Roberto German 00:00
Welcome to Our Classroom. In this space, we talk about education, which is inclusive of, but not limited to what happens in schools. Education is taking place whenever and wherever we are willing to learn. I am your host, Roberto German. And Our Classroom is officially in session. In this episode of Our Classroom, we'll be talking about transgressive humor with Dr. David E. Lowe, an associate professor of literacy education at California State University Fresno. His research exam is how children and youth critically theorize race, gender, power, and identity using multimodal literacy practices. In particular, David explores students' use of humor and the comics medium as vehicles to critique dominant discourses and rewrite them. If there is a single through line to David's work, it is a deep and abiding interest in liminality and change and what happens within the in between spaces of radical possibility. With us today, David E. Lowe. Well, my people, welcome back to Our Classroom. Today I'm joined by David Lowe, associate Professor of Literacy Education at The Kremin School of Education and Human Development, California State University Fresno. Shout out to all my people on the West Coast. Glad to be here with David today. And this is gonna be a new topic for Our Classroom. Certainly a new topic for me, transgressive humor in the classroom. And came across David when we were at a conference in San Diego. Spoke a little bit and he's telling me about the book that he is working on and this topic of tra-- transgressive humor in the classroom. Like, Hey, what's that man? Tell me more. I think humor's a good thing. And I think, you know, we should find ways to have humor in the classroom, to keep people laughing. And it's part of how we find some joy, right? And so I'm interested to learn about this concept of transgressive humor in the classroom. I'm interested to learn more about the book that you're writing, David, and you know, why we should be interested in this part-- this particular topic, and also how it is that we can use this approach to connect with students. So, David, welcome. Thank you for coming to Our Classroom.
David E. Lowe 02:43
Thank you for having me. I am really excited for this conversation today.
Roberto German 02:47
Awesome. Awesome. Well, let's get into it. Let's get into it. You're working on a book and why don't you tell us about the concept of your book and when you anticipate it'll be published. Let's start there.
David E. Lowe 03:01
Oh, sure. Well, I am in the thick of it right now. I've been working pretty much every day just sitting down at the public library 'cause I'm on sabbatical, typing, typing, typing getting these chapters done. And the book is starting to take shape. And in a lot of ways it's surprising me. You know, I thought I had a handle on it when I was getting started, I know the data, I know the arguments, but then the, you know, the writing gets away from you a little bit and you start seeing other things in the data. But yeah, transgressive humor is what the book was about. It still is. And what I think I'm coming to though is that humor is not always just a good thing in the classroom. I think I knew that as a student way back when. I certainly knew that as a teacher, but as a researcher I've probably had a little bit of a dilemma in romanticizing humor, romanticizing the student who kind of operates like a class clown and saying, "Well, let's think about what they're doing." But you always gotta look at humor that isn't meant to liberate, that isn't meant for emancipatory purposes. Also, the humor that is meant to impugn and defame and belittle and dehumanize. And so that's becoming a part of the book too, in a way that I hadn't originally intended it to be. But these are things that happen in schools as well. So, to kinda backtrack just a minute with the book-- with the intended purpose of the book is to kind of get into the ways that humor when used to transgress boundaries can be seen as a critical practice, as a critical literacy practice.
And, you know, critical literacy has been around for decades. It's still very vital concept, you know, that we don't just use literacy to literally read and to decode letters on a page, but we're using literacy all the time to read the world, to read the word, to think about how is that text acting upon me? Who wrote that text? What were their purposes of writing it? How are they trying to persuade me? We bring in critical theories when we read, we think through feminist lenses. We use critical race theory, we use [inaudible 00:05:16] theory, we use decolonially-- decolonial theory and post-colonial theory. Whenever we're doing that, we're critiquing text. We're looking at-- we're learning to read against the grain of the text rather than just letting the text work on us as readers, we're working back upon the text. And so from where I sat as a kinda class clown growing up, that's what humor does too. You know, oftentimes you're using humor to interrogate, you're using humor to push back. You're using power to-- humor to kind of take power down a peg. And so it's always been an interesting, I guess dilemma or discontinuity for me that a lot of teachers out here who I work with who talk a good talk about critical literacy and wanting to teach their students to read through critical lenses and to address real social issues of our time to really dig into racial issues and gender sexuality issues to get into issues of global apartheid and immigration. These are the teachers that sometimes don't recognize humor as a potentially critical practice when students are operationalizing it. That's what the book is about. Like trying to reconcile transgressive humor as a form of social critique. Luckily, we've got a bevy of wonderful comedians out there who are doing that every night. You know, you just gotta say, Well, like, what's Wanda Sykes? What's Langston Kerman? What's you know, Hasan Minhaj? What's Trevor Noah? If not someone who's speaking truth to power when they get up there? I could go on and on. I mean, I could talk for the whole hour just naming comedians. All of these comedians were students at what point, you know, these were students who, while I don't know every one of their life stories, presumably, were sitting there thinking funny things about serious topics. And maybe some of them had teachers who knew how to support that. But I think in a lot of cases that sort of thought process becomes criminalized and disciplined. You get known as subversive. You can be accused of being disruptive. You can be accused of being insubordinate. And of course, you, and I know that oftentimes these labels are used disproportionately to describe students of color.
Roberto German 07:59
David E. Lowe 08:00
Yeah. So this is what the book is about. And I realize I probably just talked without breathing for like eight minutes, so I apologize for that.
Roberto German 08:08
No, I'm gonna do a lot of listening because this is a concept that I have not studied too deeply and what I wanna learn more about. And you just mentioned students who use humor as ways to address critical topics. Can you give-- can you provide some examples of how teachers can support that?
David E. Lowe 08:35
Yeah, without a doubt. One of the ways is by just recognizing this form of humor, not only as a disruption to the teacher's flow, but as a disruption to the topic. So if we're trying to disrupt racism and humor is disruptive, then we can see humor as part of the attempt to disrupt racism itself. You know, an example that I'll share for my own teaching life, and this happened many years ago, but I was teaching something, I don't remember the topic. You know, I asked a question and a bunch of hands went up, and one of those hands was from a student of mine who I had a really good relationship with. He's a Chicano student, and I didn't call on him. And like right away under his breath, he goes, "Oh, I guess my brown hand blended into the brown brick wall right behind me. So you just didn't see me, didn't see me, right?" And he was funny. He got a good laugh, and he deserved to get a good laugh for it. But beyond that, he was making a cultural critique, you know, about me, but also about his entire history in schools and something that he had experienced firsthand, which is feeling like he was racialized and not called on because of that. And so, if all I did was laugh at the joke and move on, then it's not treating the joke as socio-culturally important. If all I did was say, "How dare you call me out like that in front of the class," you know, "get outta here, go to the principal's office," then I'm abusing my power. And I'm also not learning anything from the sociocultural critique of the joke. If I-- so what did I do? I told him how much I appreciated the humor, but more importantly, behind closed doors, I reflected on it. It made me think. You know, who am I? A white male cisgendered educator to decide who gets to ask the question and who gets to call on somebody. Always me, right? It was because this is the power that's conferred upon a teacher to frame the conversation and decide who gets to answer the question. And I really had a lot of unlearning to do. I had to form an antagonism in myself to a certain degree, and that's what the joke is capable of doing. It allows a transgressive reframing. It allows the student, in this case, to get the teacher through humor to kinda rethink how he does things in the classroom. And that's the kind of thing that I see all the time in schools. I see students addressing serious, serious subjects with levity. And it doesn't mean that the don't take it seriously. I think they take things very seriously. I mean, I've been in classrooms during the 2021, 2022 school year, which here in California was the first year that students were returning to face-to-face instruction after a year of virtual. And let me tell you, they take everything seriously. But that doesn't mean that they're not cracking wise about it, and they're not kinda harassing one another and harassing their teachers at the same time. I think today's students are very introspective and circumspect about power, about who has power and how power is abused. And a lot of them are not shy about talking about power openly and publicly in ways that sometimes can make authority figures kinda uncomfortable.
Roberto German 12:26
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. And I wonder, you know, talking about wrestling with the discomfort, I wonder, you know, what that can look like in the classroom in terms of how we even approach some of our lessons. Have you-- is there some research that you've done around that or do you have ideas in terms of like what teachers can do proactively to encourage this transgressive humor in the classroom?
David E. Lowe 12:59
Yeah, well, I mean, we can certainly introduce humorous texts into our teaching. And, you know, when I say text, I'm not just referring to, you know, a bound written text, but an any kind of text, YouTube, video, I would define as a sort of text that we can use in our teaching. And so, you know, I named some of these standup comedians and you know, certainly I think a lot of teachers don't wanna use standup if it's gonna be dirty. But you could find clean standup, or you can find dirty standup and just bleep over the parts that, you know, you don't want your students to hear in the classroom, I suppose. But looking at something that, we'll just use a Trevor Noah, for instance saying like, okay, let's think about the topic he's talking about. What are some ways that we might research that topic? Now let's think about the way that Trevor Noah talks about that topic. Or John Oliver talks about that topic. Or Amber Rupin talks about that topic. These are serious topics. We're getting into deep, deep racial inequalities here. Why are they making jokes about it? What does that do to us as an audience to make jokes about it? And then from there, you can assign students. You know, not all students are funny. Not all students are comfortable being funny. But, you know, when did that ever stop a teacher from assigning something? You don't just always have to play to your student strengths tossing softballs all the time. But I think a lot of this goes back thousands of years to, like, Aristotelian rhetoric. You know, what are the ways that we try to frame an argument for our particular audience? And humor can get people to listen differently than just hitting 'em over the head with statistics or coming with the somber tone. And I'm not saying that serious topics don't deserve our serious attention, because of course they do. I think what I'm arguing is that humor doesn't mean we're not taking something seriously. I think oftentimes humor comes from a place of anger and really righteous rage. It's not just making light of things. It's, you know, I think the idea of the class clown that doesn't take anything seriously is a falsehood. I think class clowns take a lot of things seriously. But they get a bad rap because, you know, they got the word clown in that title. You know, clowns are foolish and they just amuse for the own-- for the benefit of amusement. I'm starting to think of transgressive humor less like a clown and more like a gremlin. You know, a gremlin that is concerned with systems and wants to take those systems down a peg.
Roberto German 15:44
Hmm. I like that. I like that. Yeah. You know, thinking about-- I mean, Trevor Noah is a great example of a comedian who brilliantly uses humor to address serious topics. Thinking about George Carlin and some of the content that from the past that George Carlin had put out and I don't remember things line for line, but you know, I remember the genius of his framing. Who are some, comedians besides the ones that you already mentioned, who are some other comedians that come to mind for you that use humor well that we should consider using some of their content or even if we're not necessarily, you know, playing all of their content in the classroom, perhaps extracting excerpts or thinking about their brilliance and their framing to support our own work in reaching students?
David E. Lowe 16:47
Oh, yeah. So going all the way back, I'm gonna say guys like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, without a doubt, you know, these are like some of the kings of comedy in my book. But there's a lot working today that are fantastic. I really like Cameron Esposito. I really like Ronny Chieng. I really like Joel Kim booster. I would recommend Langston Kerman. And each of these comics talks about different things, right? They talk about them in their own ways. Cameron Esposito has a whole album where she's taking on rape culture and, you know, you're like, rape culture, not a funny thing. This is a serious thing. This is injustice. We be talking about that in serious hushed tones. And, you know, Esposito is like, well, yes, it's a serious topic, and she tells jokes about it. And they're not jokes that are meant to mock people who have been harmed and are harmed by rape culture. They're making jokes at the expense of perpetrators of rape culture. And that's the big difference. So a lot of my book, I'm gonna just take a quick aside, is framed around this dialectic of punching up and punching down. You know, punching up being humor that takes aim at oppressors for lack of a better term. These are jokes about white supremacy and jokes about cis heteropatriarchy, jokes about systems of power and wealth and capitalism. Whereas punching down would be taking aim at people who are harmed, people who are vulnerable to harm. And you know, it's not a perfectly clear delineation, but it helps me to theorize for this book when I'm looking at humor that's transgressive, because punching down is transgress humor too. It's transgressing the boundaries of basic human dignity, you know. Like-- and that's a form of transgression. It's just not the kind of transgression that I wanna celebrate. So, you know, when we're talking about comics that I would recommend, if you had asked me that five years ago, I would've started with Dave Chappelle, right? 'Cause, you know, I know the kind of work that Dave Chappelle has done his whole career, but now he's also infamous for punching down at trans community.
So it changes how we think about comedy and humorous and what they're doing as truth tellers. 'cause he's still telling his truth. He's just now doing in a way that is deeply uncomfortable because you're like, you've been calling out racial abuse for decades, but now you're perpetuating a different form of gender-based violence. And so, you know, someone listens to this podcast years from now, some of these comedians I'm naming might have said problematic things in the years since. You know, I'm talking January 23 and I'll recommend Langston Kerman and I'll recommend [inaudible 00:19:44] and Hasan Minhaj and Trevor Noah. I think I'm most drawn to Trevor Noah a lot of the time because of his book Born A Crime, which the way he writes about being disciplined as a class clown and labeled as defiant. And then we obviously know who he becomes as an adult, I'm able to just follow a straight line from, you know, like that kid who we've all taught. You know, and sometimes as teachers, even teachers who appreciate humor, you're thinking like, why can't this kid just be quiet? You know, you feel that vein pulsing in your head. It's sixth period. You're just trying to teach her lesson and they're just cracking wise. Like, "Ah!" But when you step back and you realize this generative creative nature of what they're doing with this humor, again it's the gremlin. You know, gremlins are never convenient to have around 'cause they're gonna mess up your machinery. They're gonna chew through the wires. They're gonna take down the plane. But afterward, it forces you to grapple with that and to change. It forces you to become better. And that's what gremlins do to systems. They show you the ways in which they're deficient so that you can hopefully fix those deficiencies.
Roberto German 21:07
Hmm. Yeah. And change is hard. Change is hard. And it's also hard for us to look at our deficiencies, whether we're talking about individual deficiencies or systemic deficiencies and really work towards doing something different, right? Or eradicating that and, you know, bringing about that change.
David E. Lowe 21:27
It's mentally hard. And I'm not putting this on the feet of educators, you know, who probably have the hardest job in America and it's getting harder, you know, with-- and they have so many people coming from so many sites telling them, this is what you have to do. You know, "Hey, could you just work a 20 hour day you know, for less money?" And so, you know, I wanna be very clear that I'm not saying, oh, this is another thing teachers have to add to their plate. You know, find a little room between this and that, and put transgressive humor in there. I like to think of this more as just a form of solidarity work, you know, between and among various stakeholders in the school to sort of be able to honor one another's critical sense makers.
Roberto German 22:14
Yeah. Why don't you share what your aspirations are for this book?
David E. Lowe 22:19
Okay. Well, I've talked so far a lot about the kind of liberatory potential of transgressive humor that critiques. So one of the other aspirations I have for this book is to kind of also theorize punching down. So one day I-- so I conducted this research in three high schools in the Fresno area. And you know, I was learning all sorts of amazing, wonderful things by sitting in classrooms and by interviewing teachers and interviewing students. You know, one afternoon I rolled into one of the schools and the vibe was very different. I couldn't immediately tell what it was. And the teacher said yesterday at one of our other schools in the district, which happened to be a different school that I'm doing research at, there was a white kid who some of his white buddies took a picture of him in the locker room with a t-shirt twisted over his head in the shape of a KKK hood. These kids then broadcast this image on social media where it started spreading. And so the day that I walked onto campus at the other high school, the students led by the Black Student Union at that school staged a protest. They led a walkout, they stated their demands, they marched on downtown. It was a beautiful thing to see the youth activism. What was not beautiful is knowing that humor was at the root of this, you know, some--
Roberto German 23:56
David E. Lowe 23:57
Some kids punching down, right? Being-- channeling a race-- a racist discourse that my research has shown me has long been going strong in this school and in this district. And I think I'm just as interested in theorizing that sort of humor and what it does in schools and how to react. Because you get all the traditional responses from leadership. You know, the whole-- the bad apple discourse, right? These kids will be isolated and punished. You get the this isn't who we are. This doesn't represent what we believe. And you're like, well come on now though. Doesn't it though? You know, like you gotta actually be able to show the receipts if you're gonna say, this isn't who we are. Like, what work have you done curricularly, discursively? What kind of professional development are you giving your teachers to talk about racial issues in the classroom? Or are you telling them that these things are off limits? You're forcing them to teach colorblind literature? You know, so these are the kinds of responses that are very predictable. And I'm hoping to kind of be able to give better feedback. I'm not gonna offer capital S solutions in this book. I don't think I'm capable or qualified to do that, but I am going to try to, you know, run a sort of discussion. And there are a few books that have come out recently. Let's see, Raúl Pérez has a book that came out just earlier this year, well last year 'cause it's 2023 now, called The Souls of White Jokes. And it's about something that he calls amused racial contempt. And so this has been really crucial and in my theorization of what I saw in these high schools. And of course there are other forms of amused contempt that are not racial, but which are reserved for women or transgender students. And we can see the ways that punching down that these students as a form of racial contempt creates an ingroup and an outgroup, right? It brings the people who are joking closer together into some sort of affiliation, like those the white guys in the locker room at the expense of creating an outgroup and saying, you know, you don't belong here. You're not a part of this community. And so, yeah, that's one of my major goals for the book is to think about what Raúl Pérez is writing about in his book, specifically in a school setting.
Roberto German 26:48
That's great. That's great. Yeah. I'm looking forward to reading it. When can we anticipate the book being published?
David E. Lowe 26:54
That's a good question. It's due to the publisher. Publisher is Routledge. It's due September 30th of this year. And this is my first book, so I have no real sense of what post-production scheduling looks like. If they get the book and it comes out three months later or six months later. I'm kind of hoping for a 2025 or maybe late 2024 release. But yeah, like I said, I'm new to this. I have no idea how publishers work and you know, what their queue looks like and their turnaround time. And also they might read the book and say, "Yeah, you're gonna have to rewrite this thing. You know, you're too conversational. We need you more academic." Or they might look at it and say, "You're too academic. We need you conversational." And that's the weird thing about being a professor for the last decade or so, is I've really taught myself how to write in a very specific way that I'm trying to unlearn in the writing of this book. 'Cause I don't want it to feel totally academically and esoteric. You know, I want it to be readable. And you would think, well, that should be easy, right? But no, you gotta unlearn how to write those dance jargony sentences first.
Roberto German 28:10
That's right. That's right. Well, you know, everything has its process and hopefully, you're finding humor in the process of writing this book and going through all the ups and downs, right? The roller coaster of the publishing process. But glad you're doing so. Now, if you had the opportunity to have lunch with anyone dead and alive, who would it be and why? And the who is actually tied to any-- it could be any comedian or any individual that you think really brings that transgressive humor. That would bring that transgressive humor to the lunch.
David E. Lowe 28:54
Roberto German 28:54
Who would it be and why?
David E. Lowe 28:57
Okay. I'm gonna [inaudible 00:28:57] this by saying this is the lunch I don't necessarily wanna participate as a conversationalist and-- but I would love to just listen. Be a listener in-- at this lunch. I wanna say any old day, the Daily Show writer's room, you know, where Trevor Noah's there, Hasan Minaj is there, all of the correspondence are there, and they're just going out to lunch. I would love to be sitting at that table listening to the conversation. Maybe a couple times I might chime in, but I think I'd have a lot more to learn than add to that conversation. And if I had to add something, I would want to ask every single one of them about what their school experiences were like. You know, there're just so many sharpest attack comedians out there I really like. Do you know Amber Ruffin at all?
Roberto German 29:55
I'm not familiar with Amber Ruffin.
David E. Lowe 29:57
So she's got her own Friday night show now that I don't think I've ever once watched on a Friday night, but you know, these days everything's put on the internet. So I think she was-- she got her start on another late night show. You know, just kind of doing a little spot here and there. And her stuff is brilliant, you know. It's all like ver-- I mean, she takes on issues, she talks about race, talks about gender, does it with a kind of knowing, wink wink humor that-- I mean, she's brilliant. And yeah, check out the Amber Ruffin show sometime.
Roberto German 30:35
Amber Ruffin. Got it.
David E. Lowe 30:40
Yeah, I think she started on Seth Meyers Late Night show, you know, doing a kind of correspondent thing. But yeah, she's gonna be-- she's her own comedian. She doesn't need to be part of someone else's show.
Roberto German 30:54
I'll look her up. I'll look her up. So what's the message of encouragement you have for the audience?
David E. Lowe 31:00
Yeah. The lesson of encouragement is that we already have the tools. We-- sometimes it just takes a little bit of patience, I think, to respect and honor the critical contributions of wise asses, you know, of gremlins, of class clowns. And that can be the hardest thing to do when you're feeling the pressure. You know, when you know big state tests are coming up or you're a week behind because a bunch of kids got COVID and they couldn't come in. And so you're trying to teach from behind or whatever it is. And the last thing you have patience for is this kid who keeps interrupting you, you know, with quips from the back of the room. And you just want to tell them, "Hey, be cool. Can you keep with me here?" But kind of pausing, you know, stopping time, thinking, what are they adding? You know, so this is like-- this is his oldest time. But reframing students out of that deficit and thinking about what they're doing as a resource, you know, through an additive or an asset based lens--
Roberto German 32:04
David E. Lowe 32:06
We can look at class clown behaviors the same way rather than a disciplinary in fraction what is that student adding to our collective consciousness? And sometimes class clown behaviors are not taking aim at power. You know, they're just-- they're making jokes. You know, or making like a fart sound or something like that. And that's not the same thing as making a joke to take, you know, to take a shot at power or to talk about the venality of the wealthy to bring down capitalist structure. So I'm not saying that all humor needs to get equal love, but we don't wanna just automatically assume that students being humor-- humorous are problems that need to be solved.
Roberto German 32:55
That's good. That's good. Yeah. Something for us to keep in mind as we're engaging with the young people. So David, as we wrap up, where can folks follow you?
David E. Lowe 33:06
I am on Twitter where I don't post all that frequently. I'm on Instagram where I just post pictures of my children. I publish a lot of articles and I try to make those available on academia.edu for anyone who would be interested in reading them without needing some sort of institutional library sponsorship. 'Cause we all know academic articles are behind like 73 paywalls and they're not accessible.
Roberto German 33:37
Yes. That is the truth.
David E. Lowe 33:39
Yeah. It's the truth. We do things to try to make them more accessible. 'Cause the whole point is to be in conversation with others. You know, don't write an article to try to like hit someone over the head and say, do this tomorrow. Like, it's all meant to be part of a larger conversation.
Roberto German 33:56
Well, that's part of the reason you're here. That's part of the reason we have this platform of Our Classroom to give folks access. Those who are having trouble getting through all the walls to be able to read the journal that David Lowe and others wrote, well, we brought him here for you. Gave y'all a breakdown of transgressive humor in the classroom. All right. This is just an introduction people. And we got that book to look forward to. You're gonna have to wait a little bit. But in the meantime, follow David on social media. Go read some of the articles, the ones that you could get access to. And let's continue to just wrestle with this concept of transgressive humor and think about ways that we could affirm our students, especially when they're punching up. All right? Think about ways that we can encourage that and continue to give them the language, right? To let 'em know like, Hey, actually what you're doing is using humor as critical literacy practices David shared earlier. And so thank you David. Thank you for challenging us. Thank you for getting us to really dig deep and think about this concept of transgress humor. And thank you for writing this book. I'm looking forward to reading it.
David E. Lowe 35:12
I can't wait. I've got smoke coming outta my fingers every day. I am diligently at work at this and I really appreciate this conversation today.
Roberto German 35:21
Well, once the book is out, gotta have you back on the platform.
David E. Lowe 35:25
Oh, yeah. You know, I'll be there so fast that everyone's head will spin. It'll be good. It'll be good. Thank you so much.
Roberto German 35:32
All right. Until next time. As always, your engagement in Our Classroom is greatly appreciated. Be sure to subscribe, rate the show and write a review. Finally, for resources to help you understand the intersection of race bias, education, and society, go to multiculturalclassroom.com. Peace and love from your host, Roberto German.