An egghead walks into a bar . . .
What's so funny? U of P injects humor into curriculum
John Beckman doesnt see himself as a funny guy. Recognize humor? Certainly. Appreciate humor? Definitely. But making people laugh has never been Beckmans specialty. Until now.
Multimillionaire Beckman has decided that humor is too important to not be taken seriously. So hes funding what appears to be the nations first universitywide humor initiative, the University of Portland Humor Project.
If the vision shared by Beckman and Brian Doyle, editor of the universitys Portland magazine, becomes reality, students and professors at UP will be experiencing humor in every conceivable part of campus life. Marketing students might be taught how to use humor to sell products. Government students could learn how humor was used at critical moments in history to diffuse tense negotiations. Nursing students could discover how humor helps patients deal with stress.
But Beckman is aware that placing humor in a university context could take the fun out of it. So he has insisted that for a start, his money go toward scholarships to students who will simply do funny things on campus. One student has organized a campus improv comedy festival attended by nearly 100 people, not including his parents and grandparents (and he doesnt really have that big a family). Another has been making short funny campus videos and posting them online. A third has proposed a faculty flash mob dance project.
And what do these students get for their efforts? Scholarships of $3,333.33. All those threes were Beckmans idea. As Beckman explains it, 3,333.33 fits because the number three is the square root of nine and it is the smallest whole number other than one that can be divided into nine.
Its humorous, says Beckman, who lives in Beaverton and made his fortune as an inventor. Remember, hes already admitted hes not a knee-slapper kind of guy.
OK, so maybe its math funny. Beckman started by awarding three humor scholarships in 2012 and four this year. He says he will increase the number by one each year. It doesnt take a mathematician to figure out where this is going. Beckman is talking serious money, which is a good thing, because this year 66 UP students applied for the scholarships.
The major chunk of the Humor Project funding, according to Beckman, will come in the form of a bequest in his will after he dies. He says he hasnt decided on the exact amount of the bequest, but hes sort of taken by the idea of giving the Humor Project $3,333,333.33. And he has told university officials he wants it all to go toward scholarships for students who propose humorous enterprises. The rest of the project, hes been promised, will be funded by the university.
But a word of caution from Beckman, who is 93. He says university officials should know that his mother lived to be 101. So as far as the big money, they shouldnt hold their breath.
Humor gets remembered
Meanwhile, Brian Doyle is thinking big. Doyle envisions the Humor Project branding the University of Portland as the nations one institution of higher learning that embraces humor. Doyle sees humor symposiums in UPs future, humor film festivals with renowned comics, writers and actors making presentations, and a Humor Project office someday. It was Doyle who began talking with Beckman about humor as a crucial virtue in all aspects of society, which led to Beckman cogitating on the idea and concluding that when he looks backward, the funny people and the funny moments are those he remembers best.
I thought, What would the world be like without humor? Beckman says. How would you conduct any transaction? Using a credit card requires faith. I think its hard to have faith without a sense of humor.
Doyle is planning a humor issue of Portland magazine for next year and hoping for classes incorporating humor in curricula from science and art to politics, history and engineering. Hes dreaming of a national humor conference, and word spreading from there so that the Humor Project begins drawing students to the University of Portland and helps university fundraisers attract money. Naturally, those would be the right type of students, and assuredly, the right type of money.
Beckman has attached only one silly string to his funding of the Humor Project. His one condition is that (there be none of the) cultural default of sneering, cutting, satire, ironic humor, Doyle says. Gentle, positive, substantive, humor.
Doyle, who calls himself the agent provocateur for the project, has clearly been giving a lot of thought to the subject.
Humor is an extraordinary weapon against overweening power, against arrogance, against violence, he says. And hes aware of how dead serious that sounds. He says he hopes humor classes at the university are less about dry analyses of humor or laughter and more along the lines of a class that UP professor Eric Anctil taught last year on how teachers can use humor in the classroom.
I think its great marketing, Doyle says. It says something about the University of Portland, willing to sort of poke into something we all know but never fully understand, that humor is powerful, it can change the world.
For Doyle, that change is represented by an alcoholic friend who finally embraced sobriety and told him, I had to stop drinking just so I could get back to giggling. Or a conversation with long-time University of Portland soccer coach Clive Charles, who told Doyle about growing up poor and black in a dangerous London neighborhood.
He said in his neighborhood you were either a great soccer player, a burly and violent person, or funny. He said he got two out of three, Doyle recalls.
Sidelining the serious
Education professor Anctil says hes concerned that the Humor Project grant is all a practical joke on Beckmans part, which shows hes thinking right. Three million? Right. I dont have three million, Anctil imagines Beckman thinking.
Anctil is one of three faculty members who have been appointed Humor Project coordinators. A former professional standup comedian, hes actually researched humor. He says when women fill out surveys on what theyre looking for in men, a sense of humor is always at or near the top. In medicine, he says, it provides a way for patients to talk about uncomfortable health topics like cancer. Studies show its been known to help healing in people with chronic diseases. And, of course, its what Anctil calls a social lubricant an icebreaker to the rest of us.
Anctil has been known to spontaneously start interviewing himself in class after hes asked questions and none of the students have responded. Recently he put himself into the character of an uneducated man in prison answering his own teacherly questions. The students, he says, started looking at him like a madman.
It worked because they realized to what extent I was going to get them to be more engaged. And they realized I was willing to take some weird risk, he says.
One of Anctils most vivid college memories from his student days at the University of Oregon was a class where the professor spoke too fast. One day, a student stood up, pointed that out to the professor, and started singing Feeling Groovy, which starts, Slow down, you move too fast ... When she finished, the class gave her rousing applause, Anctil recalls.
I always thought when youre in college you should have moments like that, he says. One of the dangers of education is its so damn serious, and it doesnt have to be.
College culture game-changer
Jeff Kerssen-Griep, chairman of the UP Department of Communication Studies and one of the projects coordinators, says as word of Beckmans initial grants has gotten around, it is having an effect.
These scholarships are already skewing what people think about the culture of the place. Isnt that the place thats got those goofy numbered scholarships? Kerssen-Griep says.
Kerssen-Griep says years ago he lived in a Washington state Lutheran retreat center called Holden Village that emphasized hospitality with a bit of fun. That sense of fun helped people learn to trust one another.
When you were living there you were expected to be silly, he says. (The Humor Project) needs to find its way so it is a welcome piece of levity. Or leavening. I dont know. Whatever you like as a metaphor. It makes life less of a flatbread or a cracker.
People who receive emails from Kerssen-Griep find a quotation at the bottom: Violence is a failure of the imagination. The Humor Project, he says, could foster the type of creativity that could serve as an antidote.
Lets take in institution of learning and make it a place where people can do the opposite of violence, he says.
Funny or not? You decide
Humor about academics isn't the same as humor by academics. Coordinators of the University of Portland's Humor Project say they're not going to take the fun out of funny. Along those lines, the Tribune is providing a primer on academic humor, which includes actual academic humor research as well as what most of us call jokes. Funny or not funny? You decide.
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