Borrowing from the Batizado

A few months ago, I made the trek to Connecticut to see my sister “compete” in a batizado, or showcase for her chosen sport, capoeira. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that combines music with fighting, known to most people from an early episode of Bob’s Burgers (appropriately and hilariously called “Sexy Dance Fighting”) that I invoke often when talking to her about it.

“So that is what it’s supposed to look like…” IMAGE CREDIT: Pinterest

Because she started in college, and practiced less when she returned home after college, neither I nor my parents had had a chance to see her compete prior to this day. So it was really fun to get to finally see her in her element, with a number of her friends I had met previously but never seen in the context that she’s typically in.

What were my first impressions? Well, it was long. The competition, so to speak, was about four hours long. But it was structured like no “recital” scenario I had ever seen before. And, as an idea blender, I must confess- it got me thinking about what we could learn from how a batizado is set up…when it comes to hiring. How?

Change the way candidates interact with one another.
When we hire others for positions, the candidate pool is shrouded in mystery. Who else is interviewing? What sort of skill are they coming to the table with? Where are their strengths? Where do I stand? But in the troca de corderos, the “candidates” for cords aren’t hidden from one another. They play, as the terminology goes in capoeira, with one another as they’re vying for advancement. They get to see where the other candidates’ strengths and weaknesses lie, and it pushes them to bring out their best moves and blocks.

Another element of the troca de corderos is musical- several traditional instruments are played throughout the performance. At any point, a student (all of whom are trained to play the instruments used) can step in and relieve a “colleague.” Individual performance counts in a troca, but so does your willingness to take initiative and play a role for the team. Individual interviews make it tough to see how people will actually behave in these situations, rather than how you say you’ll respond.

Change the way candidates interact with the “interviewer.”

A fascinating part of the troca de corderos is getting to play with the person judging your advancement- the interviewer, in our world. You get out there and play with him or her. As I watched my sister’s classmates and teachers interact with her, I saw glimpses of what we should all hope for in a boss: she was given opportunities to use skills and moves that she’s really strong at (in her case, acrobatics). She got the chance to highlight the skills of others in her classes (including, at a high point for an audience, the youngest participant at the batizado- a six year old!). And she was challenged by the instructor himself- she, as well as each other person trying for new cords, was pushed down or otherwise roughed up by someone in a position of authority. But the roughing up wasn’t for the sake of being rough- it was to see how she and others would react. Presently, our interviews do little to truly pull out these moments of challenge, or hide them behind sanitized versions of how we said we responded in times of struggle. The troca de corderos doesn’t allow that.

My sister, the badass.

A troca de corderos is an experiential interview. Can we do that?

When I was searching for jobs just after graduating from college, I got a call for an interview with a “promotions company.” Told I’d be spending a few hours with them, I dressed in my nicest outfit- including what would later turn out to be wildly impractical shoes- and drove in. I was told I’d be heading out with a few promotions reps that were already doing the job, tagging along and getting the chance to do what they did. As I later learned, the job was selling oil change coupon packages in Plant City, FL. In a suit. In June. And we walked. For those unfamiliar with Plant City, FL, selling oil change coupons is a lot like selling coal to the good people of Newcastle- they’re flush with ways to get their own.

While I vividly remember this interview for its ability to show me how much I did NOT want to do that job, I also credit it with showing me how an interview should work. If I had been interviewed for that job the way we currently interview most people, I could have stated how good I’d be at talking to people, sharing the merits of any product given to me, and convincing people who may not want a product, why they needed it. But I would have had no idea what the job was like until I was in it, and the people who interviewed me would have never known how poorly suited I was for the work until I was already in it. The troca de corderos showed me another example of the same thing. Students don’t acquire new cords after enduring a rapid-fire set of questions about how capoeira makes them feel, or what they would do if faced with a given sort of attack from a peer or instructor. In the time it takes most employers to parade candidates from office to office, speaking in theory about the skills and traits they’d bring to the office, capoeiristas just put you in a room and let you do it. The advancement opportunities come from your ability to demonstrate that you can handle the load, not the eloquence with which you express your potential to. Can we find ways to do the same?

I mentioned that the batizado was long. It started with a lesson from a visiting teacher that set expectations for what everyone was going to need to know, followed by everyone’s chance to play and fight together, and finally those who were up for promotion in cords sparred one on one with teachers. But by the end of that, I had a far better idea of my sister’s skills, and the skills of her friends, than any conversation with them could have ever conveyed. We (and by we, I mean anyone interviewing candidates for a position) already subject our candidate pool to long interviews that operate largely in theory. How could we make these marathon days more helpful for both sides? Find opportunities to let people show you their stuff. 

What realities of our day-to-day work can we responsibly allow candidates to test their skills at? Even if it’s something as simple as responding to phone calls or online inquiries, counseling students, or even operating the most temperamental copier in the office, the chance to take our potential to succeed out of the theoretical and into the practical is valuable for both parties in an interview scenario. For the candidate, you get a chance to assess the human resources you’d be surrounded by in a role; for the interviewer, you have a chance to see how your potential employee would behave in the workplace. Disingenuous or dishonest interviews can escape the watchful eye of search committee members, but it’s harder to mask those problems when you’re doing the work for real.

I’m going to share a video from my sister’s competition, with the six year old I mentioned before. One of the coolest things I saw was the rest of the group’s ability to realistically test someone so young and relatively inexperienced, but still be attentive to his limits. As you consider designing an interview schedule and regimen, particularly one that may be taking place with a relatively inexperienced professional, think about how you can take this advice and approach to heart- be real with them while also recognizing limitations. (Apologies for the size of the video, had trouble adjusting!)

 

This could start slowly, with student interviews. Will you have a student answering phones? Consider letting them sit in the office with a more senior student who can show them the ropes, then watch how they respond in action. Will someone be advising students? Consider letting them work with a student on a project to see how they interact. Instead of the canned presentations that we request (something that few professionals will do again in their role), let them give a tour to show how well they researched the institution, or have them prepare a report as they might do at the end of a semester. Let them do the work they’ll be doing, and select based on performance over potential. What could this idea do to our office dynamics, our efficiency and productivity, and our job satisfaction?

Happy First Birthday, THE I’S HAVE IT!

A year ago today (or so), I posted “The Announcement.” Rather than informing you that I was taking my talents to South Beach, I let the world know that this book project I had verbalized ten months before had finally resulted in a finished product, available on Amazon.

What followed was a year that absolutely shattered any expectations I may have had about the process of writing, and then promoting a book. I’ve gotten to speak about the book to audiences of students, faculty, and administrators. I’ve connected with other introverts who appreciated the things I wrote and advice I provided. I did a book signing, something I never dreamed I would get to do! I got to live a life that truly exceeded my wildest dreams- I would have been happy if my parents read it and that was it. So for that, above all, I want to say THANK YOU. Thank you for reading, thank you for sharing, thank you for enduring my promotion of it :)

Hey, you. Thank you. I mean it. IMAGE CREDIT: Giphy

The traditional first anniversary gift is “paper,” and that’s something I want to offer to you. As some of you may know, this past December THE I’S HAVE IT became available in paperback for the first time. Want one? I have a coupon code for you! Head to The I’s Have It on Createspace (this code will not work on Amazon, so the Createspace link is important!) and enter the coupon code 9YPQWSP6 for $4 off! That’s 40% for those who like to work with those numbers.

Still haven’t read it yet? Let nothing or no one get in your way. IMAGE CREDIT: Tumblr

Now, many of you already have the book and I wouldn’t have you buy it two times just for my benefit. If this describes you, then there is one thing that the book would like for it’s birthday- to get on library shelves. Odds are, your library has a public site where you can request that books get added to its inventory. Please take a moment to ask that they add THE I’S HAVE IT to their collection. Should they ask for an ISBN number, it is 1505385369.

Hmmmm. First birthday? I’m gonna make a mess of a cake with my hands today.

Again, thank you for a wonderful year- none of the excitement, learning, or fun would have happened without you all! 

 

Guest Post Round-Up: Week of 01/19

Late last week, I was so pleased to be featured in Latinas in Higher Education, as well as on Liz Gross’s blog as part of her #Resolve2015 series. Read on to check out what I said, and thank you so much to Rosann and Liz for the opportunity!

IMAGE CREDIT: NYCPRgirls

From Latinas in Higher Education: The Introvert’s Guide to Nailing the Job Search

IMAGE CREDIT: Liz Gross

For #Resolve2015: How to Look to Other Industries for Professional Development

Guest Post Round Up: Week of 01/12

This week, I have a pair of posts available on The Niche Movement and Forever Twentysomethings. I do hope you’ll check both of them out, and peruse each site as well!

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For Forever Twentysomethings, I distilled some wisdom from anecdotes in Disney movies to produce Career Lessons from Disney Princesses. Stay with me- there’s some good stuff here, I promise.

 

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Elsewhere, at The Niche Movement, I continued the “See What Sticks” series with a review of Pixar president Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. Click on through to read How Good Notes Can Take You to Infinity and Beyond.

Really [Helping] With Seth and Amy

IMAGE CREDIT: MyEntertainmentWorld.ca

I teased the featured subjects of this post- Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler- late last week, and not just because we are just about a month away from the one year anniversary of Late Night with Seth Meyers’ premiere, or just over twenty four hours away from the final season premiere of Poehler’s vehicle Parks and Recreation (which, by the way, has me feeling despondent, as shown below)

IMAGE CREDIT: Giphy

A series of conversations I’ve observed and been a part of over the past few weeks, combined with some reading I’ve been doing, compelled me to think about Seth and Amy as a comedic pair, and something they have in common besides their New England roots and great comedic timing: their natural and beautiful inclination to help beginners on their way up.

In a great thinkpiece about Meyers’ departure from SNL, columnist Mike Ryan espouses his theory that despite significant comedic talent, Seth’s true gift lay in encouraging the writing and performance of the people around him:

One of Meyers’ greatest talents is making others look good. He reminds me of my favorite editors: the ones who have everything to do with making a piece great, but relish in watching others get all of the accolades. I posed this hypothesis to Bobby Moynihan: “One-thousand percent,” he said. “He’s the guy you hand the script to and without even opening it, he’s like, ‘It’s a little heavy’ –- he’s just been here so long, he can almost edit by weight.”

His helpful demeanor didn’t stop at professional endeavors either- cast members reminiscing about his departure remembered early trips to comic book stores and basketball games as a means to bring new members of the troupe into the fold.It wasn’t anything that was expected of him as a head writer, and for that the effort truly stood out. Ryan nears the end of his piece by sharing this musing from Will Forte:

His comedy brain is certainly something that will be missed, but his heart, also – there’s this energy that he brings and a positivity that is such a wonderful thing to have. And there are a lot of the people at the show who have it, but it starts at the top … it’s a really amazing thing to have at a place that can be a very stressful place at times.

Speaking of outstanding, Amy Poehler has a similar reputation among her contemporaries, both on SNL and off. She mentioned while doing press for her frank and hilarious memoir/scrapbook (as she terms it) Yes Please that part of the pressure to write was fueled by her mentions in the books of other comediennes who have written about her in their books- Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and Mindy Kaling to name a few. Their assessment of Poehler is unanimous- she is at once incredibly tough (Fey’s anecdote features Poehler asserting herself in a meeting where the nature of her humor was questioned), and incredibly loving (she laughed heartily at jokes to show newcomers that their concerns over being talented were unfounded, and is noted for being collegial at parties). Consider this testimony from Kaling in her book, preceded by the sentence “Everyone has a moment when they discover they love Amy Poehler.”:

As a teenager, I tracked her career as best I could without the Internet, and was overjoyed when I saw she had become a cast member on Saturday Night Live. I loved when she played Kaitlin, with her cool stepdad, Rick.

But when this popular, pretty genius made this kind gesture to me? That’s the moment I started adoring Amy Poehler. She knew I was going to be a coward, and she was going to have to gently facilitate me into being social[…] When I said something even a little but funny, Amy cackled warmly.

And as her stock has risen, she’s given a leg up to comedians like Billy Eichner and the Broad City duo Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer.

IMAGE CREDIT: natkp Instagram

Even Meyers himself made a point to highlight the sort of graciousness that Poehler has extended to him in the chapter he authored for her book:

[referring to a text she sent him when her water broke before she was to perform with him on SNL] And that text is all you need to know about Amy. Instead of focusing on any of her fear, her excitement, or the anticipation that comes with giving birth for the first time, she sent me words of encouragement […] Doing comedy for a living is, in a lot of ways, like a pony and a camel trying to escape from the zoo. It’s a ridiculous endeavor and has a low probability of success, but most importantly, it is way easier if you’re with a friend.

For my part, I’m of the belief that this pair consistently, if largely separately, pulls off the daring and ridiculous escape. It’s been noted that Meyers and Poehler clicked as a team in a way that few other Update duos have, and their approach to working with people and amplifying the talent around them likely had something to do with that.

So my question is, if two people with the star power and clout of Meyers and Poehler can incorporate this into their routine, shouldn’t we all?

We all have our moments where we’re challenged to be helpful. Explaining something that seems second nature to us can be difficult at times, and we sometimes struggle to complete these tasks without a hint of frustration (at best) or condescension (at worst). I know I’m guilty of this now and again when I receive an email from a student or colleague asking for help with something that seems easy. After reading Liz Wiseman’s Rookie Smarts, a highly recommended read and my first of 2015, I would strongly recommend reconsidering that knee-jerk reaction. What do you replace it with? Something Wiseman calls “returning to the rookie mindset:”

Perpetual rookies are skilled at toggling between states of mind, between their veteran savvy and rookie smarts […] The real skill of the perpetual rookie is knowing when to play the role of veteran and when to don the rookie cloak.

Whenever you’re approached in earnest with a request to learn, the response shouldn’t be tinged with incredulousness at not knowing the skill, or judgment as to the size of the task at hand. Genuine interest at becoming better is all too rare in our classrooms and workplace, and doesn’t need to be discouraged. To help you get past those initial moments where that may be an ingrained response, remember your early days in the area of discussion. From all the testimony that has been shared in reference to Seth and Amy, they seem to be able to easily bring themselves back to those early moments when they needed support and reassurance. We should work to do the same. Think about your early days and consider the questions below:

How did it feel to be a novice? How hard was it to ask for help? How did the person that helped you respond? Or, if you didn’t ask for help, what held you back?

One of my goals for the year ahead is to take on the perspective of a learner more often. As I introduce initiatives and issue challenges in my work, I want to look at them not from just my perspective, but also those of the students and professionals I work with- what knowledge gaps exist that my “veteran” brain might be skipping over out of habit? Am I truly making myself approachable if questions do arise? How can I keep the rookie in mind as Seth and Amy so consistently do? I encourage all who read this to join me, and keep me posted on your results :)

Mythbusters: Introverted Doesn’t Mean Impervious

Welcome to 2015 everybody, happy to be here!

I am backlogged on a lot of business writing about introversion, which is in its own way a very good thing! Too few people have spoken about introversion in the past, which has led to its status as an enigmatic and mysterious way of being. If I’m behind, it means that there’s more out there than ever before (or…that I haven’t been reading as much as I should…)

However, every now and again something will pique my interest enough that I feel compelled to respond. Ready? Because here it comes.

On December 31st, John Brandon of Inc. Magazine published a piece called “Why Introverts Should Work Hard to Raise Their Emotional Intelligence.” Now, if you’re anything like me, the title alone evoked a reaction like this:

Hol’ up. What?! IMAGE CREDIT: NoCookie.net

But as I dove into the article, I was somewhat vindicated in that the article wasn’t actually about emotional intelligence. Further, the communications major in me had a lot of fun pulling out what Brandon was actually saying.

The revised thesis: Your emotional intelligence is (probably) fine. But your kinesics may- may – need some work. 

Emotional intelligence is a topic that’s becoming increasingly popular as we insist that recent entrants to the work force lack “soft” skills- the ability to converse civilly with coworkers, empathize with people around them, and other social skills that we’re convinced that increased screen time is to blame for. It is a fascinating construct, and those interested in learning more about what it actually is, should explore the work and research of Daniel Goleman. But it is also a construct that, for the record, is not out of the bounds of introverts. While the conventional definition of introversion implies an inward focus, their propensity to stand back and watch first means they are often exceedingly aware of the emotions of others. And with people they know, even the slightest change in inflection or difference in posture could be picked up on by an introvert; further, they are often well-suited for meaningful and intensive listening.

That definition of emotional intelligence isn’t the one that Brandon speaks about in his article. What he identifies as emotional intelligence, is actually kinesics- the communication that comes through nonverbal cues and behaviors, namely body language. An example (for those who didn’t click through):

I first noticed my problem at meetings when I realized I was folding my arms way too often. It’s cold up here in Minnesota in winter, so maybe I’m trying to give myself a bear hug, but folding your arms sends a hidden messages that you are not that interested in the topic, you are closed off to new ideas, or you’re too pious and smart to really pay attention to other people. I’ve since taken it upon myself to keep my arms unfolded at all times, trying to give the impression that I am more open.

Let’s break down this anecdote, shall we?

Arm folding does elicit the assumptions that Brandon cites, I won’t fight him on that. It is a somewhat defensive stance, and is often assumed to signal standoffishness or disengagement. In fact, this became a topic of conversation several years back on Top Chef: Chicago, when contestant Lisa Fernandes was criticized as defensive of feedback when she stood cross-armed during judging. In reality, she claims that she was most comfortable standing that way, and it wasn’t a signifier of her mental state.

But what Brandon’s talking about is a kinesics issue, not an emotional intelligence issue.

Opinions expressed by Tracy Morgan do not reflect those of all introverts. IMAGE CREDIT: Fresh Off the Boat

Sitting with my arms crossed in a meeting (or averting my eyes, the other example that Brandon gives) doesn’t mean I’m any less aware of what’s going on in the room, or how other people are feeling. Their propensity for observation before reaction means introverts can be extremely adept at divining how others are feeling or thinking. They may not speak up or approach you about it right away- but they’ve noticed. If I’m being completely honest, this was the element of the piece that frustrated me most.

However, I will grant Brandon the idea that being aware of kinesics is important. Assumptions about attentiveness, dedication, and competence are deeply embedded in the nonverbal cues we display to one another. I am often guilty of equating those on phones at meetings, with a rude disposition, I can own that- even though I’m aware that some of the behaviors we so malign are actually essential to people’s success. So should I be aware of how my stance and idiosyncrasies could be interpreted as an introvert? Yes…but that’s true irrespective of temperament. The argument presented in the article is predicated on the idea that these behaviors are exclusive to introverts, or that they are only perceived as negative if introverts engage in them.

The tendency to cross arms, avert gaze, or carry ourselves in ways that aren’t always the most hospitable, is a universal ailment. The nature of our world, be it because of a technological distraction or because of (completely natural) hesitation to reach out, is such that we sometimes close ourselves off from genuine connection. So rather than ascribing that habit to the quieter members of our families, offices, and society…let’s instead acknowledge that an understanding of kinesics and its occasional implications is essential for everyone: what am I doing? How could it be perceived? What could I do instead?

For example, I’m aware of how sitting or standing cross-armed can appear. Do I stop? Sometimes, yes. But I’ll make sure to compensate for that by appearing alert and holding eye contact. I say often that I don’t believe any (civil) behaviors are out of bounds for anyone of any temperament. But in the case of kinesics, it’s important to ask what am I doing? How could it be perceived? What could I do instead? to prevent misunderstandings or misconceptions such as the one that John Brandon attributed to introverts.

Regardless of your style, do you have any quirks that make people think you’re inattentive? Have you been asked to correct them?

Two New Ways to “Have” THE I’S HAVE IT!

I’m excited to announce two new avenues for you to get the second edition of THE I’S HAVE IT, the 2014 book about introversion in student affairs from the talented Sue Caulfield and me. The content (and Suedles!) are largely the same, but features a few talking points at the end of each chapter, as well as an interview guide for those in the position to bring introverts on to their teams.

First, I am so pleased to announce a partnership with the great people at the Student Affairs Collaborative, wherein a portion of your purchase will go toward a scholarship fund for graduate students in student affairs. Click here to buy the e-book through them and help out the #sagrad community!

Second, for the old school reader among us…I am excited to announce further that you can buy THE I’S HAVE IT in print! Head here to get your hard copy, and please shoot me a note if you do- I’ll mail you a bookplate!

Now, I don’t expect those who already have it to buy it twice- that’s just silly! BUT, if you are a library user, I would love it if you could do me a favor and request that your library add it to their shelves. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to living in a library, and I would love to make that dream a reality :)

Here’s to turning up the volume in 2015!

2014 books on the wall…

ammamarfo:

Thanks Joel for including me on your year-end list! For the record, I agree with several of your other choices :)
There’s more news on the way in 2015 regarding “The I’s Have It,” and I hope you’ll stay tuned!

Originally posted on Polar Bears and Coffee:

So this year saw quite a bit of new-ish things for me: 1- a desire to learn more about the urban condition, and to translate urban studies and urban architecture into how student unions on urban campuses influence the student experience, and 2- lots of reading at home and on the T (I count 2014 as the start of that, because the latter half of 2013 was marked by reading all 5 books of the Game of Thrones… which I mean… I guess it counts).

The end of the year is a fun time, because all the great book lists come out, and my Amazon Wish Lists grow longer and longer.  Much like the World Cup of Literature that I blogged about earlier this year, finding new books is a fun fun thing.  So, I wanted to recap some of my reads this year, and then throw out some of…

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How to teach a young introvert

ammamarfo:

Great post from TED, along with Susan Cain, talking about how our classrooms can be better designed and utilized to harness the power of introverted students. Of particular interest to me: “One thing I think that educators should bear in mind: we allow adults all kinds of flexibility in terms of what kind of social life they want. Adults who have two or three friends, no one thinks twice about it. But we don’t allow children the same degree of flexibility.” How can we avoid setting a “standard” for what level of interaction is “normal”?

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:

See all articles in the series

What should we do with the quiet kids? A conversation with Susan Cain on the future of classroom education.

Susan Cain sticks up for the introverts of the world. In the U.S., where one third to one half the population identifies as introverts, that means sticking up for a lot of people. Some of them might be data engineers overwhelmed by the noise of an open-floor-plan office. Others might be lawyers turning 30, whose friends shame them for not wanting a big birthday bash. But Cain particularly feels for one group of introverts: the quiet kids in a classroom.

Cain remembers a childhood full of moments when she was urged by teachers and peers to be more outgoing and social — when that simply wasn’t in her nature. Our most important institutions, like schools and workplaces, are designed for extroverts, says Cain in her TED Talk. [Watch: The power of…

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Balancing Humor and Humanity

IMAGE CREDIT: Washington Post

One of the better articles I read this week focused on an interview Chris Rock gave to Vulture magazine in support of his new film, Top Five. This particular press tour has brought several interesting perspectives from Rock, but this one is of particular interest to those working with students in higher education. When asked about Bill Maher being banned from speaking at a college, he took the opportunity to mention that he no longer plays colleges, and stopped about eight years ago because they are “too conservative.” He elaborates:

I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative […] Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

This idea is consistent with a post that I saw from a colleague a few weeks back, asking about how students respond to comedy on college campuses:

Is it just my campus? Last night we had a comedian on campus and had a good turnout for the show. However our students don’t laugh. Afterward they all said he was great but they won’t laugh during the show. Have we over PC’d these kids so they think it’s innappropriate [sic] to laugh at someone? Is it just WI kids or is anyone else seeing this too?

As someone who is deeply interested in both comedy and its inner workings, and the work that higher education does for students, this idea fascinates me. As I read, turning the idea over in my mind and reading critiques on why this might be, a few ideas came to mind (courtesy of a few friends who also provided thoughts- thanks for giving me so much to think about!).

Theory #1: Is this a lesson?

Shortly after I posted the article, my coworker John came down the hall to chat theories with me. One that he posed of particular interest: the line between education and entertainment on campus has been blurred to the point that students may not be fully sure that a comedy show isn’t designed to teach something. And their apprehension is legitimate- the college entertainment market is full of people embracing the hybrid of “edutainment;” with that comes the question: what is this program designed to do? Is this a lecture that is supposed to make me laugh? A comedian that will teach me something? Fully one? Fully the other? It’s easy to know what to do when a spade is called a spade. But when there’s a gray area, it’s harder to discern what conduct is expected of you. Speaking of that…

Theory #2: “I don’t know how to be an audience member at this.”

John, who has a dual background in both comedy and higher education, talked to me about a symphony performance he attended with his wife recently. He recognized the talent associated with what he was watching, but ultimately realized his experience suffered because he didn’t have the tools to appreciate it. Those who have a background watching and appreciating classical music, such as his wife, view these performance differently, and can react in a manner befitting the venue and occasion. But ultimately, those unequipped to enjoy an event have a difficult time doing so.

John made a connection between that and his introduction to stand-up comedy as an art form years ago. Watching young comedians develop their craft on MTV weekly gave him an idea of what good stand-up was, what bad stand-up was, and how to identify patterns and talent in the comedians he was seeing. While there is no shortage of comedy these days, the ability to see stand-up on TV (save for Comedy Central’s Half Hour on Fridays and full-length specials on some Saturdays) is less common than it has been, compared to other forms of comedy like sketch or situation comedy. And yes, Netflix is making great leaps in allowing stand-up comedians to stream their specials there. But Criminal MindsGilmore Girls, and every episode of Sons of Anarchy are on there, too- shows where we know what we’re getting. And taking chances on a special by a comedian you’ve never heard of isn’t something most students I work with are likely to do (more on that, later). So when a comedian goes into a room and delivers a set to a mostly quiet crowd, the result may be because they simply aren’t sure of the right thing to do in that particular space- do we laugh? Do we appreciate it quietly? And even if they are sure that they find it funny, and they want to laugh…they still might not.

Theory #3: Pantomiming Offense

Perhaps the best comment I saw in response to my posting of the original article came from my friend and colleague Curtis:

I don’t think folks aren’t laughing at home, or within groups of friends…What we’ve taught then, is not to take offense, but to pantomime offense.

My exact response to Curtis’ post. IMAGE CREDIT: Imgur

There are norms to behavior in most settings. You can’t speak loudly in church. You can’t smoke on airplanes. Wear shoes in a restaurant. One norm we may have cultivated, intentionally or otherwise, is don’t laugh if someone can be offended. Now, this next set of statements has the potential to sound offensive, and I promise I don’t mean for it to. But my sensing a need to preface my coming statements…may be part of the problem.

I am absolutely in favor of social justice education, and the work that we in higher education do to expose students to a variety of walks of life. It is an essential practice to cultivating an understanding that the humanity of all deserves to be recognized and revered. Further, should we ever elect to not address it, many individuals may never learn it at all. All people have value, this is an absolutely true statement that I would never refute.

However, in encouraging recognition of all (again, a worthy and necessary pursuit), we run a significant risk of sanitizing human interaction rather than enriching it.

I worry, often, that we are asking students to assume similarity instead of appreciate difference- and part of that makes it hard to laugh at things that are different. By saying “that’s not funny, don’t laugh at that,” we close off a conversation that could be a truly transformative one: What experiences inform these jokes? Where do stereotypes come from? Why have these norms come about? Can we laugh at this? If we do laugh, and people get offended, what will that offense be grounded in?

Most students (and people, for that matter) equate laughing at something with minimizing it or deeming it unimportant. But there are lots of reasons to laugh. We smile, make jokes, and show our senses of humor to those we know, respect and care about as a way to build commonality and community. We can even laugh, at times, to get through the difficult moments that inequality, hardship, and human suffering inevitably provide. But espousing these two messages simultaneously can be challenging. Does asking students to laugh in the same space that we teach them to show respect confuse the message? And moreover, does their refusal to laugh in our presence reflect actual understanding, or simply reflect their ability to enact a form of ‘code-switching’ wherein they recognize that they can laugh at these things, just not with us? I don’t know that I have the answers to any of these questions, but it gave me a lot to think about this week.

 

I remember watching a clip from Key and Peele with a coworker and a student a few weeks back. I had forgotten how many elements of it could be deemed “NSFW” by some, but I rolled with it once we had started. That clip turned into a conversation- what parts of it were uncomfortable? Why were they uncomfortable? If you had to have a conversation about the things in this clip, what parts do you know have the potential to be offensive, and do you understand why? Not everyone has the ability to conduct these conversations, based on the conduct of their office or the nature of their time. But they’re important conversations to have.

Life will challenge the people around us. That’s the nature of humanity. Humor can be a great weapon against those challenges, if we allow it to be. Challenge yourself to laugh- not with ignorance or hesitation, but with compassion and understanding.