by Erica Venton

Who doesn’t want to watch Netflix for college credit? With a course title of “Laugh Your ISS Off” students were jumping at the chance to spice up their curriculum. This was exactly the idea behind the course— reach students where they were and bring them through a transformative learning experience by way of a general education requirement for Integrative Studies in Social Science (ISS).

The course objective was to take on social inequality and initiatives in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in a unique way; “Laugh Your ISS Off” used parody in comedy to speak truth to systems of power and oppression. The humor allowed structural inequalities to be called out and looked at through different lenses. Comedy can be used to highlight structural inequalities; however, it can also spread those inequalities depending on audience perspective.

In an exercise designed around perspective, students learned how to conduct a critical media study. They called out the writers, unpacking select sitcom episodes from the different viewpoints of the producers, the writers, the stories and impact. Students discussed what was progressive and what was regressive in the episodes. They looked to see if there was a laugh track and talked about the idea of a mockumentary.

“I'm thoroughly enjoying this class and I especially enjoy the discussion assignment because it offers actual interaction with people! That I didn't go to high school with!!” exclaimed a student. “I always look forward to meetings with my group. Also, I like that this class considers topics that are relevant today, because the controversial discussions we had in high school were always about issues of the past that have been (relatively) resolved. Also, I feel like no matter what the unit covers, I can relate it to something I observed or experienced personally, which is fun and interesting to reflect on in every paper. I'm taking 16 credits, and personally I think the workload for this course is perfectly balanced and I always look forward to learning the content and even doing the assignments.”

All ISS classes at MSU take on complex topics and issues that require skills development in integrative inquiry. The innovation of this particular ISS was how it approached the complex topic of social inequality through the primary-source lens of comedy. And perhaps most importantly, this course opened the conversation to students in an environment they were already spending so much of their time—Netflix. Students were asked to watch selected comedy series and episodes, read materials related to social inequality, and take low-stakes unit quizzes. Groups of four students were formed to talk about the readings and the key concepts and then make connections to ways this played out in comedy series by answering a set of prompts. The Zoom meetings were recorded in group mode and submitted in D2L.

“This was originally launched as a 300-level summer class in the middle of a pandemic where social distancing was protocol. The students were craving interaction,” said Eddie Boucher, Assistant Professor in the Center for Integrative Studies in Social Sciences and Hub Faculty Fellow. “The timing of the course was so powerful and meaningful— global pandemic, controversial presidential election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and mandated remote learning. It was the perfect storm for applied and engaged learning around vital societal issues. The students were able to look at what was happening in different parts of the country and make meaningful connections to the course themes. Students were seeing it every day in real time, then talking about these structural inequities and inequalities around race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability.”

Each unit, students would write a reflection paper over the broad unit topic. The general topic of the unit might be about structural racism, for example, but then students would have to narrow down this topic, establish a thesis, support it using a required comedy episode from within the unit, and identify another external example from anywhere in our streaming world to further support their thesis. Additionally, students were asked to connect their paper topics to their lived experiences and consider how both individuals and society at large might better address pressing issues pertaining to DEI.

 “Initially, many students don’t think of our society as structurally inequitable or that they benefit in any noticeable way from our unequal society,” said Boucher. “However, as the students lean into the curriculum through the various learning artifacts, things become more clear to them. In fact, one student had a sort of public epiphany during a recorded Zoom group discussion on the topic of colorblind racism. As he really thought about the issue he realized aloud, ‘Oh, I’m part of the problem. My whole family and town are part of the problem.’”

Students weren’t the only ones learning through the experience. Boucher has listened to vital student feedback and suggested ways he might improve the course. Following student recommendations, he has expanded the curriculum to include more comedy shows and episodes that are produced, written, and directed by people of color. One student specifically suggested the show #Black AF, and this series is now central to the course curriculum. Additionally, the course unit on the topic of (dis)ability underwent important revisions following important comments made by students in course evaluations. Boucher suggested that a course like this needs to grow and change as a collaboration with students as the real stakeholders.

“No doubt, the curriculum can be viewed as controversial. However, based on the reactions of students and the group conversations submitted, it seems this course is making a positive impact on MSU student attitudes and understanding in the areas of DEI,” said Boucher. The course is now being offered at the 200 level in order to reach more students and at an earlier stage in their time at MSU. In the Fall semester of 2020, more than 1000 students were enrolled in this course across four sections. Boucher says, “Due to the scale and interest in this course, there’s so much potential here for meaningful engaged learning and real societal change.”

"This course is an incredible example of meeting kids where they are to allow new thoughts and insights. Laugh Your ISS Off uses comedy, something so many are passionate about, in order to dive deep into societal injustices,” a student from the course said. “Almost every college student spends too much time watching Netflix, and not enough time learning how to be an active member of a dynamic society. This class smushes the two together. Again, this was a phenomenal course, and one of my favorites while here at MSU! I wish everybody could take this, as it helped me grow a lot as an analytical thinker."

Go where students already are and teach them critical media inquiry— it is hard to turn off once you learn to see through different perspectives. Students will be applying and reconsidering the principles and topics learned in the course through other shows they watch and experiences they encounter in daily life. That is where we will see the biggest impact in the long run.

Learn more about the Center for Integrative Studies in Social Science https://socialscience.msu.edu/undergraduate/cis.html