The Professor as comedian



But, no jokes.”

Thus said my first, otherwise excellent, class performance-evaluation sheet. Just starting my undergraduate teaching career at twenty something, I had been more concerned about the mastery of the subject (accounting), the fulfillment of class objectives, the clear delivery, the professional deportment. Check. Students’ opinions had been positive too: Their professor was “knowledgeable,” “helpful,” and “concerned with their learning.” Check. Overall remark from my elder colleague: “Very good class, but she did not tell any jokes.” No further feedback. No kidding.

Part of my teaching philosophy, crafted after the exceptional educators of my student years, was that a real academic subject carried its own magic and gravitas. Even accounting. Assets and liabilities, receivables and payables, income and expenses, were full of possibilities. The teleology of financial statements and the discernment of accrual accounting could not be underrated. The well-constructed blackboard worksheet and financial statement in those laborious pre-Peachtree and pre-PowerPoint days were things of beauty, of logic, of perseverance, of sheer will.

The second part of my teaching philosophy was the teacher’s genuine commitment to student learning, hand in hand with due dedication, and even passion, for the chosen field. If not entertaining, this enthusiasm would be inspiring. Both ingredients—the compelling subject and the committed educator—would make up for the lack of comic skills. Funny observations from whichever quarter would be welcomed, but neither scheduled nor compulsory. OK, many movies admiringly portrayed the funny, playful, demi-student professor. Somehow, though, awakening the comedian within did not seem to be an academic priority.

Moreover, I had attended many a lecture where jokes fell flat, contradicting the main message or the speaker’s very character. Many a solemn occasion had been marred by the slang word or the vulgar comment. The delight of the message had been clouded by the messenger’s clichés. Like that ethics professor who criticized discrimination while dissonantly cracking an anti-Semitic joke and, to cap it all, derisively claiming that ethics cannot be taught. Other lecturers had just tried too hard, the joke coming across as some tasteless icing on a perfectly baked cake. Or those who are unable to start without the joke meant to grab the audience’s attention; jokes whose contrived nature achieved just the opposite. Tonal humor has a rightful place, but such tonality looked elusive.

The “but no jokes” caveat that puzzled my debut was never belabored in later performance evaluations. Scholarly research and committee work became their prime concerns. The impact factor replaced the one-liner as priority. I soon inherited a seat in the personnel committee. The comic vein was not among the criteria on my evaluation sheet.

Then, academic life dawned … its turns and quirks, its sometime disdain of reality, alongside its much ado about nothing. The curriculum skirmishes, the personnel battles. The culture wars, the unlikely allies and uncertain truces. Professors struggling to compete for the students’ texting-immersed attention; students positioned as consumers. The academically challenged professors tiptoeing their way to tenure; the outstanding scholars driven into virtual exile because of their unpopular positions. The diversifying of college courses and the homogenizing of their underlying ideologies. The endless iterations of assessments and mission statements; the tentative agreements. The grade inflation and the homework deflation. The kudos for electronics without formulas, mathematics without proofs, ethics without norms.

Plenty of material for a stand-up comedian.

Perhaps the elder professor, now long retired, was on to something. Perhaps his “but, no jokes” remark was meant more for my sake than for the students’. Perhaps he was hinting at an outlook: at the sense of humor that his budding colleague was expected to hone and sustain in order to successfully navigate the academic life. Perhaps he was pointing to this ideal: the professor whose ethical and intellectual backbone—bolstered by a keen appreciation of paradox, perplexity, and the infinite return—is crowned by good temper and hope. Perhaps cracking jokes is, after all, a professor’s job requirement.

Author Bio: Alma Acevedo is a professor of business ethics at the University of Puerto Rico.