Sarcasm, the only reason I can teach

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 11:44 AM


One of my past occupations has been a teacher of composition and rhetoric, which makes me an official pedant (the MFA also gives me poetic license). In classes I taught, there was always at least one student who could not understand why sarcasm in formal research papers was not appropriate. The student sometimes attributed it to a lack of humor on my part.

Professors: everyone knows how humorless they are, especially female professors.

I blame the inability of students to switch between the requirements of formal and informal language on a few things. I tend to agree with this article: we live in a society which uses a lot of sarcasm in the process of daily communication. Studying sarcasm is, ironically enough (though I'd hope the researchers notice it), a contentious field. Many of the different takes on sarcasm boil down to whether it can be seen as an adaptive tool for dealing with society, and whether or not, because of that, sarcasm is employed in a generally hostile sense, or in a more gentle sense (for obtaining consensus.)

A lot of the science studying human behavior is forced to take a stand on whether societies are generally motivated for consensus or for conflict, depending on the theorists' take on human nature. There's any amount of evidence for either conclusion.

As someone who has rhetorical training, as well as social science training, let me just sound off on the subject. Sarcasm is clearly context-driven humor, relying on knowledge of the speaker, knowledge of the speaker's acculturation (which has to be shared by the listeners for the sarcasm to impart the intended meaning) and knowledge of the culture in general, especially the conventions in the culture for what is good and what is bad. In brief, you have to be able to tell that you shouldn't take the sarcasm literally and why you shouldn't take it literally to 'get it.'

In formal writing, the context (communication of data as clearly as possible) does not allow for the sort of playing with the meaning which sarcasm uses in order to be humor, not horrifying. Many of my students have found formal writing boring and frustrating for that reason; their benchmark for entertainment in the process is set to comparing contextual statements to current culture, whether they realize it or not, and not for the various conventions about being direct and clear with meaning, nor for the historical scope of writing and the abstraction of humor based on manipulating the mechanics of grammar.

The thing I found the most mystifying about the process was that the same students who so loved sarcasm would adamantly deny that context existed as a function of meaning in critiques of current culture. I often tried to bridge that gap with sarcasm and the analysis of sarcasm. Some students got it, but those whose future professions rely on direct meanings tended not to, a few telling me that learning to write and learning English was beneath them.

If it wasn't for sarcasm and irony, I might have given up teaching much earlier.

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