Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gallows humor: to be or not to be (a prig about it)

In the preceding post (click here to see it), I criticized what I called "dead grandmother" jokes among teachers. I claimed that these jokes are wrong and ought not be indulged in. I believe I am right, in large measure because these types of jokes denigrate the students, without whom the teachers would be without a job.

So far so good, but still there must needs be humor in life or we--at least I--will find ourselves looking down our noses at anyone who needs to rely on humor to get through the day. Sometimes one must laugh so one won't cry or get stressed out. I don't always know where to draw the line, and the gallows humor that offends me may not offend thee, and vice versa.

I once temped for several months at an auto insurance company, in particular it was a department of the company dedicated to honoring or rejecting what were known as "PIP claims," (PIP="Personal Injury Protection). In short, the company paid for injuries people sustained in car accidents. It was not uncommon for the claims reps to make jokes about their customers. I remember one instance where one was joking about someone who had maxed out her claims. The "funny" point was that this person had become addicted to some painkiller while being treated. Someone witnessing this incident might write this off on the badness of the insurance industry; another might call it venting (the claims reps' jobs weren't easy, and I think that deep down, they did not enjoy, for example, denying people coverage when the rules called for it).

Although this incident bothered me, I was not really offended, at least not in the same way that I claim to be offended at "dead grandmother" jokes (jokes which, I freely admit, I have at times myself partaken in). Perhaps this is because I was only a temp at that insurance job and didn't know all the in's and out's of the industry. (Also, I really liked the people I worked with. For a temp job, it was pretty fun to go to work and the atmosphere was quite convivial.)

With the "dead grandmother" jokes, I am much better acquainted with the mindset of instructors than I am with the mindset of claims adjusters. I guess my aversion to them has to do with my conception of a teacher's obligations to his or her students: the teacher/student relationship is more than just a service provider/customer relationship. Teaching is more of a "profession" than many other jobs are. (Nota bene: I don't think this is necessarily a good thing. It's possible teaching would be better, especially at the university level, if it followed something more akin to what I call a "consumer model.")

Any job--be it a profession or a "mere" wage job--has its frustrations, and it's healthy to vent those frustrations. I've had retail jobs, food service jobs, and customer service jobs in which, during breaks and outside the work environment, it was almost necessary to "vent" about difficult customers, most of whom were not rude but had legitimate concerns.

I'm not sure such venting is necessary, or at least not to the same degree, for teachers.

(P.S. It should be noted I can really only speak from my own experience, teaching a very small number of introductory courses at the university level. I imagine the realities of teaching, say, at a high school or elementary school might very well be different.)

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