Joe's Corner - Teaching History through Humor and Literature
A couple were leaving the White House after a party. The woman said: I would like to say goodbye to the president.” Her husband said: “Who wouldn’t?” (Helitzer, 27)
Hitler and Goering stand on top of Berlin’s radio tower as Allied planes rain bombs on a city in ruins as Germany is on the brink of defeat. Hitler says he wants to do something to cheer up the people of Berlin. Goering suggests: Why don’t you jump?” (Dorinson, 210)
Growing up absurdly in Brooklyn; I remember Mama
As a youngster, I played the class clown. I craved attention. Based on the premise, anything for a laugh, I drove my many teachers crazy, especially the martinets, while entertaining classmates with crossed eyes, unsolicited commentary, shout-outs, and imitation of surly supervisors. I stopped short of emulating a classmate who pleasured himself in the back of our 8th grade home room while our young teacher sat at her desk oblivious to, or pretending to be, of our excessively hormonal mate’s antics as we looked on with hilarious disbelief. Laughter helped me cope with a troubled childhood. With psychiatric intervention, I came to terms with various demons through often painful critical self-examination and humor. In Worsdworthian tranquility, I can conjure up several examples.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I needed relief in a family fraught with tension. My father never earned enough money to please my demanding mother. That led to frequent arguments and occasional violence. Though viewing me, their only son, as a passport to happiness, my parents rarely showed any overt affection to each other. I began to suspect that I might be a product of immaculate conception. I did fulfill some of their dreams when I scored entry into one of America’s premium high schools named after Peter Stuyvesant, a notorious anti-Semite in New Amsterdam, whose students, ironically, were primarily Jewish in the 1950s. When I made Arista in high school, my mother wanted to know why. Proudly, one of the seven deadly sins–indeed the worst one–I explained that I qualified due to a 92-grade average, performed school service, and possessed a good character. Underwhelmed, she replied in her pronounced Russian accent, despite 30 years in America, that everyone in our Williamsburg neighborhood knew me as a character. Moreover, she wanted to know why I did not earn a 100 average. The only time she accepted less than 100 from me was when she took my temperature. Finally, to prove my record of service, she ordered me to take out the garbage to the incinerator. Hard to please and quick to anger, she was my mother. I loved my parents but did not always show sufficient affection. To this motherlode of guilt, I plead guilty with an explanation that follows.
As a Columbia College freshman, I chose pre-med as my major. I did fairly well during my first year with a solid B+ average. As a sophomore, however, I slumped with a failure in physics, thus ending my dreams to emulate Dr. Kildare and my bid for Phi Beta Kappa. I went to the Physics professor, who doubled as my pre-med advisor, seeking an explanation and possible revision of the “F” grade. Pondering my request, he almost relented but felt compelled to let it stand. In retrospect, Professor Sachs, who had a speech impediment that made his r’s sound like z’s, pezumably, cleared his conscience. Hence, with one stroke of his pen, he saved my life—and thousands I might have killed through malpractice. Ashamed, I did not inform my ambitious parents until mid-June. Feeling betrayed and bereft, they sat Shiva (ritual of mourning). So, I switched to pre-law with a major in history.
In graduate school, humor saved me during a rigorous oral examination for a PhD, I never completed. I had already passed my written comprehensive plus two foreign language exams, each on the third and last try. Eager to complete this next to last ordeal, I was understandably nervous when a specialist in my field failed to arrive on time because he had overslept. As the interrogation went on, I did adequately on early American History, competently on modern American History, aced Russian History, and faced a persnickety professor from Princeton on leave at Columbia. He grilled me on a variety of subjects that I managed to handle effectively if not brilliantly. Sensing my discomfort, he pushed my buttons so to speak with a question about Napoleon as a political ruler of France. I ran off pertinent facts that I memorized from the Langer Encyclopedia of European History. “Tell us about the Napoleonic Code?” Beaded with perspiration, I wanted to say something witty along with dry facts for the appropriate knockout blow. I cited reforms in education, religion, science including the metric system, tolerance of minorities but added male supremacy as a less enlightened reform. “Explain that last statement!” he demanded. Insouciantly, I replied: “Haven’t you seen Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire? All the gathered dons exploded in laughter. Evidently, they got it and the “Grand Inquisitor” belatedly displayed bemusement with his peers. I passed the orals barely. But humor per se did not help me to write a dissertation.
Teacher by trade and default
I became a teacher minus the PhD. My mother continued to nag me. Still a bachelor in my early 30s after a series of aborted romances and some brutal breakups engineered by les belles dames sans merci, I failed her again. Several male roommates regularly listened into my testy phone conversations with my Yiddishe momma. They enjoyed my painfully funny discourse. One Sunday morning, she called and started with her usual krechtz (groan). “Joseph, it looks like you will never make me a grandmother.” “Why do you say that?” I countered. “Because,” she responded aggressively, “you will become impotent. You are running out of juice!” Staggered, by this new assault on my independent manhood, I repeated her assertions to my mates. Somewhere between anger and aggression, I reassured her that I had everything under control. “Each day, mother dearest, I drink four glasses of orange juice.” Even after I married at age 32, she kept nagging. “When are you getting carpet for your apartment?” Thus, she reaffirmed Woody Allen’s observation that Jews religiously worship God and carpeting. Still bereft of that amenity, which would furnish her formula for a happy marriage–no magic carpet ride from her rebellious son–she reverted to a prior plea as my wife and I were driving her home in our car. She popped the question regarding grandchildren, again. Leaning backward., I admonished her. “Where are your priorities! First carpeting, then children!” Bent on having the last word, she assumed the guise of a wounded bird. “Oh, so you are making fun of your mother.” Quietly, I realized that fun had proved a key to my survival.
Comedy: Learning by Doing
When I ventured into stand-up comedy at three clubs in New York, I used my Oedipal conflict as a source for comedy. Friends had always appreciated my mother-son banter. I was their Portnoy. They laughed as I suffered. Why not channel pain into comedy? In 1984, I took a course in comedy at Brooklyn College in the evening session with a junior high school science teacher moonlighting as a comedian/musician. For our final exam, students had to perform live at a local night club called Pips in Sheepshead Bay. We prepared a ten-minute routine. I invited my history students to attend for extra credit. Even my boss, the Chairman of LIU’s history Department showed up to show support. I knew the MC who was then dating my wife’s colleague at a local elementary school. Before, I took the stage, I heckled the MC and he retorted in kind. Patrons seemed to enjoy our exchange and I took the podium with unusual composure. I don’t recall the whole routine, but my mother did figure in that and future routines. I introduced myself as a teacher with self-deprecating patter. I indicated, untruthfully, that there are three reasons motivating my vocational choice, Christmas, Easter, and two months in the summer. I recalled my early years as a substitute teacher in a tough neighborhood. The kids stole hubcaps from moving cars. I observed the eating patterns in the night club as well as in Chinese restaurants. Most folks like to share food in the latter eatery. That’s how you can tell a WASP. He’s the only one who won’t share.
Muses for Inspiration
As a teacher, I incorporated dramatic flair and the. human comedy thanks to my favorite teacher at Columbia University, James Patrick Shenton. Unlike most professors, he never read from notes. Instead, he spoke spontaneously, looking at students directly except when reading from illuminating texts. He put the books down and would explain their significance with heightened emotion. I copied his ideas, mannerisms, and passionate delivery: all embodied in a labor of love. He taught by example, sharing his experience as a medic during World War II in lieu of combat as a conscientious objector. One other source of inspiration for my pedagogy can be traced to comedian Lennie Bruce. Watching him perform in 1963, listening to his LP records, and reading his “bits” as transcribed by John Cohen proved transformative. (Cohen, 101-139) Fortified by several successful guest lecture appearances at a local college and educational courses taken at night at CCNY or “Circumcised Citizens of New York” as Lenny Bruce joked, I was ready. Lesson plans helped to chart the way.
Teaching with Emotion
In early American History, influenced by Prof. Shenton, I introduced two polarities stemming from a common Puritan past in New England. One, exemplified by the brilliant if trouble theologian Jonathan Edwards who abandoned his staid scholarly Ivy League education in favor of evangelical fervor as part of “The Great Awakening” that swept through the colonies from1719 to 1748 with recurrent waves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He famously or infamously crafted a sermon “Thy Foot Shall Slide in Due Time” teeming with “fire and brimstone.” Unfortunately, Edwards pushed his hell-fire sermons past the boiling point leading to community divisiveness, mental collapse, even suicide. Fired from his post, Edwards served in a temporary parish post on the frontier before summoned to the presidency of Princeton. Self-inoculated with a crude form of smallpox vaccine, he died before a promising opportunity for redemption among the more rational Protestant elites. Aping his style, I delivered the same sermon, “Thy Foot Shall Slide in Due Time,” calling on individual students by name who did poorly on their midterm exams for repentance and recommitment to study in harmony with the Protestant work ethic. Failing to heed my doctrinal advice, I painted a vivid version of Dante’s Inferno awaiting “Sinners in the Hands of as Angry God.” ( Pearce, 362-379)
The Importance of Being Benjamin Franklin
In a comparison lecture with the tragic convert to evangelicalism, I sculpted a profile of Ben Franklin as the “Quintessential American” who emerged from the same New England matrix, warts and virtues in high relief. Rooted in Massachusetts culture like Jonathan Edwards, he found liberation in Philadelphia, where he rose from proverbial rags to real riches by following a fixed formula with profound variations on the theme of success. With folk wisdom, pragmatic Puritanism, extreme frugality he crafted via Brother Richard Saunders a most ingenious paradigm. “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man, healthy, wealthy, and wise”—and dull. So, Franklin violated his own canon in pursuit of pleasure, betraying his betrothed his fiancé Deborah Reed (later, his wife), frequenting ladies of commercial affection, and siring at least one bastard son. According to his most abrasive critic, author D.H. Lawrence, who called him out and pilloried his goody-bag of pithy proverbs as the epitome of hypocrisy, which he trumpeted as American core values. (Lawrence, ch.2) On the positive side of the Franklin coin, he was an enlightened thinker, a Deist in religion who supported the separation of church and state, promoted science, public education for students of all ages, and practical invention. He flew a kite to prove that lightning produced dangerous electrical currents and applied that finding to develop lightning rods. Franklin developed a stove that bears his name that piped carbon waste outside one’s home and sometimes into a neighbor’s as well as a better catheter to bypass a kidney stone in excretion of urine, a condition that plagued his brother in 1752. He invented a musical instrument powered by water and an armonica made of glass. He developed bifocals and promoted education for learners of all ages. Franklin retired from his various business operations, including printing, at age 45 and devoted the rest of his life, 39 years, to public service. Of course, he is best remembered as a major force behind the foundation of an independent America by way of revolution in the Continental Congress and later, as U.S. Ambassador to France, where he “mooched” much money from the soon-to-be bankrupt French government while charming the ladies and French aristocrats with his worldly wit and American coonskin cap as the quintessential American. (Garraty, Portfolio two,)
Best of all for teaching purposes, I focused on Franklin’s bawdy side. In my lectures, I invoked Franklin’s penchant for farting as an example of poor diet that led to both flatulence and gout. It also provided an outlet for a witty application to the Royal Academy of Brussels in 1772 for a prize given to an inventor who would render farting pleasurable through perfume added to food to eliminate the stench so that one could fart proudly as he put it and eliminate the extreme difficulty of bottling up one’s gas in polite company. What good is it know the complete works of Aristotle if one suffers constantly, he argued cogently. Finally, to titillate students, I had them read Franklin’s letter to his son regarding the importance of marriage. If his son, probably illegitimate, persisted in bachelorhood, Father Ben advised him to take up with older women, offering a logical discourse of reasons, larded with scientific evidence, culminating in the final rationale: “They are so grateful!” The document reflects the multifaced Franklin, revealing his male chauvinism to be sure; but, rendered with pragmatic logic laced with humor, it displays a binary that courses through American culture. As Poor Richard, he was extremely frugal, even duplicitous; a brother who would not even spare a dime. As elder statesman, successful entrepreneur, ingenious inventor, self-educated public intellectual, however, Franklin offered a paradigm for a pragmatic American future. (Fart Proudly)
A Key to Understanding Hamilton: Gods Stand Up for Bastards!
In trying to convey the mixed legacy of another founding father in the American Revolution, I turned to Alexander Hamilton, recently promoted to superstar status by Ron Chernow’s biography and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hip-Hop musical. A hero in Columbia College annals—I took most of my undergraduate courses in Hamilton Hall—the precocious Alexander graduated from Columbia’s previously named King’s College. An outstanding student, Hamilton followed Franklin’s paradigm or model for success: good education, hard work, and advantageous marriage into the wealthy Schuyler family. After noting his extraordinary achievements as soldier, financier, politician, statesman, George Washington’s favorite speech writer and spell checker, primary co-author of the Federalist Papers, and suicidal dualist, I tried to frame his life in Shakespearian terms.
John Adamas, in letter to Richard Rush, fulminated against his former associate, Hamilton, who he called “a bastard brat of a Scots peddler.” Bastard? I found my hook in these words: (William Shakespeare, “Thou, Nature, Art My Goddess,” spoken by Edmund, Act 1, Scene 2)
My mind is generous, and my shape as true, As honest madam’s issue?
Why brand they us with base? With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund,
Now, gods stand up for bastards!
Legitimacy was Hamilton’s goal; bastardy, his heritage. Though his mother Rachel married a Jewish merchant on the island of St. Croix named Johann Michael Lavien or Levine, she never obtained a divorce before fleeing a troubled marriage and imprisonment for “whoredom” and fleeing to Nevis Island where she lived with James Hamilton who fathered Alexander out of wedlock. There is evidence that until age of 13, he was educated at a Jewish Day School according to historian Andrew Porwancher. Pointing out facets of this complex figure in American History, I shared my preference for Thomas Jefferson, despite slavery that marred his reputation. Citing Richard Hofstadter’s assessment in his magisterial book, The American Political Tradition, my secular bible at Columbia, I argued that while “Hamilton schemed to get children into factories, Jefferson planned school systems. While Hamilton valued institutions and abstractions, Jefferson valued people and found no wealth more important than life. “If he had gone astray as to means, he had least kept his eyes on his original end—the pursuit of happiness.” (Hofstadter, 43) At the end of my summation, an elderly student of fifty plus years seeking a second career through education, stood up and applauded. Younger students arose in concert to applaud alongside of this African American gentleman. Somewhat embarrassed by this emotional response, I asked: “Are you cheering for Hamilton? “No. We are cheering for you.” Deeply touched, I left the room beaming. After that moment, over forty years ago, I never regretted my choice to teach instead of a career in medicine or law.
Adding Music, Poetry, and Drama to the Mix
On a roll, I devised new ways to inform as well as entertain my students. Prof. Shenton deftly employed music to enrich lectures on the American Civil War and the “Roaring Twenties.” In the last day of our American History part one semester ending with the Civil War, I summed up the contest through music. Though staunchly pro-Union and anti-slavery, I presented both sides though song. So, back in the 1960s before cassettes and streaming, I brought in long playing records (LPs). I played a composite of Confederate songs (now justly out of favor) and Union Songs. Starting with secession, I offered “Dixie” and “Goober Peas,” followed by mostly pro union songs, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” Marching through Georgia.” “and closed with “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “John Brown’s Body” with printed lyrics for a sing-along. The humor issued from “Goober Peas,” a reference to the southern diet, laden with peanuts and the noisy sounds that it produced through excretions of gas reprised in the Mel Brooks classic, Blazing Saddles, which I show to my classes in humor. (Tribute to America Song Book, 20-49)
In my lecture on the ”Roaring 20s, also borrowed from Prof. Shenton, I summon the services of a female student dressed as a flapper while I, garbed in a fake fur coat, sporting a hip flask (filled with apple juice now), dance a mean Charleston while jazz music issues from a phonograph. After a swig of libation, I conjure up the witty words of Will Rogers, H. L. Mencken, and Dorothy Parker to illuminate the bright side of this tumultuous decade. Then, gradually I throw light on the darker side: Ku Klux Klan, now popular in Northern states, fulminating against Jews, lynching blacks, and harassing women. “All right. We are two nations…” re: John Dos Passos on the unfair trial and legal lynching of two Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. I explore the rise and fall of Bessie Smith, the expatriate literature of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and close with lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but with a whimper.”(Leuchtenburg, chapters 2,4, 8-9)
I followed this approach on “The Great Depression.” In a 1965 summer school class at Columbia University, I found a talented student named Arthur Miller (no relation to the playwright) who played guitar and sang. For extra credit, I lured him into a joint operation in which I would lecture on this troubled decade and signal him with certain word cues. He would sing. I would encourage other students to sing along. We started with the Jay Gorney/Yip Harburg masterpiece, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? We followed with Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You are Down and Out,” Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl” songs and ended with his defiant anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.” Author John Steinbeck would have approved as we traveled through the Great Crash, mounting unemployment, abject poverty, “Okie” transplants, and New Deal reforms crushing the grapes of wrath and answering the gripes of Philip Roth.
Other gambits included elevation to a new heights on a desk, long before Robin Williams ascended likewise in the film, Dead Poets Society to imitate populist politicians like William Jennings Bryan denouncing Wall Street’s passion for the gold standard with a fervid pitch for silver in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. Embracing high risk, I imitated Adolph Hitler’s hate speech in defense of his Sudetenland invasion and his genocidal anti-Semitism. Supported by Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks, I felt an obligation to my tribe as well as to my students to reduce this evil, lamentably recrudescent, to oblivion through the arsenal of humor. Lenny Bruce depicted Hitler as a paperhanger who could not grab women like a certain current would-be Caesar. Thus, when offered the role of Fuhrer by Central Casting with the promise of available women, the mustachioed paper hanger could not refuse. (Cohen, 133-139) Thus, Brooks boasts that he “is the only Jew who made a living out of Hitler.” In History of the World, Part One, Brooks ne Kaminsky pokes fun at prehistoric rock worship, Moses as klutz who drops five of the original 15 Commandments, Roman Senators who chant “Fuck the Poor!” along with unemployed stand-up philosophers, Medieval society’s penchant for Inquisitions, and le Ancien Regime, when “it was good to be a king.” Brooks promised a sequel featuring “Hitler on Ice,” which never materialized. Almost 94 years old, Mel Brooks continues to amuse us.(Yakower, 48, 73-76; Dorinson, Kvetching,,,87-88)
The Enormous Impact of Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen
In 1963 I saw Lenny Bruce live in a Manhattan theater. Enthralled with his brilliant comedy predicated on the mantra, “Tragedy plus time equals satire,” I was hooked. His shtick, laced with Jewish humor, propelled me into humor study. Eleven years later, I framed a paper, later my first publication, titled, “Lenny Bruce: Jewish Humorist in Babylon” and pitched a proposal to the American Popular Culture Association for its 1974 annual conference in Milwaukee. My proposal accepted, I was placed on a panel featuring two major scholars, Leslie Fiedler and Ruel Denney. While presenting my paper in medias res, I quoted a statement from Dr. Fiedler trying as I indicated, to curry his favor. In perfect Yiddish, he retorted: “Es vet dir gurnisht helfn “(Nothing will help you! A punch line to a Jewish Dracula joke) to loud laughter from the audience. Unruffled, I replied, also in Yiddish with a krechtz (groan) shoulders hunched, and arms uplifted as if in prayer: “Shver tsu zein a Yid!” The audience roared. After the Q and A that followed. Professors Fiedler and Denney gave me a thumbs up and encouraged me to publish the paper. Like the Biblical Jacob in pursuit of a bride, it took me seven years to achieve that goal.
Encouraged, I broke free of writer’s block and scholarly slump. I delivered two papers in 1980 and 1982 on Jewish and African American humor. In 1982, I met Professor Joseph Boskin at an ISHS Conference in Washington D.C. and we became collaborators and lifelong friends. He served as my mentor on many projects, including this venture. A group of psychologists and psychotherapists invited me to Drexel University in Philadelphia a few years later to lecture on humor’s link with psychology. I framed the talk mainly on Sigmund Freud’s release theory on Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, quoting from their comic routines. The interplay between Carl Reiner and Brooks’ 2,000-year-old man elicited lots of welcome laughter. Listen to the Q & A routine: (Dorinson, Jew as Comic…” )
Q: I gather sir, that you are a famous psychiatrist.
A: That is correct.
Q: May I ask you where you studied psychiatry?
A: Vienna School of Good Luck
Q: Who analyzed you?
A: I was analyzed by No. 1
Q: You mean the great Sigmund Freud?
A: In person. Took me during lunchtime, charged me a nickel
Q: What kind of person was he?
A: Lovely little fellow. I shall never forget the hours we spent together, me lying on the couch, him sitting there beside me, wearing a nice off-the-shoulder dress.
How to Perform and Write Comedy
I left Drexel University on a high, determined to publish again. Twenty years later, the seeds planted in Philadelphia that Saturday afternoon, emerged as a chapter in my book on Jewish Humor. Subsequently, I developed the first humor course at LIU Brooklyn. I found an ingenious paradigm in the work of Melvin Helitzer. He formulated two acronyms in his HEARTS theory, wherein (Helitzer, 23-48)
H=Hostility E=Exaggeration A=Aggression R=Realism
Later, Heltizer reformulated as the theory of THREES that exemplified:
T=Target H=Hostility R=Realism T=Target E=Exaggeration
At the beginning of each class, we performed Viola Spolin’s exercises. Mirror–Mirror proved to be a favorite. We paired up for about five minutes of pantomime, alternating leadership at certain intervals. In addition to participating, I coached, applying the Spolin method. We also played pass the object and we are having a party, which encouraged improvisation. Students were advised to watch a magnificent example in a Marx Brothers film, in which Groucho and Harpo aped each other as did Lucille Ball in a later version. As director of a new program, “Writing Across the Curriculum,” I encouraged students to write weekly journals on different facets of humor. My students taught me about their favorites, unknown to this alleged expert. I learned, for example, about Mindy Kaling and Paul Mooney, through their journals. At our first meeting, everyone, myself included, identified their favorite comic or humorist, male and female, their favorite TV sitcom, their favorite film coupled with their interpretation of what they considered funny. We shared and compared in a mode of collaborative learning. At the end of our semester, students submitted a stand-up comedy routine along with research papers written with the advice and consent of their genial instructor.
As guides to writing about humor, I found Melvin Helitzer’s books accessible and Kohler’s text informative but surpassed by the power points and texts by that dynamic duo from Arizona State, Don & Alleen Nilsen. My mentor Joe Boskin’s books, always insightful and fun to read, proved invaluable. Lawrence Mintz’s book, which included a joint article by Joe Boskin and this writer, was extremely helpful but out of student’s price range as a text. Mel Watkins’ books on African American comedy along with Joe Boskin’s Sambo: A Study in the Rise and Fall of an American Stereotype and his more expansive Rebellious Laughter, were class favorites. To reduce the already heavy financial burden besetting students, I reprinted articles, including my own, Taking risks led me to a study of Holocaust humor, on which I lectured, researched, published, and shared discretely with colleagues as well as students. (Boskin & Dorinson, 81-97)
Applying Fun to Pedagogy
In basic history survey courses, where resistance was high, especially at examination time, I would employ humor, n multiple choice questions, including the names of students in class, professors in other classes to lessen anxiety. For example, when dealing with science, say, biology, I would juxtapose a correct choice, Charles Darwin with an absurd reference to the current chair of Biology at LIU Brooklyn regarding a question probing the origins of species. In a Physics identification, I would ask students to cite one area that Isaac Newton did not explore: Theory of Gravity or the manufacture of Fig Newtons. I juxtaposed Karl Marx with Groucho on authorship of the Communist Manifesto. Exploring the sexual revolution, I pitted Sigmund Freud against Dr. Ruth Westheimer as the seminal (pun intended) source. My almost compulsive application of humor stems from a credo derived from Johann Huizinga’s depiction of Homo Ludens (Playful Man or Person, generically) as the key to learning. Carpe diem! Seize the day with a synthesis of work and play in an innovative way became my mantra. (Huizinga, Homo Ludens)
Essay questions posed another set of challenges. Sometimes, I asked students to create their own questions, which were graded based on content, style, and the ability to apply reading and class notes, effectively. On questions designed to evoke biographical information framed in historical context, the Clint Eastwood paradigm, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” a class favorite often provided excellent feedback. When our curriculum committee opted for World History to replace the more insular Western Civilization basic history course, we needed conceptual hooks on which to hang essential material. I employed a variant of Gordon Childe’s theory of civilization building or urban revolution, simplified as POET. This transformation covered vast historical terrain, wherein P=People, O=Organization, E=Environment, T=Trade and Technology. (Childe, Man Makes Himself)
Humanizing the Learning Experience
Because I was propelled into the directorship of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC to most; wacko to some) as part of our thrust into interdisciplinary learning, I assigned weekly journal topics to students on a group as well as on a personal basis to prepare them for written exams while group journals served two goals: oral as well as written exams. Uncomfortable with oral exams, a device borrowed from the European experience, students often complained. I reassured them that oral exams were a lot less painful than the exams I underwent in combatting prostate cancer. In these oral exams, I offered the weaker students a chance to bolster their grade with a giveaway taken from a radio-television series featuring Groucho Marx, called “You Bet Your Life.” He would ask faltering contestants “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? If that did not work, I would ask the student “Can you stump the star (c’est moi)? to pose a question that I could not answer for super-duper extra credit. If he or she succeeded, not only did the student earn a top grade for the correct response but also a complaint from their humiliated professor : “So,” I added in mock complaint, “you are trying to make me look bad, like an excremental deposit in front of this class!” The tension dissipated, the class roared, and the mutual experience was far more pleasurable than a prostate exam. Each student with confidence restored, hands raised, wanted a chance to earn extra credit by piling it on their beleaguered professor. When this strategy failed, however, I developed a group oral whereby a student could consult team members for the correct answer. This gambit derived from an American TV program as well its offshoot: a Bollywood film “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” My purpose to level the playing field, bringing professor off the pedestal and raising student self esteem to a point of collegiality if not equality. proved successful, as many former students have become current friends.
Early in my teaching career, I borrowed an unpleasant trait from my professors, namely, sarcasm. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, to offer a variation on an ancient theme, is a professor who prefers clever put-downs to human compassion. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. To atone for this form of Hobbesian humor, I adopted a kinder, gentler form of critiquing student papers and oral commentary. The best type of humor, a popular cartoonist, Gary Trudeau upon receiving a prestigious Polk Award argued, should be directed upward, to people in power. The best way to build bridges between school and the world, youth and maturity, beloved classics scholar at Columbia University, Gilbert Highet insisted is through humor minus sarcasm. (Highet, 48-57)
Rocking and Rolling with Sisyphus
In starting each semester, I often compared a student’s journey to the task of Sisyphus, who, for rebelling against the Gods and chaining Death, was forced to roll a rock up a mountain. After a long, hard trek upwards, he reaches the top only to witness the punishment from above as the rock rolls downward. And like both teacher and student, he is compelled to start anew. That, I explained is our task in teaching and learning history. Though life and history may indeed be absurd, quoting Albert Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” At the end of each history course part one, I would pose a big question: “What does it all mean?” Jot down your thoughts of what you have learned this semester. I asked students, on a voluntary basis, to share their thoughts and suggestion for making this a better class, and me, a better teacher. After an exchange of thoughts, I would offer a few lines from Shakespeare and Montaigne, depending on the preceding discussion. To tie the threads of class one together with our last class, I referred back to the absurdity of Sisyphus’s quest; first to defy death: then to repeat the cycle of life’s burden with resignation and resolve.
Brush up your Shakespeare and Appreciate Montaigne, the Humanist
Flash forward to the finale, where I quote Shakespeare’s great soliloquies by Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man! and Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” supplemented by the “The Seven Ages of Man” from As You Like It, with comedy trumping (no pun intended) tragedy. (The Ages of Man, Michel de Montaigne, The Essay: A Selection) As Jean Racine wrote: “Life is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel.”
In capping History I at 1600 CE, say, Michel de Montaigne aptly introduces us to religious tolerance and cultural diversity in a time, not unlike ours, of religious strife, proxy wars, and unbridled racism. Stemming from a Sephardic Jewish background on his father’s side and Roman Catholicism from his mother’s, Montaigne married a Protestant woman. The Protestant Revolution, ushered in by Martin Luther and accelerated in France by John Calvin’s adherents, fomented a century of religious as well as political warfare. Therefore, Montaigne’s literary invention, the essay, offered rational and moral discourse as an alternative to bigotry and violence. Even cannibalism did not evoke the moral philosopher, Montaigne’s censure, because this French Renaissance Man reasoned that tribal warfare in South America was far less lethal than religious warfare in his native land. Finally, Montaigne’s ability to accept his own mortality from a chronic and genetic renal disease through eloquent attempts to understand human nature and its frailties resonates with readers and students from here to eternity. And as Henry Adams observed: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell when his influence stops.”
Allen, F. L.. Only Yesterday. (1959) New York: Harper Bantam Classic. chapters 3-5, 8-9.
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Boskin, J. Sambo: (1986). The Rise and Demise of an American Jester, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
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Respectfully submitted, Joseph Dorinson