Taking Jokes Too Far in the Classroom (Ought Experiment)

Taking Jokes Too Far in the Classroom (Ought Experiment)

Welcome back to Ought Experiment! It’s a new semester, and that can only mean one thing: fresh opportunities to go home and torture ourselves about the rebelliously stupid sentences that occasionally belly flop forth from our mouths. Or, err… is that just me? Probably not, because this week’s question involves a classroom joke that may have gone too far.

Dear Louie,

Like anyone, I try to make use of my strengths, and since I’m funny (I know, I know, but how am I going to prove it to you in this letter?) this means I often joke around in the classroom. It helps keep the students involved and interested and awake. Most of the jokes aren’t planned, but just come up in the normal interplay of conversation.

On the first day of class this semester I made a crack and, as usual, most students laughed, and that was that – no complaints. But afterwards I was a little concerned that I might have put off some of my students, as the joke involved a very mild (even by broadcast tv standards) sexual reference. They are all adults, and my sarcastic tone hopefully made the actually-satirical intent of the joke clear, so my second thought was to dismiss my initial concerns. But maybe I’m being insensitive.

Should I apologize to my students at our next class, or would that create an issue where there might not be one, and train them to believe the opposite of what I really think (namely that edgy humor has no place in the classroom)? More generally, what’s the line between entertaining and interest-grabbing jokes, on the one hand, and inappropriate, hostile environment-creating jokes?


Dear, uhh, Horatian,

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Terrible teacher.
Terrible teacher who?
(Profoundly awkward silence.)

Okay, in all seriousness, I’m with you partway: jokes can help students learn. A well-deployed quip is memorable, and sometimes humor can cut to the heart of an issue and reveal a deep truth better than the most lucid of arguments. That’s why satire is a thing. But that’s also why people mistakenly believing themselves to be engaged in satire is a thing. So let’s start by crowbarring apart an important distinction that you sort of ran together: edgy gadfly humor and sexual humor are not the same. A mild sexual reference can be worse than a bracingly intense dose of edginess.

If your intent is to use humor to draw students into a conversation, then you have to be careful about the kinds of jokes that only invite some of them to laugh along. If students feel like they don’t fully belong in their own classroom, or that they have to endure a cost to be where they have every right to be, then you’re creating two different learning environments. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all women are offended by sexual references, or that all men feel included by them. But jokes don’t have to alienate or displace along strictly gendered lines, or other identity lines for that matter, in order to be alienating or displacing.

And unfortunately, the fact that most students laughed isn’t necessarily evidence that the joke was a safe one. Sometimes we laugh because we’re shocked, or because an expectation was abruptly undercut, or simply because others are laughing. Sometimes students laugh because they’re fond of an otherwise charming professor, or because they’re a captive audience, or because they’re giddy-headed from staying up all night playing Xbox, or because you’re an authority figure and can give them an F. That last one works wonders for me.

The fact that nobody complained isn’t particularly great evidence, either. Maybe they’re still processing. Maybe they weren’t comfortable calling out a professor on the first day. Maybe the chorus of laughter from their fellow students silenced them, or left them doubting their own instincts. Maybe they were genuinely offended, but had other things going on that demanded their attention and energy. Or maybe they’ve resigned themselves to the culture of public spaces because you were the third professor and 30th person to make a sexual joke that day.

I sincerely believe that you didn’t mean ill. After all, you grew concerned on your own. You’re pondering an apology! You care enough about teaching and about climate to be engaged in a moment of honest self-assessment. Or at the very least you care enough to write in to an internet advice column, which is just as good. It would be unproductive and unfair to pretend that this one incident defines your character or quality. Heck, I’m probably the only person I know who gets it right every single time.

The point is that good people can contribute to hostile environments, too. That’s why such environments endure. Being well-meaning doesn’t ward against harm. And a brief interaction doesn’t let us see how our microaggressions aggregate and compound, so we may legitimately fail to understand the effect we have on others. Even philosophers don’t know what it’s like to be someone else. Or a bat.

Suppose this one joke didn’t offend anyone. Suppose I’m overreacting when I throw around words like ‘alienate’ and ‘displace’ and ‘belly flop’. It’s still the case that professors model philosophical activity for their students. They learn by watching us. They take cues from us. The boundaries are where we draw them. When we evaluate a thesis by tracing its downstream implications, they replicate that argumentative style. When we take a student’s outrageous idea seriously, the class stops rolling their eyes. On the other hand, when we use ad hominems, we blur the line between speaker and idea. When we fail to do the readings, students also fail to—okay, bad example, students always do the readings. But anyway, when we take a cavalier attitude toward sexual jokes in the classroom, those jokes become an appropriate feature of philosophical conversation. Even if you walked a carefully satirical line, the subtle and narrow scope of your own humor may be lost on those who follow suit. When we teach a course, we put a lot of thought into what ideas we want students to walk away with after the semester is done. It’s also worth thinking about what idea of philosophy we want students to walk away with.

Should you apologize? I’m not sure, but not for the reasons you raised. If you’re concerned about climate, maybe a better strategy is to find a convenient moment to talk about the kind of inclusive environment you want the class to be. Early in the semester is a great time to set expectations about tone, how students should and shouldn’t respond to one another, and so on. And you can truthfully admit that good conversations are hard work, and that even you can get it wrong from time to time (citation), but that it’s an important goal that’s worth continual effort. An apology, on its own, can be a welcome restoration of trust, but it can also jar, confuse, and suppress conversation without proper context. Now bundling an apology into a broader point, though – that’s teaching.

Of course, that much earnestness probably sounds exhausting, and short cuts are swell, so if you follow me on Facebook, I’ll personally forgive you. And isn’t that what really matters?

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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