More than thirty years of teaching complex subject matter to undergraduates has left him with a piece of wisdom he hopes will be at the foreground of faculty’s thinking as MSU begins a semester of remote learning.

How have people used notions of human nature as shaped by Charles Darwin to develop political theories? This is the sort of cross-disciplinary query at the heart of many James Madison classes at MSU. Madison students learn about public policy in a spectral way, integrating philosophy, history, science, and medicine. The subject matter is multidimensional, and often difficult to parse.

“It can be fairly esoteric,” says Dr. John Jackson, a professor teaching a class called “Evolution in Society” this fall. Jackson, like all faculty, is keen to see his students excel in his class. More than thirty years of teaching complex subject matter to undergraduates has left him with a piece of wisdom he hopes will be at the foreground of faculty’s thinking as MSU begins a semester of remote learning: 

“Right now, anything we can do to lessen tension is a good thing. I try to give them the message: do the work, and you’ll be fine.” 

Jackson was eager enough to convey this message in a social media post (and also in his syllabus) that encapsulates this view, and accomplishes a couple subtle communicative goals, as well. The post reads as follows: 

“No one planned for a pandemic (obviously). No one deserves this. Let's not pretend this is business as usual, it is most definitely not. This is a time when we all have to cut each other some slack. Come to the class via Zoom. Come in your PJs if you want. Don't want to comb your hair or put on makeup? That's fine. Don't want to turn on your camera? OK with me, but it would be nice if you turned it on in small group discussions. Want to eat a sandwich or a bowl of Peanut Butter Capt'n Crunch (nature's perfect food) during class? All I ask is that you mute your microphone if you do. Sucky internet or other technical issues? We will deal with it, don't freak out. Does your parent, roommate, cat, or pet goat wander into the room during Zoom? Wonderful! Introduce them to us! Don't worry about your grade, watch the lectures, read the material, participate in Zoom discussions and you'll be fine, I promise. I'll be here, online, trying to remember to wear a collared shirt and not one of the t-shirts I own that are older than you are. What I want for you this semester is for everyone one to stay healthy so the worst thing that happens is that you have an amusing story to tell your kids someday about how the world shut down back in 2020 and you went to school online (you will tell this story to them a lot and they will roll their eyes and say, "I know! You've only told me about it like a billion times"). Stay healthy, stay distant, wash your hands. With patience and kindness, we will learn together this semester, I promise.”

 

“Dad Jokes”: Tension Relief and Social Cohesion

For Jackson, putting his students at ease is crucial. “A lot of the rigor necessary in a large lecture class can be accomplished more informally in a small class like this. What it’s about is simply building trust. I want to convey to them: You can trust me to be fair. You can trust me to be open. If you don’t like what I’ve written on your evaluation, come talk to me, and we can work it out.” 

The professor hopes this sensibility comes through in the statement in his syllabus. If popularity is any indicator, his hopes are realized — the statement seems to have struck a chord with members of the MSU teaching community, some of whom have passed it around informally through email.

The statement is informal, playful even, but there is a strategy behind it.

Jackson teaches in some scientifically rigorous disciplines, but he thinks a focus on metric achievement actually hinders his students, in many cases. Their instinct to focus on grades is an understandable, deeply conditioned one; this is why Jackson does anything he can do to realign their focus on the ideas in play, group discussion, and learning outcomes. As often as not, this means stepping from behind the curtain of professor and putting them at ease — sometimes with dad jokes. 

Jackson is happy to unpack why he thinks the message resonates with students, as well — “dad jokes” promote social cohesion.

“I have a theory about the ‘dad joke,’ the corny joke that makes everybody roll their eyes,” says Jackson. “I’ve seen analyses that those kinds of silly puns are more binding of a community than a clever joke that maybe not everybody gets. With the dad joke, everybody rolls their eyes together and says, ‘Get a load of this goofball.’ It’s a way of promoting unity, in some ways. The attitude in my statement on the syllabus is a way to relieve tension in a way that’s accessible to everyone.”

 

An Environment of Trust

As we enter a fall semester marked by yet more pandemic plot twists, Jackson is thinking deeply about his online pedagogy. The central imperative remains clear to him, however.

“Let’s be patient with each other,” says Jackson. “Some students lost jobs, some had to get jobs when they were unprepared to do so. Some have parents who are frontline medical personnel. This is a scary time. It’s essential we build an environment of trust, not just between instructor and student, but among the students themselves. Students learn as much from each other as they do from a faculty member sometimes. We have to work to foster that trust, no matter what the modality of learning.”