Faculty Show reflects the changing senses of humor

 Image courtesy of Archives and Special Collections  Professors perform in Chapin at the 1976 Faculty Show, which had a patriotic theme to  celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of the United States. 

Image courtesy of Archives and Special Collections

Professors perform in Chapin at the 1976 Faculty Show, which had a patriotic theme to  celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of the United States. 

BY SHEBATI SENGUPTA ’19

The first faculty show was held over 100 years ago. In earlier years, it was used as a fundraising tool for the College, to benefit anything from the health center to a scholarship fund and the tradition has continued almost uninterrupted every four years since. It operates on a volunteer basis, with a group of interested staff and faculty coming up with ideas, writing scripts and participating in skits. The writing, planning and the faculty band are prepared in advance. The comprehensive rehearsals, however, start the Monday before the show. This year some of the cast, such as psychology professor KC Haydon, participated for the first time. The longest continuous volunteer, Dawn Larder, coordinator for the economics department, has been part of faculty show since 1976. Regardless of experience and commitment level, all the faculty interviewed reiterated that the show is, first and foremost, supposed to be fun.

Jim Hartley, an economics professor who has been involved with the show for many years, said, “you want everybody to enjoy the evening.” Striving for this goal, however, forces the staff and faculty to walk a line that many professional comedians grapple with: entertaining without offending. Associate Dean of Students Gary Gillis, one of the lead organizers of this year’s show, said that the volunteers were keeping in mind how the jokes would be received by the student body. According to Gillis, they “worked closely with the people in Student Life because we don’t want [the show] to come across as offensive. We want it to be fun for the students.” He added that they decided “early on that it was a good decision to work with [Associate Dean of Students for Community and Inclusion Latrina Denson] and her staff to help us make sure this is as entertaining for the students as possible.”

The question of what students find humorous played a central role in volunteers’ brainstorming sessions. Maura Breen, a psychology and education professor, said,  “it is absolutely the case that what in previous years may have been funny now doesn’t seem funny. I think that’s a conversation that’s being had across lots of spaces, but I think that’s certainly been in people’s minds.” She also commented on the importance of participants being able to brainstorm freely. Jared Schwartzer, another professor of psychology and education, agreed. “I think it’s important to remember we’re always learning,” said Schwartzer. “It’s important that faculty are granted the same opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.” 

“It is true, in the bigger scheme of things, that humor can hurt,” said Margaret Robinson, a professor in the mathematics department, adding that, “we don’t want it to be divisive.” On the other hand, she “really [believes] that humor can bring people together.” Jen Matos, a professor of psychology and education, said, “there’s a lot of community-building that happens” in the faculty show. With jokes about aspects of Mount Holyoke such as the long lines at the new dining commons, advisor-advisee interactions and the shortcomings of Smith College, the faculty show aimed to draw on Mount Holyoke experiences which a collective audience could appreciate. “It’s funny and it’s Mount Holyoke,” said Robinson. “We still love it, even though it’s silly… it’s us.” 

Many of the participants mentioned that they were meeting colleagues they had never met before and learning about facets of their lives they do not discuss in a typical professional setting. For Dawn Larder, “the best part of faculty show is that when we start, there is no such thing as rank; a department coordinator is moving the president of the College around.” 

Many faculty also expressed a desire to share their less professional side with the student body. “A student can see us in the classroom but they may or may not get to know us outside of class,” said Haydon, “so it’s fun to be able to show a different side of ourselves, a more light-hearted, less serious side.” Kerstin Nordstrom, a physics professor, concurred. “It gives us another way to be real people in front of you guys,” she said. “Maybe we have hidden talents, and with some of the cultural references you might find that we’re more aware of things than you think we are, despite the fact that we’re old.” Lily Rithichoo ’19 said that faculty show “[humanizes] your professors a little bit,” adding that she thought they accomplished their goal of entertaining students. 

Some faculty mentioned that this indicated a level of trust and community between students and volunteers, which is needed in order for the participants to feel comfortable getting on stage. “[This show] wouldn’t happen at other institutions I’ve been at,” mathematics professor and faculty show narrator Dylan Shepardson said. “I do think this is one of the things that makes this a better place to be a student.”

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