|EDINBURG, April 7 - We all know “kids say the ‘darndest’ things.” So do my college-age “kids.” In fact, they say, do, know, don’t know, oh, so many things.
You may have seen lists from time to time of funny, even bizarre answers by students on essay examinations. On one of my essays: “A Standing Committee in the Congress is one that stands up when it wants to talk and sits back down when through.”
Or, in Foreign Policy class, “the Marshall Plan (for European recovery, after World War II) was headed by John Marshall.” (No, he was the early, influential Supreme Court Chief Justice.) So, a non-major may get confused. Other goofs, in Constitutional Law, are more predictable: “’Habeas Corpus’ means you have to have a dead body to prove a murder.”
All have their favorites. A former colleague was surprised to hear his lecture on Soviet Union politics and history coming back to him a bit altered: “Lenin had trouble organizing the people for revolution because the bulk of the population was pheasant and surfs.” Or, lest we forget the immortal truth, captured by professor and author, Anders Henriksson: “During the Dark Ages it was mostly dark” (Non Campus Mentis, Workman Publisher, 2001).
My own attempts at deliberate humor in the classroom are less than satisfying. I try to use the right pun or joke at the right time. Some corny metaphors, I often forget, are hopelessly out of date. For example, certainly it has been a long time since “pig in a poke” worked (about buying an over-promising candidate’s “line”) I grew up on a farm. My students, mostly, did not.
Often the humor happens unexpectedly. In the early days of cell phones, one student’s ring tone went off in class. (They are, generally, good about silencing them nowadays.) It was Beethoven’s sweet, melancholic, opening bars of “Für Elise.” I blurted out to the young lady: "An ‘A’ in the course if you can tell me what that song is and who composed it."
Yes, I took a chance, but I would have kept my promise. My guess was right; SHE DIDN’T KNOW! A few other students did; I was glad. I opined: “Had it been “La cucaracha, la cucaracha,” you would have known.” The students cracked up. Perhaps some learning, as well as manners, was achieved that day.
Even the students’ cynicism about politics can be useful. A doble sentido, (double meaning) often does the trick. I was sad they didn’t know the Biblical “Golden Rule.” (“Love God; love your neighbor as yourself.”) But I was surprised they actually did know the other, more cynical Golden Rule: “He who has the gold, rules.” We could then talk about the role of big money in campaigns, indeed, the influence of NRA money or oil money in our capitalistic society.
I often use some Spanish; it helps; many of my students are bi-lingual. It plays a major part in my teaching attempts. “Politics,” for example, comes from the Greek term “Polis,” the City-State, meaning the aspirations and affairs of society. It is “política” in Spanish, or simply, “policy.” It helps me teach them politics is not a negative thing, but a positive, normal, matter - hopefully to be studied and practiced well - meaning, necessarily, the “art of compromise.”
I even have fun with the Spanish “ojalá” Mexican Americans use so often. They mean “I hope,” or “I wish,” as in “gonna pass the test”? Or, as in “gotta date for this weekend?” “Ojalá!” They may not have known It is a prayer to Alláh, the Islamic name for the same God Christians and Jews worship. I commend them for being pluralistic and multi-lingual.
“You are amazing. You speak Arabic. “You even WRITE Arabic.” They demur, puzzled. Then I write on the board the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, i.e., Arabic numerals. I can then (in a topic on foreign policy, or about war hawks in U.S. government, go on to ask if it is appropriate to “bomb back to the stone-age” Iraq, Iran, or other Middle Eastern countries, from whence came civilization. It can allow me to segway into, say, a discussion of the need to recognize the State of Palestine, in order to fulfill justice and to try to end tension and violence in the Middle East.
Sometimes the cultural backgrounds help. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the humor is in what students think or say. Sometimes it comes from what they DON’T know. I announced an event. (I give extra credit if the student not only goes but writes a short essay on the speech.) I said, “it will meet in the Social Science Building Auditorium at noon today.”
One student (I found out there were others) asked “when does it meet?” I was now the puzzled one. I repeated: “at noon.” He did not know what “noon” meant! The other students laughed. Yes, they can be cruel, which is why many students won’t ask questions. But I was happy that one student, at least, had learned one useful thing that day.
I don’t despair—well, not too much. But I am often startled at what students don’t know. (John F. Kennedy is, of course, ancient history. All they know of Reagan or Clinton are a few stereotypes. But, that’s what we’re for. We teach them, together with our colleagues in history and other disciplines. We don’t, or shouldn’t put them down for lack of specifics. We teach specifics (of U.S. government, Latin American politics) but, mainly, we hope to teach love of learning, increased skills in critical thinking, speaking and writing. Humor, in its many forms, can help us to reach them. It can help us all to get through the day and through life.
Also, not to be forgotten, a strong minority of students do, in fact, “get it.” The European lad, Rafael Calles, of whom I have spoken often in these columns, gave me the tip about how to put the umlaut punctuation - the two little dots - with the word processor over the U in “Für Elise.” Who would have known? Not me. He and other majors (pre-Ph.D., pre-Law, or other advanced degrees) will help with an important Social Science conference planned for April 11-13, 2013, at the University of Texas—Pan American, in Edinburg. (The public is invited.)
Those students make wading through the faux pas and malapropisms of so many others tolerable. Even those latter students who try so hard, who leave us humor, have given us something to strive for. That something is the joy of helping them learn. And just remember, as Professor Henriksson recorded, (with Santayana turning in his grave): “Those who forget the past are condemned to eat it.” Professors have class and how wonderful it is that students still humor us.
Dr. Gary Mounce is political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. His columns appear regularly in the Rio Grande Guardian.