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?

Best,
Dick

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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David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

I don’t think I understand this reply. I can think of dozens of sexual (and indeed dozens more non-sexual) jokes that would create or contribute to a hostile classroom environment. But what’s the grounds of the inference that a mild sexual reference, per se, does that? (That’s not a rhetorical question; there might be one.)Report

"Mild"describesSalsa
"Mild"describesSalsa
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Okay, so I think that “mild” describes other things other than salsa, even jokes which are sexual in nature.

But look, as a young woman, I can’t walk outside without being reminded that I am a sexual object, and I can’t watch TV without being reminded how problematic that is for everyone else.

It’s really distracting to be worrying about that when I’m trying to learn, think, and talk about difficult topics.

To avoid this distraction, I like to imagine my professors as asexual beings, who are partnered out of some sort of asexual devotion to their BFF or have children because of storks.

And when professors admit to having heard of sex, I have to lose my illusion.

You might think that losing that illusion isn’t a big deal. After all, I couldn’t possibly have convinced myself of it in the first place.

That might be true. But I can honestly say, that any that it’s extremely stressful for me to think about any of my professors ever having a single thought about sex.

Maybe that seems extreme, but you know, all that stuff about the truth being stranger than fiction and so on.Report

destoryingmarriagesince2010
destoryingmarriagesince2010
Reply to  "Mild"describesSalsa
5 years ago

This comment seems very problematic to me on a couple of levels. For one thing, indeed it seems very out of the ordinary to me that even acknowledging that a professor has ever had a sexual thought or engaged in sex would distract one from being able to learn. Most human beings are not asexual, but experience sexual attraction and engage in sexual activity either alone or with others. These are basic facts about human beings and it troubles me, honestly, that to acknowledge those most basic facts might impede your learning ability. It strikes me as similar to teenagers being disgusted and disturbed to know that their parents have sex. I get that sense of unease with regard to parents (though I still think it is the product of a deep-seated cultural unease about an honest reckoning about human sexuality), but professors are not parents–at least not generally the parents of their students! And college students are not children, but (at least quasi) adults. This does not mean that one should necessarily expect or accept sexual banter as a normal part of the college classroom, but college professors are people. Like the majority of human beings, most professors presumably do experience sexual attraction and desire and do engage in sexual activities. The idea that they ought to go out of their way to pretend they do not seems quite unreasonable.

There is also something about the comment that is very reminiscent of anti-gay type sentiment. Oh it’s fine that Sally and Sue live together, but we’ll pretend they are just “best friends,” that way we don’t have to acknowledge that they do any yucky things in the bedroom. This is of course highly offensive in the lgbq context. Of course, I take your comment not to be distinguishing straight and non-straight sexualities, but I wonder if there is a similar sort of disgust reaction to the idea of sex underlying your comment. And if so, again, I find this very objectionable.

Finally, there is something worrying to me about the way you reference asexuality and that you prefer to think of all your professors in this way. Asexuality is not the same as celibacy or abstinence. Asexuality is a sexual orientation, a lack of sexual attraction and/or desire towards others. (Though some asexual people still do engage in sex with others and/or masturbate.) It strikes me as a little strange that you have a preferred sexual orientation that you like to believe your professors have–similarly strange as if you found it stressful to know that your professors were straight rather than gay or bisexual rather than lesbian. In that case I think there would be a very strong response that you have no right to have a preference about a professor’s sexual orientation and that it is highly offensive that you attempt to imagine professors has having sexual orientations other than the one they have.

I don’t mean to be harsh in what I have said. In fact, I’m very sympathetic to what you say at the beginning of your comment, about feeling like the media constructs you as a young woman to be a sexual object. And I can see why certain kinds of sexualized jokes then could add to that feeling. But the mere fact that other human beings are sexual? That is not about your or anyone else’s objectification at all. And especially given that plenty of people’s sexuality will not even be aimed at women *at all*, it’s puzzling how the mere acknowledgement of being sexual on the part of others could necessarily be tied to objectification of women (e.g. a gay professor making a gay themed sexual joke)?

Thinking about sexual jokes more generally, I think context is everything. I remember specifically from a well attended lecture aimed at students done by John Corvino an anal sex joke John made about the old, the penis is meant to go in the vagina only objection to gay sexuality and whether the penis will “fit” elsewhere. I recall him saying in a knowing tone something like “believe me, it fits” clearly implying that he himself is a sexual person who might very well have experience with the act. (Though I believe he then went on in a serious tone to negate that apparent appeal to personal experience by going in a different direction to talk about how we know that things fit, because people wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work!) But I remember this joke because a) it was freaking funny, and b) because it seemed to really work for students–it got the message across in a way that was memorable and really got across how ridiculous that objection to gay sex is. The joke, I would guess, did the exact opposite of impeding the learning of the 100+ students in attendance.Report

"Mild"describesSalsa
"Mild"describesSalsa
Reply to  destoryingmarriagesince2010
5 years ago

Okay, so I thought it was pretty clear that I was making a self-deprecating joke when I said that I imagine them to be “asexual.” And if I misused that term in an offensive way, I’m sorry.

I was merely offering my perspective, which is what this post was asking for, right? Wasn’t Dick worried about alienating people? And wasn’t Louis worried about where to draw the line?

I’ve experienced being hit-on by a professor, not once, but twice. I’ve heard people gossip about other women “sleeping their ways” through philosophy. So I’m a little bit on edge when it comes to topic. Maybe that’s my problem, and I’m responsible for figuring out that not everyone wants to sleep with me. But for the record, I don’t think that any of my professors do. Not a single one. But then again I’ve never suspected any of my professors of that. But remember, I’ve been mistaken- twice.

So maybe I’m an outlier, too much of a minority to take into consideration here. Perhaps worrying about my feelings deprives my classmates of something they really need: to make sex jokes. Fine. No worries. But I’ve put my perspective out there if anyone wants it.

Also, I never said that I was a grad student, did I?Report

student
student
Reply to  "Mild"describesSalsa
5 years ago

I think the comments in response to you are really out of line and overly defensive. I’ve had inappropriate experiences with teachers before, and I also have subsequently found it distressing to talk about or imagine my professors as “sexual beings.” It’s a psychological defense mechanism, because admitting the opposite would admit the intense fear that the professor in question would try to take advantage again. I fail to see how this harms anyone or makes me a baby. (But I’m sure someone will enlighten me about how I’m WRONG and IMMATURE in the comments.)

In general, I think philosophy’s intense hostility to anyone who admits discomfort with sexually charged atmospheres (such as yourself) is yet another manifestation of its climate problems, both for women and for those from conservative upbringings.Report

destoryingmarriagesince2010
destoryingmarriagesince2010
Reply to  "Mild"describesSalsa
5 years ago

I apologize if I was taking you in an overly literal way (though I can’t tell if I did, because it seems the substance of what you said earlier is what you stick by in your response).

And I agree with what you say in response to another comment, that this response you experience of being stressed given past negative experiences is how you do in fact feel and no one should tell you how to feel. I absolutely agree, and I (somewhat) understand how you would come to feel an aversion to any hint of others admitting to being sexual beings at all given those pasts experiences. (Where I get hung up, I’ll admit, is that I do have trouble understanding how literally any sexuality would make you uncomfortable, specifically the recognition of a sexuality that is aimed not even aimed at women at all. And further, I guess since most of the courses I teach are actually about sexuality, I can’t even imagine what it would take to avoid any acknowledgement that I as the professor do have a sexuality.)

In any case, perhaps the lesson to be learned from your post and the other agreeing with you about the stress, is how harmful practices of sexual harassment, hitting on students, and student/professor sexual engagements are, that they would lead one to have this sort of response to what is otherwise a typical and neutral fact about most people, that they are sexual. So I apologize if my comments came off as marginalizing your point of view.

I guess my main frustration is really something like this–we have a completely unhealthy approach to sexuality in our culture. One piece of this (a MAJOR piece) is the highly gendered objectification of (largely) straight women, generally by (largely) straight men and all of the norms, expectations, etc. that go along with that. And indeed, we then have professors hitting on students, asking them on dates, etc. (not always, but apparently often, taking the form of the professor being a man and the student being a woman, thus in line with the more general problematic societal norms). But that is not the only way our culture takes an unhealthy approach to sexuality. There is also the overly *hetero* aspect of sexuality generally as well as a pervasive sex-negativity that portrays sex and sexuality as dirty and shameful. From a feminist point of view, ALL of these are highly problematic, and I want to and try to counter all of them. It’s horribly frustrating that the inappropriate actions of primarily heterosexual men then lead to a situation where even acknowledgement of queer or other non-normative sexualities (ones which have no strong connection to the sexual objectification of women or the dominant culture of sexual harassment in academia) existing amongst professors is going to potentially make students uncomfortable. (And not because they are anti-queer, but because sexuality itself of any kind is associated with unwanted objectification/harassment etc.) This just seems like a recipe for further sexually marginalizing already despised (in some circles) sexualities. Of course, none of this is your fault and its not your responsibility to be comfortable. But the whole situation is extremely troubling.Report

"Mild"describesSalsa
"Mild"describesSalsa
Reply to  "Mild"describesSalsa
5 years ago

I appreciate that explanation, Destroyer201.

And you’re right, our cultural attitudes towards sex are messed up. If they weren’t, someone like me wouldn’t be as threatening as my TV suggests. And knowing that others might be threatened by me is part of the problem. Even if I know I’m not going to steal anyone’s partner or sleep my way through the profession, others might think I would!!!

Only now that my days as a sex object are numbered (my TV reminds me that older ladies are gross), do I have the wherewithal to deal with, and even discuss this topic at all. Only now that I’m over 30 (okay, so I *am* a grad student), do I clearly understand what I am responsible for, and what’s beyond that scope. So in a way, I was sort of speaking on behalf of my formal self, because, you know, the people feeling like I did generally don’t stick up for themselves. I mean, five or six years ago, I didn’t want to be anywhere near the topics of sex or sexuality- but that’s exactly the time when jokes like that would have had any power over me.

So, yeah. Anyway, I think this has been a productive exchange- even if it got a bit dicey for a moment.Report

Darth Trump
Darth Trump
Reply to  "Mild"describesSalsa
5 years ago

“it’s extremely stressful for me to think about any of my professors ever having a single thought about sex.”

It sounds like you walked back this language slightly in your below reply, but in any case I have to admit that this seems like the kind of infantilism that Leiter regularly writes about. Sexuality is one of the most fundamental parts of a human being, so it seems quite unreasonable for this to be “extremely stressful” to you. Interacting with beings that happen to be sexual, and who sometimes will be in positions of authority, is a basic life skill. Unwanted sexual advances against you are unacceptable, but the mere fact of one’s being sexual should be completely inert in its ability to cause you stress. (I totally agree with the former portion of the comment about young women being bombarded with the reality of their sexualization)Report

"Mild"describesSalsa
"Mild"describesSalsa
Reply to  Darth Trump
5 years ago

Okay, this is getting extremely unpleasant. Thanks.Report

"Mild"describesSalsa
"Mild"describesSalsa
Reply to  "Mild"describesSalsa
5 years ago

I answered the question, gave my perspective, and now everyone is mad that I contributed. If you don’t want to hear from people, and won’t take their life experiences seriously, then don’t ask for their perspectives.

I thought it was pretty clear that I was making a joke about needing people to be asexual. The joke was meant to demonstrate how much I appreciate leaving sex jokes out of the classroom. I appreciate that. If that upsets people, and they want to call me a “new infant” I don’t know what to say.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  "Mild"describesSalsa
5 years ago

“Mild”: I think your perspective was an extremely valuable data point. We can trade conceptual abstractions and predictions until the internet runs out of space (that’s a thing – right?), but we can’t really know the unnoticed effects of our humor until people share the, you know, unnoticed effects of our humor.

And for what it’s worth, it looks like I’m not the only one to appreciate it: your original post is one of the most thumbed-upped comments in the discussion. We can agree or disagree with where you appreciate having the line drawn in the classroom, but the one thing we can’t do is ignore the data point.Report

"Mild"describesSalsa
"Mild"describesSalsa
Reply to  Darth Trump
5 years ago

Last thing: By telling me what should and shouldn’t be stressful for me, you’re telling me how to feel. I think you know that’s bad and I doubt you’d do that to your female colleagues. So don’t do it to someone like me, either. You know, someone who is so junior and unimportant as to still have professors.Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
Reply to  "Mild"describesSalsa
5 years ago

Hey Mild — I just wanted to say I appreciated your responses too. I’ve been hit on by professors too, and I also find it stressful when professors make certain kinds of sexual jokes. When you’ve been in the situation of feeling like you need to fend off romantic or sexual advances from someone whose good opinion of you matters to your future, your grade, or your reputation, a sexual joke or comment (particularly where the sexuality of it is irrelevant and unnecessary to the circumstances) can kick on a felt need for heightened defensive awareness; and when I’m in class, I like to be able to concentrate on the course material. I think if there’s a problem of infantilism with this, the problem is likely not with me but rather with those who are so attached to being able to make whatever joke whenever they like that they would be offended by my discomfort.Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
5 years ago

I think Louie’s advice here is great, but another option is just to say what’s said in this letter to your students. I think there’s real value in being upfront with your students about your question. For one, if any damage was done by the joke, this would go a long way towards repairing it. For two, if no damage was done, it signals to your students that creating a healthy classroom environment is something that’s important to you — and that, in turn, may lead them to help in contributing to a healthy class environment going forward.Report

anonpostdoc
anonpostdoc
5 years ago

I find this advice baffling – indeed, at first I thought it might be satire itself. Perhaps it would help if someone would explain what is supposed to be particularly problematic about sexual jokes, as opposed to other ‘edgy’ jokes? Are they necessarily sexist, or prima facie sexist, or some such? If so, why?Report

SextraCreditOpportunity
SextraCreditOpportunity
Reply to  anonpostdoc
5 years ago

I didn’t see anything in the advice indicating that there’s anything inherently sexist about sexual jokes. A sexual joke isn’t necessarily more problematic than some other edgy joke but they tend to be harder *hehe ;)* to pull off than non-sexual jokes in a way which actually contributes to the classroom, although it can happen. They’re also significantly easier to misinterpret. If you can make lots of sexual jokes in a way which contribute to your classes and aren’t just needlessly offending people, great. Most people can’t and, if they try, they might feel uneasy about. They might want to do something to assure that they haven’t upset anyone and might even find out that their worrying was unnecessary. I don’t find that baffling.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
5 years ago

David Wallace and anonpostdoc have asked why a sexual joke is supposed to be particularly problematic, and why I took the stance that I did. I’m happy to elaborate on my reasoning.

Two elements stand out in Horatian’s letter. First, Horatian is themselves concerned that their joke may have crossed a line – to the point of contemplating an apology – and I assume there’s a reason for their concern beyond idle curiosity or the profound appeal of self-flagellation. They didn’t express a concern about institutional fallout or other PC enforcement, so it’s not trouble of that sort that concerns them. Instead they raised the possibility that they may have put off some of their students. Since Horatian’s stated aim with humor is to engage their students, I’m operating under the assumption that there was something substantively different about this joke. In other words, it wasn’t just that it was a sexual joke. It was a sexual joke of a certain sort, or that was used in a certain way. More on that in a moment.

Second, the kind of reasoning expressed in this line worries me: “They’re all adults … so my second thought was to dismiss my initial concerns.” The idea there seems to be that adults ought to be able to take a sexual joke in stride without getting offended by it. The burden is on them to absorb it, not on us to refrain from it. Don’t be so sensitive. You should know that no harm was meant by it – after all, the tone was clear! This is just how we talk in spaces like this. Etc., etc. When one defends a specific joke by saying “we’re all adults, here”, it creates or reinforces an expectation that those joining us in this space should be fine with humor of this sort. And that is an example of the kind of reasoning that runs the risk of chilling participation and affecting inclusion. Because of course, no part of being a student in a classroom, pursuing an education, or participating in academia should carry with it the expectation that one will tolerate their professor telling offensive jokes or indulging in salacious observations. If we’re going to make that either a barrier to entry or a cost that some have to pay, we need to ask what irreplaceable and overriding value sexual jokes and only sexual jokes bring. I don’t think we’re going to be successful in finding it.

And that brings me back to the suspicion that this particular joke was used in a certain way. Normally, Horatian’s jokes are either instances of banter meant to entertain students (and in so doing, knit the class closer together) or instances of edgy satire meant to unearth interesting ideas. I’m thrilled with both forms of humor, and I use them myself. So how was this sexual reference used? If it was meant as jocular humor meant to bond the students together, or a dazzling display of wit meant to capture and hold student interest, then it’s not hard to demonstrate why that would risk alienating some of the students and excluding them from the goods of camaraderie and participation that Horatian was trying to create. That’s the locker room effect.

But maybe it was meant to be instructive rather than just appealing. Horatian refers to a sarcastic tone and a satirical intent, so maybe they were trying to drive home a particular point. Here’s where context matters a great deal. If the subject matter of the course deals with sexuality, then there’s a good chance that this kind of satire would, in fact, be relevant. My position is not that sexual references are categorically verboten. Yet this aptness doesn’t seem to be the case, as it would be strange for Horatian to wonder if their joke crossed the line if it was directly relevant to the content of the course and an example of just the sort of satirical insight that Horatian normally deploys to great effect. So it seems likely that this is either a course that does not engage with sexuality in a substantive way, or an example of an “unplanned” quip that slipped out during “the normal interplay of conversation”. In which case the pedagogical value of the joke will probably not weigh favorably against its potential disvalue.

And that’s why I drew the line between sexual jokes and gadfly humor. “Satire” isn’t a catch-all defense for humor that offends. Surely there’s something that sets usefully provocative humor apart from humor that we find funny because of its edginess. To qualify as satire, you have to be making a point with it. Maybe you’re trying to expose a flaw in an author’s thinking, or maybe you’re trying to reveal the absurdity of a certain position taken to its natural conclusion. You’re not just riffing. You’re not just trying to charm or entertain. You’re demonstrating. You’re teaching. Gadflies care about how students think, and what they think, and why they think it. They want to change minds, or at the very least shake students out of complacent thinking and unreflective views. If a dick joke is meant to accomplish that, well, maybe it’s okay. But I doubt that’s how and why they’re normally used. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a dick joke is just a dick joke.

A classroom is not open mic night (much to my ongoing lament). If what you’re saying at the podium doesn’t have educational or instructional value, then even a mildly offensive quip can be more out of place, and more inappropriate, than a significantly revealing insight unlocked by witheringly offensive means. Because you can point to the favorable pedagogical trade-off of the latter.Report

gopher
gopher
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

“Because of course, no part of being a student in a classroom, pursuing an education, or participating in academia should carry with it the expectation that one will tolerate their professor telling offensive jokes or indulging in salacious observations.”

I understand why being a student doesn’t carry the expectation of tolerating offensive jokes. If Horatian’s joke was offensive, then of course he shouldn’t have told it. But why aren’t students supposed to tolerate ‘salacious’ observations? Isn’t that just a prudish way of describing sexual jokes? I think that’s the part some people are wondering about. It sounds Victorian.

I think if a professor told a whole lot of sexual jokes, maybe one every day, that might seem very creepy. It wouldn’t have to seem that way, but it might well — probably depends on how good a comedian the professor is.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
5 years ago

Having elaborated above in a way that I hope was helpful, here’s an (earnest) question that I’d like to ask in return. Suppose I drew the line in the wrong place when I questioned the pedagogical value and aim of most sexual jokes. Not actually possible, since we’ve stipulated that I’m always right about everything, but let’s suppose. Where do you think the line should be drawn instead? What lets us know when a joke goes too far? Is it the content, with some domains being entirely off limits? Is it the intensity of the satire, or the sharpness of the edges on those edgy jokes? Is it the presence of a voiced or written complaint? What differentiates offensive humor that students shouldn’t have to put up with from the sort of offensive humor that Horatian and I agree can actually do students some good?Report

Matt Lutz
Matt Lutz
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

Those are really good questions, and I cannot even begin to give a complete answer. But this is the kind of thing that I’ve thought about a little bit in the past, so here are a few sketchy thoughts.

Many jokes operate on the basis of a tacit allusion to some shared presupposition. My favorite example of this is Stephen Colbert’s quip (in his “Stephen Colbert” persona) that “real life has a well-known liberal bias.” It’s a good joke, but think for a minute about what the person listening to the joke needs to already believe for that joke to read as funny. Basically, the hearer must believe that liberalism is correct, i.e. that the balance of the facts speak in favor of a liberal worldview or rationalize liberal political policies. If someone hears the joke with that belief in the background, “real life has a well-known liberal bias” is a brilliant satirical take on conservative complaints about liberal media bias and conservative indifference to facts. A conservative listening to the joke won’t find it funny at all – it just comes across as smug. Thus, this joke only “works as a joke” if the audience holds a certain political belief.

I think this can be extended to a discussion of sexual humor and what might make jokes appropriate or inappropriate. Some examples of sexual humor operate by playing on crude, sexist stereotypes. There are plenty of “blonde jokes,” for example, that only “work as jokes” if the audience holds the belief that blonde women are excessively stupid and promiscuous. That’s a pretty offensive belief to hold, and that’s what makes the joke offensive – it operates on a shared understanding that the joker and audience have a certain offensive belief. However, other examples of sexual humor don’t rely on any sexist stereotypes. For these jokes to work as a joke, the audience need only believe that people do, from time to time, have sex (or some other similarly inoffensive belief). I think it’s these latter kind of jokes that are harmless and can enliven a class discussion (when used sparingly and judiciously), while the former kind of jokes have no place in a classroom.Report

"Mild"describesSalsa
"Mild"describesSalsa
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

Louis, I’d personally like to leave the sex jokes out. But I guess if the joke could be made and appreciated by someone who has never had sex or even wanted to (you know, like ALL of mine), then it might be okay.Report

"Mild"describesSalsa
"Mild"describesSalsa
Reply to  "Mild"describesSalsa
5 years ago

*Sorry, that parenthetical should have been, “you know, like ALL of my professors.”Report

Humorless Grad Student
Humorless Grad Student
5 years ago

In follow up to Louie’s question, I just want to note that whether or not a joke a professor tells in itself goes to far is not the end of its implications for students’ classroom experiences. In a graduate seminar I took, the professor made what would have been, absent the context his students were operating in, an fairly innocuous sexual joke — but (in all likelihood, unbeknownst to the professor) many of the female graduate students in the department (all of the ones in this seminar) were already feeling uncomfortable with less innocuous sexual humor and comments from some of the other students in the department. Otherwise ‘mild’ jokes can, in the wrong circumstances, undermine your students’ ability to set appropriate professional boundaries for themselves (“Why can’t make sexual jokes? Professor X did!”) and inadvertently provide social license to inappropriate behavior.Report

JDRox
JDRox
5 years ago

I don’t think that Matt’s analysis can be correct. I can appreciate and find funny all sorts of jokes whose presuppositions I reject. I once read a “The North Dakotan Joke Book”. It was written for and by South Dakotans, who evidently think or like to pretend they think that North Dakotans are dumb. (It might have been the other way around–this was a long time ago.) I had zero views about North Dakotans when I read it, and I still thought lots of the jokes were funny.

It may be wrong to tell jokes with offensive presuppositions. (Indeed, some refined version of that claim seems plausible.) I’m just arguing that one needn’t accept the presuppositions of jokes in order to find them funny–for the jokes to “work”.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

A professor isn’t a bar buddy sharing a joke in a setting where everyone is roughly equal. A professor is not a nightclub comedian whose audience has gathered in order to hear jokes with the expectation that some may be provocative or even insulting. A professor is an authority figure who should instill professional trust and whose words exercise power over students. Would you be comfortable being examined by a physician while he jokingly ridiculed a political cause you endorse? Even self-deprecating jokes can be problematic because students, whose situation makes them unappreciative of irony and hyperbole, may take such jokes literally (“OMG, my professor actually admitted she drinks a whole bottle of whiskey while grading our papers!”). Jokes in the classroom should have some relevance to the material being presented. There is legitimately funny material in the history of philosophy that could generate jokes. It would be interesting to collect that material.Report

metamorphic
metamorphic
5 years ago

On where to draw the line in terms of what is still on the acceptable side and what crosses over into unacceptable territory: Maybe this is the wrong question if the goal is to make class a environment in which all the students can learn. Instead of asking, How close to inappropriate can I get with my jokes without actually being inappropriate? you could think, Why am I so keen to get as close to that line as possible? Why can’t I just mix my joke repertoire up a bit so it doesn’t involve anything in the near vicinity of that line? It is a way of being respectful to ones students as actual people with actual lives outside of class and actual personal histories. Some people have to put up with borderline jokes all the time, everywhere they go. You can be the break from that. No need to skirt as close to the line as you can. Recognize that if you try to skirt that close, you’ll probably accidentally go over it at least occassionally. Best way to not do that is to not demande we know exactly where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate. There are other ways to be funny that don’t go there at all.Report

Dept Chair
Dept Chair
5 years ago

It would be really helpful to know what the joke actually was. It’s described as “a very mild (even by broadcast tv standards) sexual reference” and that sounds (a) pretty mild and (b) the kind of thing all students have been exposed to in a variety of contexts. It’s not “the aristocrats.”

The “no sex please, we’re academics” rule is going to be hard to follow when I teach MacKinnon and Langton later this term.Report

"Mild"describesSalsa
"Mild"describesSalsa
Reply to  Dept Chair
5 years ago

I’m pretty sure that teaching that material is a pretty different thing from making some random joke. Are you planning on making jokes about MacKinnon and Langton? If so, who made you chair!?

(That last sentence was a joke. I’m sure you’re a fine chair. And the penultimate sentence was rhetorical. I doubt you’re planning on making fun of MacKinnon or Langton.)Report

MrMister
MrMister
5 years ago

Sometimes I have made sex jokes I have taken, at the time, to be pedagogically salient. So, for instance, when I’ve taught Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures I’ve tended to make sex jokes. Not jokes in the sense of “a man walks into a bar…”, but rather, I’ve included some laugh lines and dry commentary and that sort of thing. I’ve thought this has some value for at least two reasons. First, it breaks the ice, because often they know ‘this is about sex’ but don’t feel comfortable being the first to explicitly bring it up. And second, because I think they often unreflectively accept a sex-negative view without really thinking about it, and some wry observations can help point out far at odds that is with a lot of ordinary human practice (how many people, even competent judges, have put off an interested partner with “sorry, no time for sex, I’m busy appreciating the sublime beauty of ancient philosophy?”). So some turns of phrase and raised eyebrows can both signal that we’re allowed to talk about sex, and also disrupt the sort of sanctimonious assumptions they may reflexively parrot when they do actually talk about sex–that is to say, it may get them to really think about it.

I think Louie Generis has been generally making room for such pedagogical maneuvers when they are actually pedagogical, that is, when it is a sex joke in pursuit of course goals rather than a sex joke just for show. But I don’t think that having an actual pedagogical goal is inconsistent with putting some students off: surely, at least one every once in a while will react by thinking I am a creep, a weirdo, or very inappropriate (that someone thinks this, out of all of them, seems almost inevitable conditional on my hypothesis that they mostly come into class with sex-negative views about which they have given little antecedent thought). So I am curious about how people feel about this particular sort of sex reference. Is it permissible to make sex jokes when we teach higher and lower pleasures? How explicit might our references be? Surely, any level whatsoever will disrupt the assumption that professors (or TAs) have never even heard of sex. But given that such a level will be breached, how are pedagogical values to be balanced? I don’t put these forward as gotcha questions; I’m actually curious, because it’s periodically pedagogically salient for me when I teach this subject.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  MrMister
5 years ago

The last thing I want to do is try to set myself up as Louie Generis: Joke Judge, or even the slightly less overreaching Louie Generis: Pedagogy Police. Despite effortlessly qualifying for the highest allotment in Mill’s plural voting scheme, my aim with these columns is merely to offer a Safe Space and Amusing Advice. Also Alliterative Advice. Cloying Contentions. Drat, distracted myself again.

For what it’s worth, my read is that your “I’m busy appreciating the sublime beauty of ancient philosophy” quip is a pretty good joke, and importantly it’s also an instance of revealing satire. It offers insight into the view it targets, and invites people to challenge a lofty generalization in an immediately accessible way. You’ve also thought about its pedagogical value, insofar as you want students to be able to consider the value of sexuality in a discussion about well-being, but sense that they need you to broach the topic first to make it okay. This isn’t open mic night riffing in an attempt to endear yourself to your students: there is real value to your joke. (And yes, I do realize that dryly and clinically discussing its merits kills the joke. Sorry.) I have a similar view of Corvino’s reported “it fits” joke above, by the way: it’s properly and relevantly insightful, and further, a blunt joke about of that sort contributes to the worthy aim of normalization. Satire involving sex is by no means a conceptual impossibility.

But like I argued in one of my earlier replies, and as was brought out by some of the testimonials above, sexual humor is often the sort of humor that’s going to involve a trade-off. It runs the risk of disrupting an inclusive and trusting learning environment, and since maintaining such environments ought to be one of our aims (and since we have good data that the disruption of such environments tends to disproportionately affect some students), we have to weigh the value against the disvalue. Now, the mere invocation of a trade-off doesn’t automatically mean that the satire loses that trade-off. Sometimes, maybe even often, the benefits of carefully-deployed satire outweigh its costs. I think your ancient philosophy joke is one such example. If the view was that sexual jokes are always wrong, then we’d be talking about a side constraint on humor, not a trade-off. My point is that we ought to be sensitive to the reality that some of the jokes we make can, for some students, do a lot more than dislodge their unexamined assumptions. Perhaps that very real cost can be mitigated by establishing a trusting rapport with students, and by having a frank discussion the first week about the kinds of conversations you want to have, and by inviting students to challenge you if you’ve gone too far (without treating objection as the limit on humor, because some students will still choose not to speak up).

If we’re at least aware of the trade-offs, sincerely take them into account when we joke around in the classroom, and make real efforts to minimize the costs – instead of acting like our incalculable wit and position at the front of the room licenses every last pith bomb we may wish to drop – then I’m a pig satisfied.Report

johnny_thunder
johnny_thunder
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

“But like I argued in one of my earlier replies, and as was brought out by some of the testimonials above, sexual humor is often the sort of humor that’s going to involve a trade-off. It runs the risk of disrupting an inclusive and trusting learning environment, and since maintaining such environments ought to be one of our aims (and since we have good data that the disruption of such environments tends to disproportionately affect some students), we have to weigh the value against the disvalue.”

When you say ‘such disruption’, do you mean disruptions caused by sexual jokes per se? If so, could you share the evidence you have in mind? Or are you just saying that disrupting a learning environment affects some more than others? If that’s what you mean, I’m not sure what kind of bearing this has on inoffensive jokes like MrMister’s.Report

Richard
Richard
5 years ago

What is particularly striking to me is that Horatian does not offer the actual joke itself. We don’t know if his judgment that the sexual reference was, as he describes it, a “very mild…sexual reference” is accurate by any standard other than his own unknown standard. We don’t know if his institution has specific boundaries of faculty behavior or if in his institution there have been incidents that have made the faculty/administration/students more sensitive to issues raised by comments bordering on that OK/not-OK precipice.

Yet lengthy comments follow the article opining on what Horatian should do and how this case reflects this or that state of affairs in academia. All without any details of what happened in that classroom or in what context it happened.

And then a kind of creepy chain of replies pops up after “Mild . . . . ” posts her tongue-in-cheek reply. One poster laboriously defines asexuality, another lumps “Mild” into the myriad institutional problems in philosophy programs, another uses “infantilism” in responding to her. All over her apparent attempt at a bit of satire.

What could possibly be the value of such a series of comments attempting to answer a question insufficiently stated?Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Richard
5 years ago

Thanks, Richard. For what it’s worth, Horatian asked us not to reprint the provided joke, out of a concern that it was potentially identifying: knowing what text was being discussed on the first day of class could start to narrow things down, as would all the context necessary to evaluate the claim that the joke was ‘mild’. I appreciate that the omission forces us into an abstract conversation, but my policy is to respect any anonymizing requests made of me, full stop. I also think that an abstract conversation is valuable. Rather than have us sit in communal judgment while we Monday morning quarterback Horatian’s joke (when Horatian is already coming at this from a place of self-critical reflection), I suspect that it’s more useful to discuss where the line should be drawn with regards to sexual jokes in the classroom generally, and what strategies are useful for establishing or restoring trust. These are real questions, important questions. And they are unsettled.Report

Richard
Richard
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

Thanks for your response as well, Louie.

Yes, of course, you absolutely should honor Horatian’s request to omit the joke. But I look where that omission led the comments:

1. Mild jokes are OK.
2. A brief sidetrack on the nature of correspondent “Mild”.
3. A suggestion to warn that a joke to be told is “sexual”. Which kind of pulls the rug out from underneath the spontaneity of the joke itself, I imagine.
4. Several comments saying context is important. (Which points to the relevance of knowing the original joke).
5. Another commenter who originally suggested knowing the joke would provide some substance to this exchange.

Yet we actually have no idea what the joke was, what the context was, whether it was “mild” by any standard external to Horatian, or whether the joke breached an institutional or student norms as we commenters might view them.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Richard
5 years ago

Fair point, and I agree that debating Horatian’s omitted joke probably has limited value. But when I look at the comments, I also see a number of people asking general questions about where the line should be drawn, and what makes a joke mild or offensive or appropriate or defensible. I also see a number of folk weighing in with possible answers to these general questions, and others responding to their proposals with interesting counterexamples and objections. So I do see a worthwhile general conversation taking shape, one that was occasioned by Horatian but isn’t about Horatian. And I hope that parallel conversation is only starting.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Richard
5 years ago

As for whether the joke actually was ‘mild’, I hesitate to say. If there’s one thing that “Mild” (the person) has taught us, it’s that we’re not always great at anticipating the effects of our jokes on students. Horatian’s self-assessment was reasonable, but if I confirm that it’s ‘mild’, that sends the message that, yep, people ought not overreact to it. And that begs the question.Report

johnny_thunder
johnny_thunder
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

“As for whether the joke actually was ‘mild’, I hesitate to say. If there’s one thing that “Mild” (the person) has taught us, it’s that we’re not always great at anticipating the effects of our jokes on students. Horatian’s self-assessment was reasonable, but if I confirm that it’s ‘mild’, that sends the message that, yep, people ought not overreact to it. And that begs the question.”

So are you saying we can’t ever say a joke is mild because there’s a possible person who’s offended by it?

Why limit this idea to jokes or to sexual jokes? It sounds like you’re presupposing that if someone could take offense at a statement, joke or otherwise, then we shouldn’t conclude that the statement is inoffensive. Surely we can just say that a joke is mild (or inoffensive), but that some people will get offended anyway?

BTW, I don’t see what would be begging the question.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  johnny_thunder
5 years ago

“So are you saying we can’t ever say a joke is mild because there’s a possible person who’s offended by it?”

Ah, sorry I wasn’t clear. No – I’m just saying that *I* didn’t want to start a conversation by affirming that the joke was mild. What’s the point of debating where the line should be drawn if I presuppose the right place in my framing of the topic? *You and everyone else* are certainly welcome to judge whether certain jokes or mild or not, and what criteria we should use in those judgments. (And yes, I do agree that ‘mild’ and ‘inoffensive’ track very different considerations.)Report

johnny_thunder
johnny_thunder
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

Gotcha, fair enough.Report

BLS Nelson
5 years ago

I think there are a few general remarks you can make about the issue. Many of core points have already been made.

Suppose that humor involves the perception of benign violation, meaning things that could be threats in some contexts, but are not threats in the context of utterance. That means in order for a joke to work, there has got to be some settled idea of what counts as “benign”, and what counts as a “violation”. In other words, for jokes to work, you need some tacit idea of what counts as a safe area where good faith exchanges can happen — the rules to be violated. Then you have to figure out ways of violating those expectations in a way that doesn’t undermine trust. In practice, the dynamic gets set up by the “straight man/funny man” dynamic: the “straight man” sets up the boundaries, the “funny man” violates them. Laurel and Hardy, Sheldon and Leonard, etc.

There is no single, practical, unified idea of what a “safe space” counts as, because the idea of a safe space is freely and constructively interpreted by participants. But there are some features you can point to, just by realizing that it’s a free constructive interpretation. A safe space is one where participants are more willing to and able to be comfortable in talking about what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable, so long as they are being honest with themselves and life histories, and willing to try to see their own perspectives in light of other perspectives, and willing to not distort other peoples’ intentions along the way. Hold these conditions, and you have an articulation of what counts as a violation, and also have the beginnings of an idea of what counts as benign.

But since those broad parameters aren’t very useful unless we say more about the context, jokesters have to settle for more generic practical advice. i.e., be prepared to bomb; keep your ear to the ground as best you can; and always try to invoke a bit of “straight” behind the “funny”. In the context of stand-up comedy, these conditions have to be relaxed, because audiences are wildly different. But in the context of pedagogy you have to be much more attuned, and unlike the stand-up comedian, you should be prepared to apologize when you get it wrong, and understand that teh funney needs to be held up against an attempt to build a shared and cooperative cognitive environment, and an appreciation for the fact that people aren’t all the same.

So there’s a theory. Hilarious! I’m here all night, folks! Don’t forget to tip your waiter!Report

AnonAdjunct
AnonAdjunct
5 years ago

It’s very meta that this thread itself is a satire of philosophers: 40 plus comments analyzing the permissibly of a particular joke, but nobody knows what the joke was. I know I laughed, but I don’t think I can show the thread in class– I can’t have my students thinking that I read articles related to jokes that are related to sex.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

For what it’s worth, I know exactly what MildSalsa is talking about. And those who don’t, I think, might just be suffering from a failure of the imagination. One thing that is important to do in grad school (and beyond) is develop good relationships with senior people. Because of demographics, most men can easily form these kind of close relationships without it ever even being a worry that the person might be interested in them for sexual, rather than intellectual, reason. Most women can’t, because most senior philosophers are straight men. One thing that senior men can do to make it easier is to never even hint that their interest might be sexual rather than intellectual. Because it sucks to have to worry about it, and it sucks to think that other people might be speculating about whether your good relationships (and the professional benefits they bring) are for sexual rather than intellectual reasons.Report