Saturday, February 25, 2017

Constructing the syllabus: the agony, the ecstasy, the comedy

"Dying is easy--comedy is hard," said somebody I haven't been able to identify, but whoever it was ought to have added that writing a comedy syllabus is even harder.

I've taught several varieties of comedy classes, from a first-year seminar on comedy theory to an upper-level comedy writing workshop, but the syllabus that causes the most anguish is the sophomore-level literature course called Concepts of Comedy.

I created the course and I've taught it several times already, but every new version brings more difficult decisions. The problems are manifold: the course counts toward the English major but also fulfills two General Education requirements (literary analysis and writing proficiency), so it fills up with students who think the class will be an easy way to get those little L's and W's on their transcripts. I mean, how difficult could a comedy class be? They know comedy--they know every funny meme that drifts by on Facebook, and they've been watching funny movies ever since they learned how to bypass the parental controls on their parents' Netflix accounts.

And then they see the syllabus, which is sadly lacking in Facebook memes and funny movies. The class may watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail as part of the mock-heroic unit, but the syllabus suggests that what they'll mostly be doing is reading. Like, books and stories and plays and even, heaven help us, poems written by people they've never heard of or cared to read, like James Thurber and Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker and--gulp--William Shakespeare.

So the first day of class tends to be pretty awful, as students expecting an easy ride suddenly realize that they've signed up for a literature class and will therefore be expected to read literature. And the worst part is that they don't find most of the reading the least bit funny.

I can understand students who don't find Shakespeare funny: they lack the vocabulary and cultural background to understand the wordplay and allusions, and explaining doesn't always help. But I don't understand students who don't find Douglas Adams funny, or who dismiss The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with tl;dr. 

Past versions of my Concepts of Comedy syllabus are littered with works I don't ever again want to expose to students, not because the books will harm the students but because the students' responses harm the books and break the teacher's heart. They've found Nathanael West depressing and Douglas Adams incomprehensible and Richard Russo boring (!) and Sherman Alexie both boring (!!) and juvenile, and what do you do with students who can't laugh at Sherman Alexie?

So now I'm thinking about the syllabus for this fall's version of the class, and I don't know what novel to assign. We must have a novel. Yes, we'll read a bunch of short stories and poems and a couple of plays, but at some point we need to submit to the discipline of reading a big fat book that helps to expand our understanding of comedy in literature and culture.

Russo's Straight Man works well because it deals directly with rhetorical use of comedy in the midst of a madcap, moving series of events in the life of an English professor, but it's getting dated and there's a bit of casual racism toward the end that gets less funny every time I read it--and besides, students prefer a protagonist they find "relatable," which, if it means anything, means "not an English professor."

They might prefer the protagonist of Robert Gipe's novel Trampoline, a high-school girl with a delightful narrative voice redolent of Appalachia, but students who found Alexie too "juvenile" won't like Gipe any better. It would be really interesting to pair Trampoline with Huckleberry Finn and compare how their youthful protagonists find a path through the hazards of a culture gone crazy, but then I'd have to devote significant amounts of class time to Huck Finn's racial baggage.

One advantage of a brand-new, low-profile novel like Trampoline: students won't be able to find summaries and pre-digested analyses online, so they'll just have to read it--even if they refuse to find funny.  


Stacey Lee Donohue said...

I don't envy you, Bev. But now you've challenged me. What novels do I find "funny"? My guess is your students may not, but...
1. Dear Committee Members (an updated Russo?)
2. The Princess Bride (have fun storming the castle!)
3. A Prayer for Owen Meany (that Xmas pageant scene!)

Ok, that's it. Clearly I have no sense of humor....

Let us know what you decide!


Bev said...

Interesting suggestions. I like Dear Committee Members, which pulls back the curtain on our peculiar lives, features memorable rants, and is fairly short. I haven't read The Princess Bride but I know my students are familiar with the movie (which means they may not bother reading the book). Owen Meany...I can see using a section of the novel, but he's hard to take in large doses. I wish I had a long enough semester to teach all of these!

Stacey Lee Donohue said...

All true about all 3. Trust me that I wish I had your semester. We are on quarters (10 weeks) so struggle with 3 novels.

Stop all the Complaining said...

Perhaps you could use "The Martian" by Andy Weir. The movie version won "Best Comedy" at the Golden Globes last year, so, despite all appearances, I'm sure it is in fact a comedy.

Bev said...

Interesting suggestion. I've seen the movie but haven't read the book. I'll have to take a look.

Anonymous said...

Joy in the Morning. First they read it and then you tell them the circumstances under which it was written.