Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony
In Education, sometimes less is moreI used to teach a course on Public Speaking. It took me three years to figure out how to properly organize and deliver the course. I think I finally did it right in the third year. The trick was to abandon my teacher ego (a subject for a future post), get out of the way, take care of administrative and secretarial necessities of the course, and allow the students to perform and to educate each other—as much as I could (which was never easy for me). A majority of the students who took this course were from the Faculty of Education and consequently destined for careers as educators. One message I passed on to all the students, especially those planning to become teachers: avoid irony.
Every Joke has a victimThis is very complicated advice because if you ask students to list the five features they appreciate in teachers, a “sense of humour” is bound to appear consistently in the list. (Here is another issue that I suspect teacher training programs never deal with. Are there any education courses out there on “how to be funny”?) At the core of any “joke” there is bound to be some form of irony and a victim. I will try to avoid giving one of my three-hour lectures on the subject of irony, but if you are curious you might look at Linda Hutcheon’s book, Irony’s Edge and/or Paul de Man’s “The Concept of Irony” in Aesthetic Ideology.
Verbal Irony means saying what you don't meanVerbal irony is saying one thing, but you really mean something else quite different. The lowest form of verbal irony is the most familiar: sarcasm. A teacher being sarcastic with students is trying to be hurtful. Unacceptable, but that is only part of the problem. Irony by its very nature is always ambiguous. No matter how clear or obvious a teacher might think s/he is being when being ironic, the fact is a number of different messages are being transmitted to students at the same time, and individual students are going to have to figure out which message is the right one. Whatever message they choose, they are going to be wrong because the “real” meaning of an ironic statement doesn’t exist. Irony is deliberately confusing; it does not transmit clear, singular meanings. If you ask someone what an ironic statement “really” means they are bound to be wrong. According to Linda Hutcheon, the question would be the same as me asking you what this picture “really” represents.
Faced with verbal irony, you are never supposed to ask "what do you mean?"Verbal irony can be quite innocent and lighthearted or unintended or very aggressive. The problem is we can never know, with certainty, which. Let’s try a case. You arrive at work one morning and your colleague says: “you’re looking sexy today.” If your colleague is old and creepy, you begin to contemplate your sexual harassment suit; if young and attractive, you flash your brightest smile and strike a pose. However, there is something in your colleague’s tone that puts a question mark in your mind. (With irony, tone is everything.) Does your colleague really mean that “you are looking sexy” or is the colleague being ironic and therefore intending another meaning? So, of course, you ask with an earnest glare: “What do you mean?”
The Multiple Meanings of an ironic utteranceWe’ve all been there, so we know the answer will be something like: “oh nothing,” “just kidding around,” “don’t be so serious,” etc, etc, dodge, evade and duck (or is it a rabbit?). Now you are left to try and figure out what your colleague really meant and, of course, the more you think about it, the more the number of possibilities expands. The least likely possibility now seems to be that you are looking sexy this morning; your colleague earnestly thinks so and said so. You enumerate the possibilities. You had to get dressed in a rush this morning, missed the bus, etc. Your colleague is telling you that you look a mess, or at least below your usual standards. Option two, worse still, you are the least sexy person in the office and everyone knows it. It is a big joke to describe you as “looking sexy.” Or maybe the message is quite the opposite; it’s that you are trying too hard or you have overdone it and gone too far. Your apparel is, in fact, too sexy. You’ve gone passed sexy to slut/pimp. You are inappropriately dressed for the office. At the same time, you infer that your colleague wants to initiate a “sexy” conversation with you. What’s that about?
Hopefully you are beginning to appreciate the problem.
What teachers say mattersContrary to popular stereotypes, students are affected by what teachers tell them. Moreover, there is a pretty good chance that the most passive-aggressive student in the room is also the most thin-skinned and insecure. Imagine you are a student and your teacher is in the habit of being ironic. Not only has your teacher confused you with multiple messages that you are unable to decode, but some of those messages, as far as you have been able to figure them out, are personally insulting and hurtful. Your teacher on the other hand is thinking that s/he has such a great rapport with students that they have a fine time joking with each other.
Humour is a double-edged swordIt may not sound like it from this blog, but humour is an important part of my lecture style, my teaching in general and my personality. I absolutely believe that teaching by example is the most important kind of teaching, and where teachers most often fail. (I am convinced that if they were giving a lecture on “The Importance of Punctuality,” a number of my colleagues would show up late—and would have trouble understanding why that was a problem!) Nonetheless, I have certainly been guilty of irony in my classes. I have tried to mitigate the potential damage by warning students that I tell jokes (or at least relate anecdotes and recount comic examples) for two perfectly justifiable pedagogical motives: The first is that I am illustrating a point in a fashion that I hope will make the point memorable (and I beg the students to remember the point I was making and not just the joke). The second motive is that looking out across the room I can see that everyone is on the verge of falling asleep. Whatever significant knowledge I was hoping to get across at that moment was DOA, so I might as well stir the room with something random with the hope of rekindling curiosity and concentration a few moments hence.
Comedy and ironic distanceHowever, tell yourself any two jokes that you know well, and chances are they both involve a victim. Stories are funny because someone is or does something foolish or something unfortunate happens to them that makes us laugh. We need a certain distance from these characters in order for us to laugh at what befalls them. Northrop Frye calls this distance “ironic” in his categorization of the modes of literature. We cannot be too close to the characters, too sympathetic or concerned, or the joke won’t seem funny. Generally, we feel superior to the characters in a joke or funny story.
Cuckoos and cuckoldryIn late medieval humour the most common theme was cuckoldry. A cuckold (just to remind you, because it is not a word often used these days) is a husband whose wife has sex with another man. (There is no equivalent term for a betrayed wife, but the etymology isn’t quite as sexist as it sounds. The origin is the cuckoo bird which was known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests. The implication is that a cuckold suffers not because his wife has sex with someone else but because he might unknowingly end up raising someone else’s offspring. People who have seen the movie but not read the novel will likely not recognize the intimations of betrayed masculinity—as well as insanity—in the title One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest). In more contemporary times, until the recent ascendency of political correctness, the “victim” was usual a gendered or ethnic or regional or class stereotype.
Teachers: are you ready to be the butt of your own jokes?If you are going to “be funny” with students, you have to ask yourself: what is the relationship between the victim of your humour and your audience? One way you as a teacher can be sure you are not going to victimize someone with your humour is to make yourself the victim. I do on occasion make myself the butt of my own jokes, but this is not a gambit I recommend for any teacher who may be having concerns about maintaining status, respect and proper decorum with students. If you observe stand-up comedians these days, self-mockery or at least putting themselves in the role of the “dumb” character is a common strategy. It is also worth noting that the word “irony” derives from the dissembling character in ancient Greek comedy called the eirôn who appeared to be inferior and unintelligent but would triumph over the braggart in the end.
"No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teachers leave them kids alone"