Parody in Practice: The Gentlemen of Humans of Higher Ed [Interview]

Last week, we discussed the nature of parody, the challenges associated with doing it well, and why it feels like the type of comedy we really need right now. This week, I want to take an in-depth look at a higher education-specific example of the form, in  (the award-winning) Humans of Higher Ed.

Developed earlier this year as a creative outlet for three professionals working in the field, Humans of Higher Ed is a Tumblr that parodies the now-famous “Humans of New York” concept. It takes many of our common frustrations and wild stories from our work, and transforms them into straightforward stories that (generally) bridge the gap elegantly between being relatable and familiar, without that “too specific to be hypothetical” feeling that prior higher education-themed Tumblr accounts sometimes had. What I love most about Humans of Higher Ed, truly, is that their desire to lampoon this field that both challenges and entertains us comes from a place of wanting to do the work well. Successful parody is predicated on an appreciation of the form that one seeks to mimic; for HoHE, that appreciation extends to the profession that makes up their site.

Here, I talk to the three founders (noted here as M, B, and J for an added air of mystery) further about how the site came to be, their writing process, and where they hope to see the project go from here.

The Humans of Higher Ed concept, or any concept that seeks to ground work with a bit of humor, appeals to be because it is a reminder that we don’t work at the Pentagon or the CIA or anywhere that can’t allow for a bit of levity. Yes, the work we do is serious, but there are also moments of silliness – or moments that can be seen as silly. HoHE plays on those moments, and expands them to help others find them when they may need them most. In fact, it was that need to see those light moments that spurred the page’s creation.

M: I think the idea first came about back in February. I was in the midst of a crazy time of year with events so I may have had an extra chip on my shoulder – or, a nicer way of putting it, [in] need for an outlet. There was also something going on in the higher ed world on social media platforms. Honestly, I can’t remember what it was, I just remember thinking it would be fun to take all of those annoying things in my work life and put a positive spin on them. I had probably just had a meeting where we discussed meetings and meetings and meetings. So annoying and so relatable. Instead of my normal backhanded or passive aggressive tweet/Facebook post I thought let’s have fun with this!

J: M reached out to me, in what, February, and another colleague with the idea of a spoof Humans of New York account, focusing on our lives in higher ed. I jumped on it immediately, as I had been missing this kind of stuff from my days as an occasional freelancer for CronkNews, which was a bit more longform satire of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Writing and engaging with the Cronk folks throughout grad school and the beginning of my career helped really ground me in a field, I felt at times, was not a right fit for me.  It taught me that there is a lighter side to the sometimes serious work we do.  HofHE is just a continuation of that for me… continually looking at higher ed through a lens of humor in order to find ways to improve and do better.  I love to write humor, and I know I could never be a good actor or stand up comic.  I need the time and editing pen writing allows to refine a joke over and over until it hits just right.

B: I came on right after the page was launched, but I’ve got to imagine the inspiration was the need for a release valve. I’m what you could call a “short-timer” in this field, meaning I’m not going to be doing this the rest of my life. I’m not even really going to be working in true Student Affairs for the rest of this calendar year. And I can appreciate, now, that maybe if I’d had the cathartic release of writing for Humans of Higher Ed – skewering and poking at the madness we work in – maybe I wouldn’t be headed to Business School in the fall.

As I learned more about their writing process, I realized just how much of their work embraces the principles that are used in true parody writing. As you ape an art form in parody, you have to do so with an exactitude that allows only a few hairs to be out of place. The team embraces that as they write. 

M: When we first started writing these, we were all nervous about doing it daily. We were afraid we’d run out of content. That was such a silly thought. At first, we started making lists and saving drafts of upcoming topics to make sure we could fill every day. After about a week of this we realized we didn’t have to. There’s enough silly things going on in our world each and every day that we can just pick one of those. I think that’s my favorite part of the whole thing.

B: I think my favorite part is seeing how close we can get to making something completely accurate while also being completely absurd. That’s satire to me. That’s the balance. My favorite writer is Kurt Vonnegut, largely because nobody rides that fine line like he does. So I look at a situation that I’ve heard about, or experienced, or imagined, and I think “What can we do to ground this in reality but tweak one minute component to make it outlandish.” Because, frankly, after 10 years in student affairs, that’s how I view our whole field: Small, but beautiful, Real moments surrounded by a loaf of the Outlandish. The people who are most able to stomach the outlandish get to savor the most real moments.

J: At this point, B and M do a lot of the writing, and I try to pitch in wherever I can.  we all pitch in and improve and deliberate on pieces throughout the day, and find the best possible pictures for posts.  It’s the most chaotic, but hilariously fun, team effort I’ve been a part of, which I think is my favorite thing.  Our Facebook messenger chats are other worldly.

An inherent uncertainty in parody lies in its reliance on volume, which means that the response to HoHE posts is highly unpredictable. It’s difficult to know which jokes will “hit,” which ones will reveal themselves as funny to the reader later, and which ones will fly right by. 

M: I don’t think we truly ever know which jokes are going to hit. There’s been a couple times where we think something is so so funny and it just whiffs. Then there’s other times where it’s like an ‘OKAY’ joke and it blows up. One of our first posts was just about how younger professionals get confused for students all the time. It was a fine post. Funny enough. But definitely should not be our most shared, liked, viewed post. Sure is though! Our most successful posts is when we can really isolate the issue. Most of the issues that are frustrating in higher ed area also frustrating outside of higher ed. Meetings are a universal annoyance. So in my mind we write the frustration/joke/bit and then place a higher ed lens over it. It’s still for the Higher Ed community but can be digested and understood by all. Lately, we’ve also gotten into the habit of trying to do a pop culturesque post a week. Sprinkling in some Game of Thrones, Lemonade, Running Man, Kanye, whatever is happening we try to pepper that in. That’s enjoyable for the audience but is also just so much fun for us.

J: The stuff I’ve written, I’ve written from personal experience.  I looked back at some of the early posts I wrote when M first approached me, and its totally cringeworthy.  Completely.  Like, I was all excited that first day M approached me about it, but if I could burn a google doc, yeah, I would burn that one. But, having worked with M and B, and growing to really understand where we want to take this, what boundaries we want to push, and what boundaries we surprisingly push, I’ve learned a lot more.

B: I have also found that the audience is 100% unpredictable. One of our most surprising “rockets”, as I’ve taken to calling our most successful posts, was the grocery shopping post, with the picture of a cart full of junk food. I wrote that, almost 100% the way it was published, standing in line at Shaw’s buying snacks for that night’s RHA meeting. That was my actual shopping cart. In my head it was “yeah, this is one of those things people will look at and chuckle for a second and move on”, but it took off in every way. People were commenting about when/why they’ve had shopping carts like that, people were tagging their co-worker who does the shopping or hates junk food or had their pro-card privileges taken away, and it was a banner day for Likes. We had over 80 people subscribe to the Facebook page that day, which is a really, really, really solid day for us. Of course, that snack post was followed immediately by the Facilities post…

As you might guess, knowing both human nature and the nature of higher education over all, not all posts are hits. Humans of Higher Ed hasn’t launched without its fair share of critics, challenges, and…those who miss the point. But as is often the case with comedy, they are learning to take those moments in stride and let them inform the writing rather than deflate it.

M: None of the topics should feel ‘off limits’ or ‘too touchy.’ I think if we’re able to isolate the realness of it all, it should be on the table. The only time we really run into issues is when someone recognizes the behavior we’re calling out and (in my opinion) reacts negatively because they are either embarrassed that they feel they are being called out or just believe that behavior is accurate.

We had one post that was relatively controversial for the language that was used. I stand by the post. In retrospect, there were absolutely some tweaks that could have been made. It’s tricky writing for someone else’s POV. In this particular instance we didn’t clearly articulate who we thought this person was and because of that people (who probably already weren’t fans) were able to misconstrue the message. On a personal level, this was very difficult for me at first. 1. You don’t want to be in the business of marginalizing people. Not a good look. 2. It’s weird when a group of people come out and voice to the world ‘You’re not funny!’ ‘This is dumb!’

I think after that day we were a little gun-shy and  tried to stay away from anything that could be controversial! But that’s silly! This is why we created the page in the first place It doesn’t mean we’re right every time we call something out. We are just trying to show different POV’s and call out aspects of our world that often go uncalled.

J: The chalk post, the INFAMOUS chalk post, was a legit post. I brought the idea to the crew because I had just gotten done yelling in my boss’s office about a group that chalked on a vertical surface on our main academic building… assholes (leave that in)… and it was prime for a HofHe take.  B took the idea and ran with it in a beautiful, multifaceted, and layered piece that just kept giving me smiles.  They day we posted that in the Student Affairs Pros Facebook group and it got primarily decried as stereotyping and offensive (we even got blamed for mocking California’s drought situation, which I will never abide by, but the other issues people brought up I understand), was rough, but it never deterred me from wanting to continue.

B: Ah, the facilities post. Or, as I remember it, “the day the internet called me an oppressor.” J had seen a social media posting of someone’s vertical-surface chalking – it was posted from their official university account – and obviously, any facilities-minded person knows vertical-surface chalking is basically the worst. THE WORST. so we decided to write something about the rivalry between facilities and chalk, since most of our various shops use chalk on sidewalks as a major “social media platform” – which is still one of my favorite lines I’ve written for this project, by the way – and very rarely do we consider how our programs impact our partners in Facilities.

I’m a huge supporter of facilities, I was actually in interviews that week for a search committee for an assistant director position in our maintainers’ shop here. So when J pitched it, I decided to take the idea and write from the heart. My family lives between pig farms and sweet potato farms in rural North Carolina. My younger brother cleans industrial floors for a living, my older sister is a hotel maid. My father made sure asphalt was level on road construction crews. Me, though, I work a desk job where I mostly process the feelings of 20-year-olds and come up with spreadsheet formulas.

When I wrote the Facilities post, I was tapping into the voice of who I really feel like I should be, my own internalized workaday voice. Not the kind of voice I routinely have to use to feel like a professional, where I use obscure words like “workaday”. When I sent that Facilities post to M and J, I honestly never felt more secure in a post coming from a good place. I wrote that Facilities person as the hero of our joke. And then the internet took a huge shit all over my intentions. Because that’s what the internet does.

I remember one person in the Student Affairs Pros group complaining that I’d written the character as someone unable to read greek letters, despite the fact that I explicitly wrote a line indicating the hypothetical worker completely got it, but the greeks just suck at chalking their own logo. One person complained that I wrote it full of grammatical errors, when in reality I *thought* I had written it perfectly, intentionally, but apparently I have internalized saying something like “them boys” for so long it actually is correct to me.
J: We had no inkling of the impact of our intent on that one, but we are very on point with each other on posts that have a clear negative or derogatory intent – they won’t fly.  Obviously, we want to write something that pleases each person, but we also know the people we don’t please will never be pleased, and honestly, they are the reason why I have to write this humor, because they make our field that much more ridiculous and unfulfilling.

B: Has “the Facilities post” changed how I write, or how Humans of Higher Ed posts? I’d like to say it hasn’t. I don’t think we’ve walked any posts back from being offensive or actually oppressive, because we’re not writing those to start with. If I’d been sending the team really offensive stuff and then finding ways to bowdlerize it down to something that won’t trigger anyone, that’d be one thing, but we don’t start anywhere near that kind of material. Conversely, it has made me more intentional about the pictures we use. I often think if we’d had a different picture for the facilities worker, more in line with the photographic tone the project routinely uses, we wouldn’t have ruffled quite as many feathers. Bowdlerize is another one of those words I don’t know why I know.

I will also say: no such thing as bad press. On the day of the facilities post we had 14 people UnLike the facebook page, and 191 people Like it. By raw number of Likes, it is Humans of Higher Ed’s 3rd most successful day. So, as some people might say: Scoreboard.
But despite the occasional misfires and rough receptions, the team plans to continue, and wants to go even bigger in the future, telling funny stories that show even wider swaths of the higher ed experience.

B: Personally I’m looking forward to how we continue to push boundaries and come as close as possible to stepping on toes. I’d love to see us writing more posts that might not even feel funny. that goes back to my Vonnegut love – the shaggy dog stories that may not go anywhere but still take you for a ride. We’ve settled into a nice groove where Friday is experimental day, because we know from DATA ANALYTICS! that Friday is our lowest day for all sorts of ASSESSABLE METRICS! so if we swing and miss on Friday, who cares? At worst, we miss out on getting a handful of page Likes, at best we connect with a new style of post that gives us another branch on the creativi-tree. God I hate myself for writing that.

I do think we need to look at who we have on our writing team, with an eye towards expansion. I’d love to see us reach out to a woman, and it’d be great if we had a person of color. having three white cis-gender dudes write for an audience we know is exceptionally diverse is a treacherous proposition, but, honestly, where are you going to find a proven comedic talent that works in higher education who is a woman of color? where oh where could one such as this beeeeeee?

(And yes, Dear Reader, I know who that’s directed toward. B, I’m still weighing it. )
And as you continue to read their posts (or perhaps discover them for the first time), I want to again drive the point home that this exercise in parody comes from a good place. 
B: For me, the core voice I write with is “I love my work, but hate my job.” So this is an opportunity to give a voice to that part of my brain that sits in staff meetings and yells “WE JUST SPENT 20 MINUTES TALKING ABOUT WHAT KIND OF SNACK BOXES WE CAN HAVE AT TRAINING!” while I have to sit there and nod and at least pretend to be a non-contentious professional. Again, I’m drawn to the idea of a release valve.
M: We are all very lucky to work in this field. It’s important work. But if we can’t laugh at ourselves then what are we doing?

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