By Elizabeth Blake
This was a useful lesson, because my class was a writing class; in order to write and argue well, you need to learn how to unpack rhetorical fallacies, and how to expose misleading logic. It was also a useful lesson because my class was a class on gender and sexuality, and my students—all of them female, many of them women of color—had a personal stake in unpacking that logic. Given that, I didn’t think twice about structuring twenty minutes of our class around a response to that video. As we transitioned from our discussion of the video to our discussion of feminist theory, I made a joke: “on to the indoctrination!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that joke as I’ve watched academics discover that their names, institutional affiliations, research projects, and even photographs have been added to a “Professor Watchlist.” This list, whose mission is to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” isn’t the first of its kind. Writing for The New York Times, George Yancy called it “a new species of McCarthyism.” He noted its parallels to “Cointelpro, the secret F.B.I. program that spied on, infiltrated and discredited American political organizations in the ’50s and ’60s,” pointing out that “a watchlist like this can have the impact of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.” This list is just one element of a threatening new political climate, a part that is specifically designed to scare educators. To keep us, among other things, from making that kind of joke.
We might also think of the watchlist as a new media expansion of David Horowitz’s 2006 book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, a book that profiles 101 professors that Horowitz judged to be dangerous to academia itself. The book justifies its project by rhetoric much like O’Reilly’s. Horowitz says, quite rightly, that “teaching must not seek the arbitrary imposition of personal opinions and prejudices on students, enforced through the power of the grading process and the authority of the institutions they represent” (xxvii). This is hard to argue with. Even when pedagogy emerges from a specific ideology, such as Marie Shear’s oft-cited definition of feminism as “the radical notion that women are people,” it should not be an exercise in the arbitrary reproduction of personal beliefs.
Yet, even in seemingly objective subjects, good teaching is neither neutral nor without nuance. Jokes, like all ideas, emerge within cultural contexts, and good teachers provide their students with the critical thinking skills to understand those ideas, those contexts, and how the two inform each other. Shear’s definition is quotable for the same reason it’s funny: because women are people, and this isn’t a radical idea. It’s also quotable because it’s serious: because acting like women are people is often treated as if it were radical. This is part of why it is necessary to argue with Horowitz’s claim that departments like Women’s Studies and Black Studies—both of which he puts in scare quotes, as if it to emphasize their illegitimacy—are bastions of indoctrination, “shaped by narrow, one-sided political agendas” (xxxiv).
While debating Horowitz at Reed College (full disclosure, my alma mater), Peter Steinberger offered an explanation for “why so many professors are liberal.” In short, Steinberger argues, academics are people who draw conclusions based on evidence. The evidence shows that hierarchies of race, class, and gender exist. Thus, those of us who teach subjects like Women’s and Gender Studies or Black Studies—and here I’m inserting myself in his argument—and who have an obligation to teach our students accurately about these subjects, must teach them this. And if we believe, moreover, as Steinberger puts it, that these “undeserved inequalities are so vast, so egregious, so devastating, that we have a moral responsibility try to do something,” then that is when we become the kinds of professors who will end up on this watchlist.
Steinberger’s response is a nuanced, moral one. It is also a rigorous, academic one. He demonstrates the inconsistencies of Horowitz’s argument, appeals to his audience’s better nature, and—it’s pretty clear, at least to this reader—wins the debate. Similarly, Yancy’s New York Times column, entitled “I Am A Dangerous Professor,” makes a stirring case for embracing one’s inclusion on the list.
These are arguments, and rigorous, moral arguments are one way to respond to the charge of indoctrination. But I want to make room for thinking about the moral value of another reaction: that of the joke. Like a metaphor, a joke works by doubling: you have to be able to hold two things in your mind at the same time. For a joke that rests on a pun, that’s the two meanings of a homophone. For a joke that relies on irony or sarcasm, that’s the assertion of plausibility and the knowledge of its falsehood. Jokes also teach us to hear tone, to attend to the context in which a thing is said, and to stay wary, lest we become the punch line. This is part of why it’s important not just to make jokes, but also to think about how jokes work. Humor can consolidate power, defining the boundaries of a group by shared understanding, wherein those who laugh are “in,” and those who don’t are “out.” But humor can also challenge the workings of power, undercutting received structures and exposing the absurdity of ideological assumptions. To add oneself to the watchlist—as many professors did—is to resist its agenda and publicly embrace the values it repudiates. To add Indiana Jones or Professor Snape to the watchlist, as quite a few people—at least according to Twitter—did, is both to disrupt the list’s ostensible purpose and to draw attention to its exaggerated rhetoric. There’s not much these two fictional professors have in common, but there is one thing: they’re both dangerous. In the fictional worlds that they inhabit, both of these men kill people. Even though neither man actually made it onto the list’s website, the joke works: this, it says, is a dangerous professor.
We don’t often think of jokes as nuanced or moral, but good jokes are precisely that: they offer us two possibilities, and ask us to choose. Is this indoctrination? Or is it indoctrination’s opposite? A stick, a carrot, or something else entirely?
For those of us who believe in Steinberger’s moral imperative—as I do—jokes can teach us to be careful, lest we accidentally deepen those inequalities with cruel or thoughtless punch lines. Indeed, a joke is exactly the thing that allows us to move beyond “narrow, one-sided political agendas.” When the humor website McSweeney’s published Donald Trump’s Black History Month address, verbatim, under the title “My Very Good Black History Month Tribute To Some of the Most Tremendous Black People,” in its series of “Short Imagined Monologues,” it transformed a thoughtless speech into a thoughtful joke. To put this speech into this context is to point toward its implausibility, its absurdity, and its failure to meet the demands of its original context. This speech, the editors imply, belongs not at a breakfast honoring African-American leaders, but among the company of imagined speeches by luminaries such as “an Anthropomorphic Lady Jar of Mayonnaise,” an Epi-Pen, and Donatello from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. By transforming a real speech into a satirical speech, this editorial decision does more than just make fun. It points to the importance of distinguishing the real from the joke, and the difficulty of that task in the present moment. This joke forces us to hold two realities in our minds: the fact that this was a real speech, and the feeling that it can’t possibly have been a real speech. By making it into a joke, McSweeney’s reminds us that it was very real, and forces us to consider what about this speech makes that seem so unlikely. This is a joke that can teach us about what we expect from elected officials, what we’re getting, and how it feels when the two fail to align. Humor points back at reality, illuminating it from surprising angles.
Most of us learn about jokes pretty early. We do this so early, in fact, that we don’t really think of getting jokes (unlike telling them) as a learned skill. It is, however, one of the first forms of literary interpretation most of us encounter. In one sense, then, I am making an argument for teaching the kinds of interpretive practices that enable scholars like Yancy and Steinberger to make the stirring arguments they do. In another sense, this is an argument for fostering something more subtle, reminding students that the interpretive work we do in the classroom is not so different from the interpretive work they must do in their daily lives.
We live in a historical moment in which cultural knowledge is increasingly shared through humor. We’ve all heard that statistic about how all the young people these days are getting their news from The Daily Show. Critique also passes through less traditional channels, including every Bernie Sanders meme you’ve ever seen, and my favorite: “Clarissa Explains White Supremacy.” It’s a moment, too, that requires us to think carefully about questions of positionality—who gets to tell which jokes, and in what contexts, and to what audiences. A joke that’s painful in one context can be reparative in another, and that’s an important lesson as well. Turning the phrase “nasty woman” into a joke is a way of refusing its ugliness, a way of using language and humor as tools of care.
Students, in my experience, are often more adept at this than professors. Indeed, I should confess that the best joke about Bill O’Reilly came from one of my students: “Next,” she said, “ he’ll be warning us about Women’s Studies!” All of her peers laughed, and so did I. That joke brought us together, implicitly constituting us as a community by acknowledging our shared investment in women’s studies, and materially doing so by making us all laugh. It’s important to laugh sometimes, and that’s part of my point here. The other part is that we, as professors and teachers, need to acknowledge and affirm the multiple modes of language and interpretation that our students bring to the table, and give them the tools to understand how those modes interact with, rely on, and inform their cultural intuitions. Unpacking a joke is never exactly a funny exercise, but it is one with high stakes—especially for those of us who are genuinely invested in ensuring that our students have the critical thinking skills to resist narrow, one-sided ideologies, in addition to the meme-making skills to render them hilarious.
Horowitz, David (2006). The professors: The 101 most dangerous academics in America. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.
My very good Black History Month tribute to some of the most tremendous Black people. (2017, February 1). McSweeney’s. Retrieved from https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/my-very-good-black-history-month-tribute-to-some-of-the-most-tremendous-black-people
Steinberger, P., & Horowitz, D. (2006, November). A debate on academic freedom. [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.reed.edu/reed_magazine/winter06/columns/NoC/images/steinberger_horowitz.mp3
Yancy, G. (2016, November 30). I am a dangerous professor. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/30/opinion/i-am-a-dangerous-professor.html?_r=0
Elizabeth Blake is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Fellow in the Writing Program at Haverford College. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature with a concentration in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Cornell University. In addition to teaching courses on food, feminism, modernism, and queer studies, Dr. Blake has been involved in graduate pedagogy training and research. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org