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Topic: Humor?
Replies: 1   Last Post: Nov 28, 1995 11:31 AM

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M Barry

Posts: 9
Registered: 12/6/04
Posted: Nov 28, 1995 9:35 AM
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This is in response to Michael South's description of the types of problems he
includes in his class. He wrote:

"While teaching an applied math course at Texas Tech I put a question
approximately like the following on an exam:

Assume that (don't remember the number I used) % of the population is HIV
positive, and you engage in high-risk behavior (shaking hands, hugging,
sitting next to in class, etc) with 12 randomly selected people. What is the
probability that you will be exposed to HIV at least once?

Probably should have done a follow-up survey to determine how many people
failed to detect the toungue-in-cheekness of the high risk behavior examples.

I used problems like this frequently on exams, sometimes humorous (in my
opinion, anyway) ("Bob goes nightclubbing to try to pick up women. If he has a
1 in 20 chance of picking up a woman at any given bar, and he goes to 8 bars,
what is the probability of picking up at least one woman?" Didn't put this on
an exam, but used it as a classroom example, with plenty of humor to diffuse
the obvious political incorrectness) and sometimes with serious overtones (as
that above)."

I find the use of these specific problems and others like them really
troubling. First of all, offensive remarks are made more, not less, offensive
when the speaker acknowledges that they are offensive. It means that the
speaker knows he is being rude and is deliberately choosing to be so anyway,
hiding behind the fact that he is calling it "humor." Does he also include
racist and anti-Semetic "jokes" in his problems?

Beyond that, I know from my own experience as a teacher that one has to be
very careful about the use of such humor in a classroom. Some people don't
relate to sarcasm in general; some students are so busy focusing on the
mathematics of the problem that they don't pay attention to the fact that
something is supposed to be funny, and then they read it straight; some
students simply don't pay attention 100% of the time and then don't hear the
fact that something was intended to be humorous; some students hear their
peers laugh and feel that any other response (like being offended) would not
be tolerated. My brother had a medical school professor who frequently made
sexist jokes in his class. The fact that exactly half the class was female
didn't stop him. Their expressions of outrage only seemed to encourage him to
direct his remarks at them personally. So, in the name of what he considered
to be funny, this professor made his classroom extremely uncomfortable at
times, downright hostile at others, for 50% of his students.

In addition, HIV is very a charged issue in our society, and an awful lot of
people do not understand how it is transmitted. To have a teacher, an
authority figure, give incorrect information about HIV infection, even if that
teacher means it to be a joke, is really disturbing and irresponsible. How
many students who did not get the joke will be more confused about this now?
And what about the possibility that one or more of the students in the class
is HIV positive? I doubt that they would appreciate this "joke" any more than
an African American would find humor in a racist joke.

Certainly there is a place for humor in the classroom, and certainly the use
of real world examples, situations, and applications of mathematics is
admirable. But please, please, be more responsible about both.

Michele Barry

Date Subject Author
Read Humor?
M Barry
Read Re: Humor?
Michael Paul Goldenberg

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