When this blog posting goes up, I will be in Pittsburgh at CCCC celebrating Cheryl Glenn’s brilliantly deserved Exemplar Award and reveling in what looks to be the most diverse and exciting program in years: bravo to Vershawn Young!
I will surely be writing about the conference in the weeks to come, reporting on what I have taken away from as many sessions as I can possibly attend. But for now, I am thinking of Stanford’s students at this time of year: what I call the end-of-winter-term-doldrums. They are up to their ears in midterms and working furiously to finish up their research-based multimodal arguments that I always assign. They have spring break to look forward to but after that is the long, slow slog of spring term, which stretches well into June. So they are often in a fairly desperate mood—and could use some comic relief.
I was thinking of these students when my 14-year-old grandniece told me that she had finally gotten to see BlacKKKlansman and it was Spike Lee’s genius use of humor that kept her from screaming throughout the film: “it’s the most impactful movie I’ve ever seen,” she told me. I was also thinking of students during a Saturday Night Live sketch when the brilliant Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant could not keep themselves together and broke up while playing the owners of “Smokery Farms Meat Gift Delivery Service” who complained about way too many heartwarming stories about animals, like “Pig Teaches Deaf Dog to Bark.” The audience was in stitches, whether over the characters McKinnon and Bryant were playing or the fact that they couldn’t keep a straight face while delivering these joke lines. I hope a lot of students were watching in and got one of the best gifts of life, which is a good, long laugh.
I’ve found that loosening up the syllabus a little during this time of the term and asking students to have some fun always pays off by giving them some comic relief that can release some of the stress they are feeling. So we might take that joke headline from Bryant and McKinnon and write joke headlines of our own, comparing them to ones we can find in The Onion or fake/clickbait headlines we can find online. The funnier, the better. Trying our hands at parody can also be lots of fun: a group of students in one of my classes made a parodic video of our class that left us all laughing with and at ourselves.
At other times I might go for an imitation exercise, asking students to imitate an author they really admire (or really can’t stand) and to do so by writing the opening of a children’s story in the style of that author. Here’s one student (a chemistry major!) telling the opening of “The Three Little Pigs” in the style of Edgar Allan Poe:
It began as a mere infatuation. I admired them from afar, with a longing that only a wolf may know. Soon, these feelings turned to torment. Were I even to set eyes upon their porcine forms, the bowels of my soul raged, as if goaded by some festering poison. As the chilling winds of November howled, my gullet yarned for them. I soon feasted only upon an earnest and consuming desire for the moment of their decease.
This student had read four or five Poe stories, noting vocabulary choices and figures of speech like similes, and he read the stories aloud trying to capture some of the rhythm. Then he wrote his imitation—much to the delight of everyone in the class, many of whom tried to outdo him with their own over-the-top imitations.
Taking a light-hearted break from the grinding demands of the quarter system always paid off for me and my students. It gave us a chance to take a deep breath, enjoy some good laughs, and then return to the end of term rigors feeling at least a little bit refreshed. As Shakespeare demonstrates in his most devastating tragedies, some comic relief is good for the soul.