Yay—Humor Isn’t Dead! Let’s Kill It Anyway
Ferris State University has suspended a tenured professor for methods it once commended him for
February 10, 2022
As a peevish meeting of one last contractual obligation to Decca Records, the Rolling Stones delivered a song called “Cocksucker Blues,” which—as its title suggests—contains thematic content that made the song unreleasable (deliberately so). The squares at Decca, presumably, were not amused.
Far more hip, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) points out, are the students at Ferris State University who signed up for classes with history professor Barry Mehler. As he has done repeatedly for years, Mehler observed this semester’s syllabus week with a scripted, tongue-firmly-in-cheek video in which he told students that (among other things) “no limber-dick cocksucker of an administrator is going to tell me how to teach my classes, because I’m a fucking tenured professor.”
Mehler was borrowing dialogue almost verbatim from the foul-mouthed HBO miniseries Deadwood, and since the point of it all was to alert students to the need to cite their sources, he then showed the original Deadwood clip. In short, Mehler was using humor and mock gruffness to make a pedagogical point. He made numerous other pedagogical points in the same video, in equally eccentric, even outlandish fashion (see the space-helmeted Mehler below).
As FIRE points out, it was a fashion that for years had been recognized and commended by both students and administrators at Ferris State. Several years ago, upon observing the performance of the same foul-mouthed, scripted fare, the then dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Education hugged Mehler and said that she wished she’d had a teacher like him when she was a student. More recently, after observing his classroom style, including his profane syllabus-week skit, faculty peers and colleagues nominated Mehler for a Distinguished Teaching Award. He was named a finalist. Another colleague nominated him for a merit raise, which he received. Students pack his classes. For all his kookiness, Mehler seems—by general and even official consensus—to be an effective, popular teacher.
But when a selectively edited version of his syllabus-week video hit the internet, misinformed online outrage ensued, prompting university administrators to pretend, for the sake of appearances, that they didn’t get the joke, and that they too were troubled and even outraged by Mehler’s supposed violation of the university’s square-sounding Employee and Student Dignity policy. Mehler remains on administrative leave, pending an investigation. However unconventional, his video-recorded speech—in its entirety—is protected by the First Amendment, which Ferris State, a public university, is therefore almost certainly violating.
To be humorless and obtuse is one thing, and can be amusing in its own right. To feign humorlessness and obtuseness is creepy, and in this case probably unconstitutional. Accordingly, Mehler has initiated a lawsuit.