Bad Humor in the Classroom

It was a terrible thing to say, an awful attempt at humor. A tenured professor at the Merchant Marine Academy, cuing up a documentary film  before leaving a class, alluded to the orange-haired man who, 11 days earlier, had massacred a dozen people in a Colorado movie house and wounded five times more.  (The teacher reportedly said: “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit.”)

The associate dean promptly filed a recommendation of termination, classifying the action as notoriously disgraceful, a ground for firing in the school’s rules.  The head of school followed suit, putting the professor on administrative leave and halting his teaching.

The teacher, who made the statement without any bad intent, immediately apologized to everyone concerned, including especially one student, whose father was a victim of the Colorado gunman.  According to sources I contacted who know the teacher, he is a first-rate, solid person who simply made a crude comment.

Having been an associate dean myself, I have heard many worse jokes spoken during class by professorial comedians  manqué.  Occasionally I did consult with a colleague after students reported such episodes and even felt constrained to confer with my Dean once.  But I never thought to suspend a teacher or suggest a suspension or termination over blundered, insensitive, stupid but innocent or naïve attempts at humor.

In such cases, I came to realize that it has  been difficult for many teachers in recent decades to sustain a sense of good humor in the classroom without offending the sensibilities of at least some.  Classrooms are not comedy clubs, of course, but humor can be a valuable pedagogical supplement.  We must weigh our words in class, true, yet classroom colloquy is more robust when the scales are more forgiving than shackling.

The associate dean and head of school seem to be overreacting. They can admonish and berate the professor in many other ways than suspension or threatened termination.  A similar bit of overreaction is how the New York Times decided to report this story in today’s paper.  At least the writer had the good sense to quote tenure guidelines that cast doubt on the proportionality of the administration response.

I hope I never say anything so  dreadful in my classroom. If I do, however, I hope that my associate dean, dean or president would not rush to punish me or have the New York Times add injury to embarrassment. The self-loathing is enough.

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2 Responses

  1. Norma Stits says:

    Man, people really can’t take a joke these days. Arguably the timing might’ve been a little too early to make Colorado shooting jokes, but it was apt to the situation and obviously said in jest. People really need to lighten up, especially when their are real problems going on in schools right now: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2012/08/15/louisiana-school-intentionally-discriminates-pregnant-students/

  2. Ed says:

    Larry, I agree with you completely. The remark comes across as impromptu and was probably almost immediately regretted. An apology was appropriate, along with a school ratification of the apology.

    In the NYT article, the academy’s head is quoted as saying that “The academy’s first priority is the well-being of its students.” That may be sincere, but seems to me messed up. Further discipline of the professor has little direct relationship with student well-being — the initial harm has been inflicted, and the students should believe that the school does not adopt the comment as its own, and they should be probably be spared perpetuation of this incident.

    What is going on, nonetheless, is the performance of administrative ritual, something like an absolution rite, to demonstrate to the public that the academy really, really, really disassociates itself from the professor’s conduct. The more frequently additional steps like this are taken, the more “mere” words of apology and regret seem inadequate. Schools should recognize that they are performing these rituals for their own sakes, as much as for students, and that they are upping the ante in a way that makes these situations harder to cure.