of such professorial "it doesn't mean anything " fooling around. My, some of us have short and selected memories. I remember, and I remember I didn't feel like laughing. The truth is that everyone now recognizes that those jokes, however consciously or otherwise intended, display a prejudice of varied intensity, propagate denigrating stereotypes, perpetuate a divisiveness, deprecate the individual, promote a disrespect, reinforce inequities. I am sorry. I don't think a display of humor at someone's expense is funny. And, I'm not sure that my colleague or anyone else can explain the educational value, the character building purpose, the psychological benefit of such humor to either him or the student.

The problem is that such bloopers always play to the student's weaknesses, always remind us that we are on a higher plane and they are on the lower one. I don't see respect, sensitivity, caring, and decency in publicly or privately disseminating these bloopers.

And, when such humor is displayed, so many of us are quick to defend ourselves with a bunch of poor rationalizations, lame excuses, weak explanations, and a horde of unsatisfactory "I thinks" and "I'm sures." I have been told by professors that "I would not survive if I did not laugh at some of the things that my students say and do" or "I laugh at some of the things that my students do because otherwise I would be depressed and/or angry at them" or "(I do it) to survive the doom and gloom that (I) have to face." The one I liked the best is the self-righteous "I do not resent my colleagues laughing when I say something or do something that they find funny." Well, I know a lot of professors with onion thin skins who would and do. I think any professor who uses student blooper humor has to remember that he or she is in a particular authority relationship with the student. We're not some bunch of entertaining comedians on a stage. Our classroom is not some silly television show. The student is at best, to use the theatrical analogy, a captured audience who, except under unique circumstances, does not feel empowered and safe to challenge or object to such poking. To the contrary, such "fun" is a reminder to the student, and subtly to the professor as well, of who wields the power and who is the subject of such wielding. The response of the student is so often that silent response of the powerless or the feigned laugh of the intimidated. But, I can tell you from reading student journals and talking with students from other classes where blooper humor is commonplace that the overwhelming majority do not think it's funny. It's fear-inducing, paralyzing, confidence destroying, and demeaning.

We may think that we're laughing with the student when in fact we're laughing at the student. We may think they are laughing with us when in fact they are thinking that "he's laughing at me" or "she's making fun of me" or "he made me feel so stupid" or "we didn't think that was funny." This kind of humor segregates the students into false categories of superior and inferior: "he didn't ridicule me, so I guess I'm better" or "she made fun of me so I guess I'm not that good." It doesn't matter whether we specifically name the students or talk in general terms, the students feel you're talking to each of them.

No, I don't see how spotlighting a student's omission in such a manner does anything assuring or constructive for the student. Maybe we ought to think and reflect on what signals such "fun" REALLY sends to the students. Maybe we ought to wonder before we act whether such "fun" is just another indication to the students that we professors are "the enemy" waiting is out there to pounce and to pour salt in the intellectual wounds and inflict emotional hurt. Maybe we ought to wonder if such humor freezes a student's ability to continue trying. Maybe we ought to reflect upon what the use and acceptance of such "blooper humor," such "put down" humor, says about us, our attitudes, our perspective about our relationship between us and the students, and our consequent actions.

Now, I'm no saint. I once used blooper humor. In fact, for ten years, I collected those bloopers. I had amassed about 180 typed pages worth. I once was toying with the idea of publishing a "History According To Freshmen." Well, about three years ago, I picked up the manuscript, thumbed the pages, read some of it, and thought about it. I remember that day well.

It was right after I had returned from a week of self-examining challenge sessions at my son's school in Maine and a few weeks before I was to climb that cliff. I had spent an entire week asking questions of myself. You know, we teachers know the importance of asking questions. Our mission is to teach students how to ask their own questions. But we so seldom turn important questions on ourselves. Not the questions in search of knowledge, but the questions in search of meaning and purpose about who we are and what we do. Now, the more I thought about that manuscript in front of me, the harder I held it, and the more I didn't like what I heard. I was suddenly overcome by a very uncomfortable feeling. I realized that this collection of bloopers was not talking about the students. It was talking about me and of the need to reflect on, examine, and evaluate my personal educational values, attitudes, and priorities. It talked of my prejudices towards myself as a professor and towards the students, my subtle arrogance, my unrecognized aloofness, my separation from the students. This collection of bloopers did not reflect a professor who has faith in his students and holds them in high esteem. It did not reflect a professor who has visions of success for the students, to whom teaching is not just employment but his life's work, who cares for the students, who affirms the strengths and beings of the students, who gives a high priority to benefitting them, who has a love for the students, who has a faith in them, who treats them with respect and dignity. I came to the conclusion that my use of and association with this kind of humor, however harmless my intentions may have been, did not help to create or maintain a classroom learning community. This was a way of my life, one outlook, I no longer wanted to be part of me, to affect my teaching and the student's learning. After thumbing through that manuscript some more, I picked it up, carried it out into the hall, and with a gesture of finality, threw it--no, slammed it--into the recycle bin. At least, it did some good. I kept one page. It's hanging on my office wall as a reminder of who I once was and as a warning of who not to become again.

Now, some of you may say that I am making a big deal out of something so little. Maybe I am taking it too seriously. Maybe I am over-reacting like the reformed alcoholic does to the use of liquor or the reformed smoker to cigarettes or the erstwhile addict to drug use. But, I'll take that risk because my gut tells me that when we rationalize the use of student blooper humor we're making something dangerously little and harmless out of something that is potentially big and harmful.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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