I conducted an experiment in the Comedy class this semester and I wasn't sure whether to call it a success until I sat down to grade this pile of reading quizzes I've been avoiding since last Monday. The truth is in the quizzing, and this time it's a happy truth: they got it--they really got it.
The experiment arose accidentally while I was assembling the reading list: because we had Sherman Alexie coming to campus this fall, I wanted students to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is much shorter than the novel I used last time I taught the class, so I ended up with a week's worth of class sessions with no reading assignments. I recalled the most common complaints from students last time I taught the class: "This isn't funny--when can we read something we like?"
I wondered what would happen if I gave the students a chance to choose some readings--but I wouldn't want to hand the entire semester over to them because I feared they would delete Don Quijote in favor of "Mean Tweets."
But why not give them a few days? I left those days blank on the syllabus and asked students to submit short readings or brief audio or video clips (no more than 5 minutes), which I then arranged into a reasonable order and posted on the course management system. On the days devoted to those readings and clips, students had to explain what principles of comedy were illustrated by their submissions.
I feared that I'd have to deal with a pile of obscene video clips or lame Facebook memes, but no: they came through with an eclectic and interesting variety of material. We watched some Mean Tweets, but we also read an excerpt from Jonathan Tropper's novel This Is Where I Leave You, watched Chris Farley parody motivational speakers, laughed as Steve Carell drove a car into a lake (because his gps told him to), listened to Uncle Ruckus explain what slavery was really like, and sang along to the Angry Browns Fans' Christmas Album. It was an absolute hoot.
But did we learn anything? The quizzes I've just graded asked students to return to a principle we discussed in the first week of the semester--"A shared joke is a shared world"--and write about what sort of shared world two of the student submissions suggested. And you know what? They did great. They correctly employed analytical vocabulary we've been developing all semester long, and they demonstrated critical thinking skills as they examined the values conveyed by various submissions.
I worry a lot about that class, because most of the students are taking it for General Education credit and aren't terribly committed to literary analysis. Will they take away any useful skills or concepts, or will they forget everything the minute they see that little L on their transcripts? This assignment suggests that if nothing else, they can think critically about the comedy they encounter in their everyday lives.
Also, if the gps says drive into the lake, don't.