Personal Stories

​Shakespeare's Dicks and Vonnegut's Farts: Teaching Literature in the Time of COVID-19

Do you spend your nights sheltering-in-place reading Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants?"

Are you moved by the irony of Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" while you gaze at spring out the window? What role does Edgar Allan Poe's Gothicism play in your quarantine experience? For the two dozen college freshmen I'm assigned to teach via "remote learning" in New York City, those questions affect their studies, their grade in my course, and how they spend their hours during the week. What I can't tell them is this: It doesn't matter. At best, it will temporarily distract you during this time of crisis, but ultimately your memory and ability to process information is compromised because your brain functions differently during a crisis.

Additionally, some of my students' families are sick. Some of them don't have stable access to an Internet connection or even a working computer. They complete their work on their phones, emailing me their apologies when it's riddled with typos. Some of them, most frighteningly, have barely sent word that they're even okay.

So what's the point of "remote learning"? I'm sure I'm not the only college instructor who feels guilty for trying to teach college during a global pandemic–especially to teenagers navigating an already tumultuous first year of adulthood. Yes, they deserve good, giving teachers who are willing to educate them, but what are they realistically going to remember when they look back at 2020? "Over 20,000 people died here in New York City–oh, I also learned that Shakespeare wrote about dicks a lot. Weird."

That's right. I teach Shakespeare with an honest look at his dick jokes, because it's an established fact that The Bard loved a good innuendo. Students always ask why Shakespeare is such a revered figure in literary canon. Well, the bawdiness helped—he was funny.

In many ways, humor is a marvel of human evolution. When the brain experiences humor, benefits range from improved memory and decreased anxiety to improved creativity and focus. Fun fact: Science can't even fully explain how or why we experience humor and produce laughter. We do know that humor draws on various parts of the brain (both the rational frontal cortex and the emotional limbic system), which are usually cut off from each other while we experience trauma—such as the collective trauma of a global pandemic.

Sadly, it's also a fact that times of crisis compromise our memory capacity, our tolerance for stress, and our ability to focus—in other words, our ability to learn. But it's possible that how we learn can help to ameliorate these impacts. As the journal of Advances in Physiological Educationpublished in 2017, "Humor and laughter may not directly cause learning; however, humor creates an environment that promotes learning." But are dick jokes funny enough to combat a pandemic?

The Teachers Aren't Alright

Like most educators, both public and private, I had to work quickly to re-orient the classroom space (what we like to call the "learning community") to suit the digital world. Hours after we were ordered to implement "distance learning," I surveyed my students to find out how they wanted to move forward: Use live-conferencing on this Zoom app I'd just heard about or (considering our usual meeting time was early in the morning) use pre-recorded lectures and notes to accompany the readings?

After unanimous votes for the latter, I happily obliged (as any teacher with social anxiety problems would, thank you very much). I wrote to them (in what would begin a pattern of two to four emails per week, because I over-communicate when I'm anxious), "This a crazy situation, but for now here's what we're going to do."

Apparently, the CDC thinks I made the right call. When their Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) program breaks down the "Psychology of a Crisis," they write that one's mental state during a crisis is characterized by uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and dread. "Taking an action during a crisis can help to restore a sense of control and overcome feelings of hopelessness and helplessness," they write. "Helping the public feel empowered and in control of at least some parts of their lives may also reduce fear." I work at a public school with over 16,000 undergraduates at any given time. The least I can do is ask them how they want to learn about Emily Dickinson.

To be clear, for all the ways that "remote learning" is exacerbating the socioeconomic disparities between my students and their access to resources, that's to say nothing of how the K-12 educational system is being affected. Remote learning is exposing fundamental gaps in the educational system, leaving teachers "to keep as many students engaged as [possible]–despite technological difficulties, ever-evolving bureaucratic confusion, and the sheer unprecedented experiment of improvising a new educational system while the world falls apart," wrote The Cut.

WhenEducation Week surveyed the situation in the beginning of April, they confirmed the obvious: "There's so much loss and distress that is being concentrated in communities that need quality schooling the most," said Janelle Scott, an education and African-American studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "I think there's a need to pull back and think about what [public education] means in relation to the magnitude of this moment."

As teachers, we're still receiving an onslaught of emails from the administration, each one disposing of professional banalities more than the last—which is equal parts funny and foreboding to witness. Last semester, the frigid "I hope this email finds you well" turned you into (yes, this was from a real email), "After some (frankly, not all that much) thought, the final exam will be optional this semester. If you decide not to have one, you will need to account for whatever percentage of the grade you had allotted to it, but under the circumstances I don't think it would be inappropriate simply to give students bonus points for making it to the end of the semester. And bonus points to ourselves as well."

Of course teachers (including some tenured ones who previously struggled to cc an email) don't have answers. Questions still abound with every lesson plan and assignment. If a student submits an assignment late or doesn't follow the instructions properly, do I reprimand them in a strongly worded email or just focus on asking, "Are you okay?"

If a student can't complete their work, do I still penalize them or waive the consequences? How is that fair to students who have gone out of their way to complete their work on time throughout the crisis? What kind of work can I fairly expect my students to complete? As the CDC notes, "In some cases, a perceived threat can motivate and help people take desired actions. In other cases, fear of the unknown or fear of uncertainty may be the most debilitating of the psychological responses to disasters and prevent people from taking action."

And that's the crux of the pedagogy in a crisis. When I was a TA, a tenured professor told me that in every class about 25% of students are bored and ahead of you, 25% are struggling to keep up with you, and about 50% are right on track. "The goal is to teach to those 50%," he said. But in a crisis, the division isn't between who checks their email regularly or who keeps an organized agenda; some students aren't mentally or physically capable of caring about thesis statements or symbolism or how Edgar Allan Poe uses trochees in his poetry. So what is my foremost job: To make them care or to tend to their psychological crises?

Teacher as Performer

The answer is, of course: neither (remember I teach literature, wherein the first rule is that there are no straightforward answers). Aside from the fact that "making students care" is pretty impossible even in non-crisis times, it's important for teachers not to confuse their roles with those of mental health professionals. After all, this isn't my Freedom Writersmoment—I'm not going to propel the myth of the lone-life-changing teacher who can not only explain how to use a semi-colon but also solve your inner demons.

The answer might be dick jokes. As the authors of "Humor, Laughter, Learning, and Health! A Brief Review" note, "Teaching is not just about content; it is also about being a performer. The content must do more than educate; it must also entertain, because teaching is a performance art." They go on to summarize, "Evidence documents that appropriate humor, and humor that relates to course material, attracts and sustains attention and produces a more relaxed and productive learning environment."

In a crisis, a crucial part of the performance is becoming a conduit of information and interpreter of mixed messages: "Here is a list of free resources and resources that say they're free but will secretly charge you. You know those seven emails you just received from the school administration? They mean the Chancellor's office screwed up and has to pause all classes. It wasn't you; it was them."

Another vital part is to admit mistakes are going to happen, even your own ("Self-effacing humor illustrates to students that the teacher is comfortable making mistakes and sharing these experiences with the classroom," the researchers say): "You know those 20 pages of reading I just assigned and your paper due on Tuesday? Let's extend that deadline to Friday. I know you're struggling, but you still deserve to receive the education you've paid for, so here: Do your best."

On that matter, the CDC agrees that "a communicator can mitigate many of the [debilitating] reactions [of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and dread] by acknowledging these feelings in words, expressing empathy, and being honest." The worst response to a crisis is to do and say nothing. The show must go on. "So it goes," the great humorist Kurt Vonnegut wrote as his famous refrain for when characters experienced great misfortune.

So why not just declare, "These are extraordinary circumstances, guys. Everyone take an A- and call it a semester?" Fortunately (or unfortunately, for some of my students), I am still a teacher by choice and not as a last resort. I study and teach literature because it has, in fact, helped me to survive very difficult points in my life (social anxiety included).

It doesn't take much for me to find solace in Allen Ginsberg's lament that he's also seen "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness"–our generation's madness is birthed from his generation's madness, after all. And Vonnegut's humorous satire about government control does help me turn down the volume on Twitter's white noise and the partisan bickering of TV's talking heads.

But one of the easiest and worst mistakes you can make as a teacher is to assume that all of your students are like you–you, who paid thousands of dollars to study your field because maybe words feel like medicine to you, but what about others? Your students aren't you; they're of a whole new generation whose formative years are now marred by an unprecedented crisis.

So It Goes...

But then there's the strangely optimistic fact that most generations are marred by unprecedented crisis. Elder millennials came of age and entered college just in time for the recession of 2008 (also called The Great Recession); Generation Y were still young adults when the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil happened and propelled America into lasting war; and Generation X grew up as a "lost" generation of "latchkey" kids due to unprecedented divorce rates, while Baby Boomers came of age amidst the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Kennedy assassination, and Watergate.The list of generations and their bespoke traumas goes on...

This is where I don my tweed elbow patches and note that we've come to understand and empathize with many of those experiential traumas through literature. As a species, humans have been making each other laugh and using humor to cope since time immemorial—or, in written word, since biblical times. The most important lessons for students to learn right now definitely don't include the definition of polysyndeton or anaphora, but they can still be learned from literature: empathy, resilience, and a fuller sense of time and history, which underlies those skills.

Maybe traditional analysis works best for some classes: "How does Vonnegut use humor to create serious themes about government control, PTSD, and the nature of human happiness?" Maybe less traditional approaches also work: "Shakespeare wrote elaborate insults involving genitals, promiscuity, or sexual performance in nearly every one of his plays. Choose three to analyze and interpret their significance according social norms of masculinity." As Shakespeare knew, sometimes humor (bawdy or not) isn't a distraction; it's downright educational when circumstances are diametrically opposed to learning (after all, most Elizabethans were illiterate and lacked formal education).

If I were to make my own recommendation to the CDC, I'd say that a crisis is much like literature—there are no definitive answers, only interpretations. In the long run, I absolutely don't care if my students retain how Shakespeare used malapropisms or how preoccupied he was by dicks (though the classiest line about pissing on someone will always be "when didst thou see me heave up my leg and make / water against a gentlewoman's farthingale?"). I do care about my students as talking, walking, feeling humans and how this formative year will shape them and their education in the future.

While I can't, realistically, give them a life-changing Freedom Writerexperience, I can perform my narrow role in their everyday lives by demonstrating equanamity, frankness, and adaptable humor in the face of foreboding uncertainty. Maybe some literature will feel soothing to them; maybe not. Maybe this year will be a disaster and they'll end up repeating the course; maybe in a few months I'll quit my job, go back to school, and join a STEM field or a really nerdy gang.

With a future of unclear promises, teaching during a pandemic seems to embody two equally timeless Kurt Vonnegut quotes: "A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved"; and, "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."

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