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The Virtue of a Sense of Humor

The satire involving Professor Ned LeBow and his encounter with humorless Merrimack Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Simona Sharoni recalled for me the role of humor in the hiring process of Dartmouth’s excellent Economics department.

Laughing Cavalier.jpgAs I have heard from several Econ professors, the first set of interviews with outstanding candidates — the threshold test, if you will — has a single goal: to determine if the potential faculty member has a sense of humor. Why? Because professors who have the ability to laugh and not take themselves too seriously will be good colleagues, and they will also, in all likelihood, be good teachers.

And so it has come to pass in Silsby Hall that the faculty is to a man and woman engaging and menschlich. In fact, if Frans Hals were in Hanover for a visit, he might do a Baroque portrait called the Laughing Economist.

Once the humor hurdle has been passed, the members of the department look only at the quality of scholars’ research. An amusing academic who can think original thoughts and present them with the support of serious data will make a fine addition — as the College’s most popular department has shown time and again.

You see, the existence of a sense of humor on the part of an individual bespeaks self-confidence. Italy may have many faults, but how delightful it is that a women can freely say “Ciao, bello” to a man (“Hey, good lookin’”), just as a man may greet a woman with “Ciao, bella,” if he feels so moved. (My recommendation to Professor Sharoni is that she not go to Italy.) In fact, this salutation can either go across gender lines or remain between persons of the same gender. Nobody seems to feel the need to complain to the authorities.

Such self-confidence is a kind of buffer against misunderstanding and confusion. If one looks for humor in a remark, or simply asks for an explanation about a comment that was otherwise unintelligible, a whole lot of confusion can be avoided.

So, Professor Sharoni. Learn to laugh a little. But until you do, when Ned Lebow is hired for a job and you are passed over, you’ll know why.

Addendum: At the Yale Law School in my day, the faculty dining room, which was regularly used by students, had two large tables: at one, liberal Professor Paul Gewirtz often sat with his acolytes; at the other, you would find most of the students who founded the Federalist Society in their third year in New Haven. One table consistently showed evidence of an uproarious good time; the other was so somber that I once offered my condolences in the thought that the people there had lost someone very dear to them. I’ll leave you to guess which table was which.

Addendum: In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes a dispassionate look at l’Affaire LeBow: Is ‘Ladies Lingerie’ a Harmless Joke or Harassment? A dispute among international-relations scholars puts the spotlight on a system that serves everyone poorly.” One of his conclusions:

Each of the shortcomings that I flagged would require different reforms to address, but perhaps fall short of fully capturing the bigger problems that loom over disputes like this.

Foremost among them is the purpose of a professional community’s code of conduct: It ought to be language that clarifies shared, non-negotiable community standards. The ISA’s code of conduct is much more effective at evading the necessity of having to weigh, debate, or commit to any particular standards.

Should all jokes with any sexual innuendo be banned from ISA conferences? Sharoni thinks they already are. If a vote were taken, what would the results be? Do a majority of ISA members agree? What about a majority of women who belong to the ISA?

But at present you have a complainant who earnestly thinks such jokes are obviously verboten, a respondent who thinks that his joke was obviously acceptable, and standards that not only offer no help in adjudicating the matter, but that give no hint as to what the organization’s membership would want.

Little wonder that the case is roiling the community.

Addendum: A longtime reader writes in:

About Prof. LeBow. My son, a first year university student, rolling his eyes said, “Lebow should know that he’s at a ‘Triggerfest Conference’ and should adjust his comments accordingly.” My mom, on the other hand, who well remembers Ogilvy’s and Eaton’s department stores in Montreal (yes, with an apostrophe) and their elevator attendants, didn’t see what the fuss was all about and thought LeBow’s comment was funny. It was.

Erratum: Although I heard about hiring in Econ directly from professors there, the faculty members currently in charge of recruiting have written in with a correction:

Your description of the Economics Department’s hiring practices is incorrect: sense of humor is not a hiring criterion. In the first set of interviews, we evaluate candidates on their ability to describe and discuss their research agenda and their existing research. During the campus visit, we continue to evaluate the candidate’s research and potential as a teacher/scholar.

Erzo Luttmer, Chair of the Department of Economics Junior Recruitment Committee
Eric Edmonds, Chair of the Department of Economics Senior Recruitment Committee


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