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.

13 Responses to “Searching for Comedy in Higher Education”

  1. Bejewell Says:

    Look, I’m a Longhorn alum too, and I’m here to tell you, UT is no Yale. And I mean that in the best possible sense. Few schools — heck, few TOWNS — have such a great sense of humor about themselves. If you can get away with a little levity in your communications anywhere, it’s in Austin. Sometimes we have to take risks to create something of real value to our readers — and truthfully, you might churn out some duds and take a few good hits before you find your stride. But uptight and “all business” isn’t going to get you anything but a big snooze.

    Of course, this is all very easy to say from the perspective of a potty-mouthed humor blogger who’s not paid diddly for her own brand of funny. And full disclosure: I spend my days writing mind-numbingly boring communications for a state agency, unable to add my own personality to ANYTHING I write. But if I had the opportunity, you’d better believe I’d take some chances!

    Good luck!!

  2. David Johnston Says:

    Really enjoyed this post, Tracy, so I shared it with some of my colleagues here at the University of Kansas. With a mascot as fun as the Jayhawk (a cartoon bird), we are expected to have a “fun” personality, yet we strive to convey the seriousness of our academic pursuits in our writing as well. A tricky balance for any university, but one can obviously go too far (Yale).

    Where can humor really work? Check out Kettering University’s “School Daze” admissions video, which had the desired effect on the right audience and went viral. Now Kettering’s no Yale or UT, but that’s why they could get away with it! And aren’t well all just a little bit envious?

  3. Jeff Jackson Says:

    I liked the Yale video. I am sure everyone criticizing the video were high school student applying for colleges. We blogged about it last week

  4. Leah Wescott Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Hopefully, the Cronk of Higher Education is helping to take a bite out of the taking-itself-too-seriously vibe of higher education. My fear at the beginning of the project was that we’d quickly run out of material. But let’s be serious…

  5. Elayne Says:

    We do take ourselves too seriously, but part of that is that the group of people who work in higher ed aren’t doing it for the money (or the singing-and-dancing style fame), for sure. So, within a certain personality type (they type that would work for a non-profit at low pay because they believe in the cause), a sense of humor may come in second to a sense of purpose. Not that we don’t have a sense of humor, mind you. It IS too bad, because oftentimes that’s the best way to connect with others.

    I actually really liked the Yale video (and watched the whole thing through, smiling). But I didn’t go there, so that’s easy to say. It was cute and it fit into my vision of what Yale is (whether or not it’s true). If my undergrad school (which I have a deep devotion to) had done something similar, I might have been actually deeply offended because it would be harder for me to not take it seriously. It’d be PERSONAL then. 🙂 I would certainly be more likely to “care,” one way or another.

  6. tracy Says:

    Thansk for your comments, everyone. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this!

    And don’t get me wrong – I think there is a time and place for more serious content, and we don’t want people to confuse us with Chuck E Cheese. But I think we miss a lot of opportunity to make people smile or laugh or remember the good ol’ days of campus life. (I’m speaking mainly from my role as an alumni magazine editor here.) And, as Elayne said, often humor is the best way to connect with someone or have them remember something.

    2 things that have helped me lighten up:

    -Social media – for some reason it seems easier to have more fun on Twitter and Facebook. Working on social media for McCombs has definitely helped me tap into this area.

    -Starting small – Doing things like using a Dilbert cartoon in an article or creating a fun video as a story sidebar let me dip my toe into this mindset and get comfortable with it.

  7. Andrew Careaga Says:

    I think we do have to be a little bit irreverent at times and to poke fun at ourselves. Social media gives us a platform to do that, so we can have a little more fun in those realms (at least until the dreaded “social media policies” become the norm).

  8. Davina Gould Says:

    Just discovered your blog today (thanks to Andrew). I couldn’t agree more. My law school colleagues are probably every bit as nervous about humor as your b-school. I occasionally try to interject humor into things, as do a few others in my office, but it’s exceptionally rare for anything to get published. You’re right though–we can show a *little* bit of personality on social media.

    Thanks for the fun topic–I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  9. tracy Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Davina. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. (And thanks to Andrew for linking here!)

    I do think professional schools probably have it a little harder than others here. I was at UT’s Liberal Arts college before the b-school, and I definitely felt more comfortable with easing up a bit there. But it’s a work in progress for surse!

  10. Rick Hardy Says:

    Tracy, I too just found your blog (thanks to Andrew). Well done.

    I like the title of your post. Humor helps us survive life. It should also help us survive this life of higher education. There’s something to be said about taking our institutions seriously, but not ourselves. I think that philosophy should be a part of a communications strategy for a college or university, but it does depend on the brand (as evidenced by the Yale comments). Our communications are more effective when they make an emotional connection. A little humor mixed in with all the facts, figures and human interest stories is a good thing, IMO.

  11. tracy Says:

    “There’s something to be said about taking our institutions seriously, but not ourselves.”

    I couldn’t agree more, Rick! Nicely said. And thanks for stopping by. : )

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