Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On irony

OK, I haven't posted in a long time! I am not making any promises, but I have had several post ideas and I'm going to try to roll out a few of them over the next few weeks.

This one is brief. When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who I loved and who really taught me a lot about how to analyze literature, how to write an expository essay, and how to be a journalist. The year I finished high school, he left teaching to become a full-time editor for a newspaper, and he always gave the impression that teaching was something that he didn't really want to do. What he really wanted to do was talk about books. (More on that another day.) The other thing about him is that he was absolutely hilarious, and that his humor depended largely on his deftness with sarcasm. In fact, many of my favorite teachers were the ones who were cynical and funny. The cynical teacher whose #1 tool is a wit that depends almost entirely on the use of sarcasm has become a common stereotype in our culture--we see it all the time in movies, on T.V., and in literature. (Think Tina Fey in Mean Girls, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, etc, etc)

It was surprising, then, when I learned that Charlotte Danielson (THE Charlotte Danielson), in her exhaustive rubric of teaching, "Framework for Teaching," lists "sarcasm" as among the attributes of an "Unsatisfactory" teacher. But here's the thing. Adolescents really don't get sarcasm. I teach both freshmen and seniors, and neither group can reliably and predictably detect irony*--the seniors are an AP group and they still have a really hard time identifying irony. Irony requires us to understand language or ideas on multiple levels simultaneously, and most adolescents are only beginning to develop the ability to think abstractly when they begin high school. It's really amazing to watch this happen. But what it also means is that they just don't understand sarcasm.

For adolescents, sarcasm is likely go to one of two ways. 1) The child understands from your tone that you're being mean or insulting, and her feelings get hurt, or 2) The child doesn't understand that you don't mean what you say, and takes your statement at its face. (A student asks you to go to the bathroom, and you say, "Well, OK, I guess you really want to get a bad grade.") Either way, it's not doing what you want it to do. And, chances are, you really are being mean. Adolescents have really thin skins. That's not their problem, and it's not our job to make their skins thicker by hurling darts at them. It doesn't mean we have to stop trying to be funny, but maybe we should try to invent better ways.

*Irony, by the way, is when (1) you mean the opposite of what you say, as in "Yeah, Einstein was a real dummy," (2) when you know something that the people in the story you are reading don't, and they really need to know, as when Romeo doesn't know that Juliet isn't dead, or (3) when what you expect to happen is the opposite of what happens, like when you get a free ride when you've already paid.**

**This is the only situation in the catalogue presented by Alanis Morissette in her song "Ironic" that is actually ironic.