Monday, November 29, 2004

Observation Etiquette: The Chuckles the Clown Episode

Observing a class is always at least slightly awkward. As the observer, I’m acutely aware of walking into an already-formed group and, at some level, trespassing. Some professors introduce me to the class, others pretend I’m not there; either way is fine with me. I never speak, beyond a ‘hello’ if introduced.

This semester I had a situation I’d never seen before. In three-plus years of observing classes, I’ve never before had to struggle to keep a straight face. This time, I had to, and it was close. The students were a small, tightly-knit group, obviously intelligent and clearly irreverent. The professor could fairly be described as humorless.

The class reminded me, in some ways, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Beavis and Butthead; it consisted of a running commentary, often quite funny, by the audience/students, on the lecture/movie/video. The standard puerile elements of student humor were there – bathroom references, crude sexuality, etc. – but it was laced with a knowing self-consciousness I don’t usually see. (One student, after a particularly silly remark: “I love taking arguments to ridiculous extremes.”) Highlights included the ethics of testing new medicines on prisoners, rather than animals (“what if the guy on death row has a boyfriend?”); wordplay (Prof: “Your argument buttresses his.” Student: “Huh-huh. Buttress. Huh-huh.”); and an entirely gratuitous reference to gay penguins (“gay penguins can be used to illustrate anything!”).

The professor didn’t react to any of it, which is either to his credit or a sign of being utterly humorless. I struggled throughout the class to keep an appropriately straight face, resorting several times to covering my face while I bit my lip.

Strikingly, the students who joked the most (and the most effectively) were also the ones most in command of the material. If anything, I got the impression they kept the patter going so they wouldn’t get bored.

Thinking that much of the interaction might have been affected by my presence, I asked the prof. after class if the students were always like that. He said they were.

This was a new one. I’ve seen great classes, so-so classes, and some not-very-good classes. I’ve seen new profs with stage fright, PowerPoint that didn’t, and student comments from the sublime to the ridiculous. But this was new.

It’s hard to be a fly on the wall when your face is bright red from stifling laughter.