Thursday, July 28, 2016

That's Entertainment!

Back when I was a kid, my parents dragged us to religious discourses where pundits interpreted the holy texts for us nincompoop believers.  Pulavar Keeran and Kirubanandha Variyar were the kind of people who helped me understand the role of religion and about India's rich literary history as well.  The good student that I was, I loved their interpretations of the fine points.  As one who has always enjoyed humor, I particularly relished the jokes the speakers employed.

My late great-uncle, who could easily lecture about many of the texts, often sarcastically remarked that most people who went to those lectures went there only for entertainment--for the stories and the jokes.  If the attendees were asked about what those lecturers said, they would merely respond with "they spoke well," the great-uncle joked with intensity.

Over the decades, it seems like every aspect of life has become more and more about entertainment.  Even a memorial service to remember the departed has to be entertaining.  Churches use PowerPoint slides with cartoon images and emojis.  With a reality show entertainer as the presidential candidate, we have rendered politics the ultimate theatre of tragicomedy.

When such is the external environment, is it any surprise that students expect teachers to be entertainers in the classroom?  Of course, I take my awful sense of humor to my classes, and pun away, triggering groans, even while making sure that I help students understand the world.

But, the final day of the class last term, I decided that I needed to speak the truth.  After the initial few minutes of making sure everything about the final exam was discussed, I calmly and steadily launched into the message.

"After the first day of introductions, many of you commented that you felt like I was doing a stand-up comedy routine" I said.  Students, not knowing what was coming, smiled and nodded perhaps thinking that I had prepared an entertaining spiel for them.

"My humor is a facade.  In reality, I am an insanely serious guy.  If not for the sense of humor, I would have died at least twenty years ago."

I had the students' attention.  In a steady voice, I continued.

"It is with that humor that I often joked about students who skip class meetings.  I made snide remarks about how students do not care."

There was no more joking around.

"All those funny remarks were because it really, really bothers me that students skip meetings.  It really, really bothers me students attend class but then are texting, Facebooking, Instagramming, or even sleeping."

The students were listening.

"I share with friends and neighbors what goes on in a university like this, about students and faculty.  Most of my neighbors hate paying taxes.  And they hate even more that their tax money is being wasted like this."

"More than anything else, your behavior affects the learning environment in the classroom.  I might come prepared with an activity in mind, but that goes kaput because there aren't enough students, or because students have not come prepared."

I laid out my case.  And then wrapped it up with, "based on the last few weeks, I have no confidence that the rest of the class time will be productive.  So, we are done.  Thank you all."

Slowly most students filed out through the door that was away from me.  A couple of students walked up to me. One said, "I wish you had said this like in week five."  I shrugged my shoulders.  "I know what you mean.  But, like I have always told students, I treat them as adults, and adults have responsibilities.  Thanks for your comment."

I have started working on the syllabi for the upcoming year, even though there are a few weeks of the summer break left.  I am sure that I will take with me the sense of humor that has kept me alive for the last twenty years, and which will keep me here for a few more.  But, I am acutely aware that in a world in which people are so eager to hand over their money to entertainers, even a Variyar will have to fight hard in order to get people to listen.

Nobody cares a shit!

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