Laughing, Learning and Workplace Diversity
by James Sanders '13 (M.A.)
Most business schools are filled with classes that cover almost every aspect of the field, but few teach students how to relate to diversity in the workplace. Even fewer use comedy as a method of choice. But Serious Comedy and Social Justice, a course taught by Ken Weidner, Ph.D., assistant professor of management, does just that.
Comedy has at times been an effective method of raising awareness of race and class issues. For example, Richard Pryor, whom Weidner’s students discuss in class, used humor to change his audiences’ perceptions of race.
The first-year seminar course is offered through the leadership, ethics and organizational sustainability (LEO) major and satisfies the General Education Program Diversity/Global/Non-Western requirement.
“We look at the LEO major as a choice for people who seek skills to help them make a difference,” says
Weidner. “The things we’re learning about relate to the social impacts of business.”
Weidner suggested the course after a call was made for faculty to send proposals for new first-year seminar courses because he saw a need to explore the role organizations play in perpetuating social injustice, and he also wanted to address how these organizations can effectively advance social change.
The class was first offered in the fall of 2012. Weidner’s course description notes that recent research has shown that comedy is more salient to how young men view themselves than music, sports and personal style. The New York Times recently reported on a survey conducted by Comedy Central in which they questioned men on the importance of comedy. Of the men surveyed, 88 percent said their sense of humor was crucial to their self-definition, and 74 percent checked the box, “Funny people are more popular.”
Weidner used clips from films and television, books and a course-required Netflix account to create the curriculum for the class.
Two students of color — both women — enrolled in LEO 150 in the fall. Ayana Tabourn ’16 says she was surprised by her classmates’ reception to the material where race was concerned.
“We watched video clips about race, class and gender that were eye-opening,” says Tabourn, who also says she learned more about herself through the experience. “As a minority, I thought I understood what it was like for other people to be discriminated against. The class was interesting. It made you think less about yourself and more about other people in the world. It made the issues discussed real.”
But that didn’t mean there weren’t uncomfortable conversations and videos. Liz Wardach ’16 says that Weidner’s class ruined her, “but in the best way,” she says. “As a white middle class female student, it made me feel uncomfortable at times because I felt guilty.” Wardach says that the class taught her to look at racial issues differently. “Professor Weidner says that the point is not to feel badly about who you are, but to notice discrimination and be sensitive to differences and move past them toward a common goal.”
The course began with an introduction to social justice and to what Weidner terms “serious comedy.” The main body of the course covered justice issues as they relate to economics, gender, sexuality and race. The last segment of the class explored how people can work toward social justice; afterwards, students present their final research projects.
Weidner says the most controversial material was saved for the last half of class.
“I was kind of prepared for it,” Tabourn says of the awkwardness surrounding the race element. “I went to a high school where I was one of the only minorities, so I was prepared for the uncomfortable feelings. But our discussions had a comedic element to them, and once everyone was laughing, it made things easier.”
Texts included works by W.E.B. DuBois, and case studies on Dred Scott, Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson — the landmark case that started discrimination under the separate, but equal, ruling.
Among the videos, students watched everything from “The Daily Show,” “South Park” and “The Chappelle Show,” to “The Office.”
When asked about the sensitivity of some of the course content, Weidner mentioned “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America.” The mockumentary/satire was released in 2004 and presents an alternate reality, where the Confederacy won the Civil War and slaves were not freed.
“The students said they hadn’t really thought about what would have happened if the outcome of the Civil War had been different, much like we don’t think about how the world would be different if historical events such as the War of 1812, World War I or World War II had ended differently,” says Weidner. “The film also examines the extent to which racism persists to the present day, despite the Union winning the war and slavery being abolished.”
Weidner’s students were invested in the coursework.
“I feel like we covered everything,” Shane Kensil ’16 says. “I am very glad I took the class, though there was a lot of work, more than I expected. There’s a lot of writing, and reading, but it helps with understanding the material.”
Students’ final projects had to encompass one or more of the topics discussed in class. Taboun’s project focused on racism in the media. “I researched movies and how they have a racist past,” she says. “I focused on ‘Dumbo’ and how the crows were an African-American stereotype. I also did recent token characters and used examples of token blacks — like on ‘South Park.’”
Kensil’s project focused on the negative implications of the word retard. “I’m very sensitive to the word,” Kensil, whose sister has Down syndrome.
As diversity becomes increasingly valued in the workplace, Weidner’s class prepares these future business professionals to deal with people’s differences in ways that respect all parties.