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Searching for Comedy in Higher Education

I had a blast in college. Yes, I worked hard, but I also screamed at the top of my lungs at Longhorn football games, played ultimate Frisbee in the park, wandered around the Drag for no reason at all and got excited about ordering a #1 combo from Junior, the best and most famous Wendy’s cashier that ever lived.

And yet, as a communicator now working in higher education—at the very university I graduated from—I struggle to infuse the stories I write with the lighter side of life. I find it especially difficult working at a business school, where the culture is more buttoned-down. But the culture isn’t boring and stuffy either, so what’s the problem?

One very astute alumnus commented on our magazine reader survey that we are “too afraid of [our] readers.” BINGO! I’m afraid of having a sense of humor in our stories, because I don’t want to offend people or make the school look silly. I included a Dilbert cartoon in our Spring/Summer 2009 cover story, and part of me sort of expected to get hate mail for it.

I don’t think that fear should drive my writing, but it’s not altogether unwarranted. Watch 2 minutes of the fun, non-traditional, somewhat silly student-produced Yale admissions video below and then read some of the 148 comments people left on a New York Times article about the video (Yale disabled comments on the video on its YouTube page.)

“I actually felt myself getting dumber watching that”

“For heaven’s sake, it’s YALE, not Taco Bell. With their miniscule acceptance rate, it seems hardly necessary to stoop to this. This is appalling. Selling one of the premier universities with trite songs and salad bars. So much for the dignity of the institution.”

“Embarrasing. [sic]”

“Really, Yale? Are you seriously trying to appeal to the “High School Music” demographic?”

“I absolutely would never have set foot on the campus if I had ever seen this. It’s disgusting, and they should seriously consider whether they want to risk losing alumni contributions (such as mine) by leaving it up. It is in remarkably poor taste for an institution as selective as Yale to have such breathless rhapsodies, tongue-in-cheek, or no (and I dare say any irony is worn pretty thin by minute 15) marketed to the 90% of applicants who will receive the `thin envelope’ in April. It’s not really cute, funny or ironic if you don’t get in.”

Ouch! No wonder we’re afraid of showing a sense of humor in our communications.

The good news? A large number of the commenters seem to support the video and admire Yale’s attempt at humor and innovation. It’s also surpassed 250,000 YouTube views in less than 2 weeks, so it’s certainly getting attention.

I’m going to keep trying to find my funny bone in higher education storytelling, but I think I better build up my backbone too.

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I write what I know (and love). Mostly higher education, writing and public relations.