Tuesday, January 16, 2007

failed experiments and botched jokes

I can no longer find the online source from which I stole this activity, but I did something I called "The Floating Pole" with my students. Sounds Freudian, eh? It might well be.

The way it works is this: you bring a long, thin pole into class, something measuring about six to eight feet (1.8-2.4m). An inch-wide PVC pipe of that length is perfect, and that's what I had. You then tell your students to stand in two rows, facing each other. If one row has an odd number of people, that won't matter. You then ask all students to hold out their right index fingers, pointing downward at a 45-degree angle, and warn them that they will use their fingers to support the pole, which you will lay down the middle of the two rows. Two rules: (1) all fingers must be in contact with the pole at all times, and (2) the pole must lie perfectly level, parallel to the floor, on everyone's fingers. The students present their fingers, the teacher lays the pole upon them, and...

...and what's supposed to happen is this: the pole will inevitably rise as students try, unevenly, to correct the pole's angle while also maintaining finger-contact with it. In my first two classes, this worked perfectly, and the students laughed in astonishment as the pole seemed to rise almost of its own volition. Yes! Women fingering the rising pole!

But then came my third class, the Intensive 3s. I gave them the instructions, placed the pole on their waiting fingers, and... nothing. I was bowled over. The pole was perfectly level, and it wasn't moving anywhere. In fact, the students were looking at me, confused about what the big deal was. I kept shaking my head in mute denial, and pretty soon the students started laughing: while they didn't know what was supposed to happen, they could also see that the experiment was a failure.

I then snatched my pole from the students' hands, whisked it into the corner for safe keeping, and shouted that my students were freaks and aliens, every last one of them, which simply made them guffaw all the more.

Class then proceeded more or less normally, until about the final five minutes.

We had been reading and talking about a guy who had climbed Mt. Everest despite being an amputee. The man, Tom Whittaker, had made several attempts up the mountain prior to his triumph. We talked about "triumph over adversity," chewed over the question "What would you like to be famous for?" and, as we moved the conversation to the general subject of disability, pondered which of our five senses we could most easily part with.

I knew, at the end of class, that the time had come to tell the Seeing-eye Dog Joke. I'm sure you've heard some form of it:

A blind man and his seeing-eye dog walk into the middle of a convenience store. The blind man suddenly grabs his dog's leash and begins whirling the dog violently over his head, as if the dog and its leash were a helicopter blade. The store's patrons stare in horror at this spectacle, and the owner, unable to keep silent any longer, shouts, "Sir! What are doing?" The blind man calmly replies, "Not to worry-- I'm just looking around."

The first time I ever heard this joke, way back in the mists of my youth (thanks, Dad), I laughed like a slobbering fool. Most guys do. My students had a different reaction: every single one put on her patented Sad Face and went "Awwwwwww" in sympathy for the poor dog. The moment froze in Matrix-style bullet time. I was busted: the teacher was making sport of the suffering of a defenseless beast! Forget the fact that this country has a thriving dog-harvesting industry: what mattered to these girls was that the fat foreigner was chortling at the death of something cute! The students' scandalized looks were too much; it was almost as though I had been caught skull-fucking Hello Kitty.

And that's where matters stood as a grim silence descended. My attempt at humor was a fiasco, an abortion, a botched joke of John Kerry-like proportions. The ambience had flatlined.

But all was not lost: like Jesus resuscitating that aborted fetus with his glowing fingertip, I managed to crack some jokes and end the class with laughter (not by taking off my shirt, no; that would have led to screams of horror and Oedipus-style, self-inflicted eye gougings), and all was more or less right again.

Guess I'd better be careful about which jokes and activities I spring on the students from now on. Another lesson learned.

Epilogue: I told my coworker about the Floating Pole weirdness in Intensive 3, and his reply was: "Massmind. Pure massmind."


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