About 20 years ago, one of my undergrad profs, James Maas, was taken to task in the New York Times for being . . . funny. It was the one time I felt compelled to write a letter to the editor at the Times, which made it into print.
Granted, it was more Las Vegas than Ithaca, but education is not what one remembers for a test but what one remembers for life.
The substance remains educational. The delivery method, humor, makes you watch and pay attention. It may not work for everyone, but what does? On the other hand, humor doesn’t work for everyone either, and that’s never been more true than when every effort at humor is scrutinized for offense. That was accounting senior lecturer Catherine West Lowry’s downfall.
The complaints centered on a clip of a widely parodied scene from the German-language film Downfall, to which students had added English subtitles referring to Lowry’s class and accounting concepts. In the students’ parody, the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler threatens an adviser: “Don’t you dare finish that sentence or I’ll send you to a chamber. And it won’t be the chamber of commerce. I can guarantee that.” Also controversial was a video of students parodying the hip-hop song “Bust Down Thotiana,” which Lowry screened at the beginning of the semester.
Downfall parodies were pervasive for a while, though it’s been a few years since they’ve been popular. Dark humor? Perhaps, but clearly humor, even if not the particular flavor of every student. And one student didn’t like the taste very much.
She didn’t think anything of it until she got a call from her department chair. A student had spoken about the video with a rabbi on the campus, who had taken the concern to the dean of the Isenberg School of Management. Before long, Lowry said, she was called into a meeting with the dean, Anne P. Massey, who told her she’d need to step down from the course for the remainder of the semester, which ended on December 11.
While the one student was sufficiently concerned to speak with a rabbi, the student didn’t run to the administration screaming the he was traumatized. Yet, Dean Massey was so . . . concerned, upset, infuriated, afraid(?) that she removed Lowry from the class immediately, lest her mere presence evoke unsafe feelings. Mind you, UMass Amherst has a certain history of intolerance toward humor. Remember Harambe?
While there remain issues of academic freedom, not to mention first amendment free speech given that UMass is a state school, Lowry’s use of the Downfall parody video was clearly part of her pedagogical approach to making her intro accounting course even more fun than it normally is.
Some of the humor may have crossed a line, in the eyes of a few students. At one point, the Hitler subtitle read: “Don’t you dare finish that sentence or I’ll send you to a chamber. And it won’t be the chamber of commerce. I can guarantee that.”
And yet “there were people laughing,” one student told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “There were some people who were kind of indifferent. They didn’t really care. There were some people that, like, you could tell they were a little bit uneasy about it.”
“People sort of realized that that was a little over the top, maybe, for the classroom,” said another. “But generally, people laughed pretty hard at it [the video]. I certainly did.”
What constitutes humor is invariably subjective, often idiosyncratic. I never liked Andrew Dice Clay, as he was too crude for my tastes. So I didn’t watch him. Granted, a student in class might not have the option of flipping the channel, but then, suffering something one doesn’t find funny, particularly when one’s classmates do as evidenced by others “laughing pretty hard” at it, seems more like the current trend of searching for a reason to be offended than anything else.
More to the point, the lone “offended” student may not have been particularly offended at all, as he didn’t run to the administration to grieve but to the campus rabbi. Perhaps it was to question whether the line in the parody was inappropriate? Perhaps it was the rabbi who was more offended than the student? Perhaps neither the student nor rabbi were particularly troubled, but the campus rabbi was a mandatory reporter and felt compelled to report it even though no one thought it necessary to do so?
While Robby Soave concedes that “some of the humor may have crossed a line,” there is no simple discernible line when it comes to humor. UMass Amherst called it “objectively offensive,” which is the language used by the Supreme Court for Title IX conduct, but how does one apply that to humor? By its nature, what one person finds offensive, another finds funny, although these days there appears to be no humor that’s not likely to offend someone.
Yet, Dean Massy’s response was more than a bit extreme, if not unlawful. She could have asked, even directed, Lowry to stop showing the Downfall parody. She might have sought an apology, which is de rigueur these days in academia. Instead, she dropped the big bomb and removed Lowry from her classroom, in a course she had taught for years, for showing a video made by a student that she had shown for years, all without incident.
“This was an educational opportunity at a major research university. It’s just unfortunate that the university did not take advantage of this educational opportunity. Instead, they chose to follow a punitive process, which doesn’t really help anybody,” Lowry said. “I could have easily dealt with this, if I had been afforded that opportunity. They made a snap judgment and really trampled the reasonable processes we have in place here.”
While Lowry may pursue her free speech rights against the school for its terminating her, it seems absurd that it would require such extreme redress for such a petty concern. If Dean Massey doesn’t want her showing the Downfall parody anymore, as a management prerogative in directing her employment conduct, there might be an academic freedom issue worthy of discussion, but that Lowry was removed for such a piddling and easily resolvable issue reflects a depth of academic absurdity and sensitivity that spells the death of any attempt to inject humor into education. Because college isn’t boring enough already.