So far nobody has talked about the element of surprise -- startling students into seeing a subject, or an issue, in a different, yet completely valid, light. Here, someone has taken what is usually seen as a major liability -- his drug conviction -- and turned it into the lynchpin of a darned-near irresistible resume! I think I'd hire the guy on the basis of his honesty alone!
While it takes real talent to pull off this kind of skewed view effectively, there are examples out there just waiting to be used. For instance, lots of us have been mildly (or wildly) amused by the campaign to have the creationist myth of the Flying Spaghetti Monster introduced into Kansas schools, as a legitimate philosophic alternative to Intelligent Design. Silly, yes, but used creatively, it also opens a door to a rational discussion of the issues surrounding this debate.
Possibly there are limited opportunities for this technique, and probably few of us have the confidence or the courage (much less the administrative support!) to introduce anything similar to an online course, but it might be fun to let our imaginations play with the idea.
(Oh, and for anyone not familiar with Pastafarians and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, here's a link that explains it all: http://www.venganza.org/
Very interesting example of making lemonade form lemons. In this case, a fair quantity of chutzpah was added to the basic ingredients.
The comment on the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a good example of something intended as humor falling worse than flat. Many people view the "Pastafarian" site as a deliberately mean-spirited attempt to denigrate and mock their deeply held and cherished spiritual beliefs. That's a very different thing than an honest policy debate about the public-school science curriculum.
People are often willing to poke fun at themselves, but take umbrage when outsiders do it. If your goal is to provoke anger and stiffen opposition, sarcasm and mocking go a long way. If your goal is to promote discussion and open minds to new ideas, however, you might want to think more carefully.
But this raises another question: isn't humour always, or at least usually, about being provocative? (Though preferably not offensively so!) I'm thinking about rhyming games, for example, that teach children about rhythm and word patterns by provoking them to think beyond the simple, concrete language of everyday transactions. Or the scatalogical jokes so beloved of eight-year-old boys. (Not sure what they teach, exactly, except maybe the boundaries of conversation in civil company!)
Oh, it didn't offend me, my skin's a lot thicker than that! But it's an example of how something that might be considered to be a highbrow, lighthearted takeoff on Idea A to a group that does not itself hold Idea A, can be quite offensive to a group that holds A dear.
The question is, is it inadvertent or deliberate? You were't seeking to offend, but the FSM itself was conceived as a deliberate mockery of religious beliefs, along the lines of the "Darwin" fish-with-legs bumper stickers. (It's interesting that some of the same people who think those are oh-so-funny will recoil at a racist or sexist joke, even if they're not members of the group targeted in the punchlines.)
(An aside about racist jokes - in my experience there are two kinds. One kind is deliberately cruel, designed to reinforce negative stereotypes. The other kind is merely thoughtless. It assumes that of course no one could possibly find it offensive. IMO this second kind may be more dangerous for its disingenuousness, as it assumes that no one whose opinion matters would be offended: "Sure, my Darwin fish might offend some Bible-thumping fundy, but so what?")
Humor IS about being provacative, getting us to see things in new and unexpected ways. The element of surprise IS the funny bit. If you're not surprised, then it's not funny. (How many times have you seen through the setup of a joke, and when the punchline finally came, thought, "I saw that coming a mile away.")
And as you say, the trick is to provoke without offending. What's hard is that we don't know what we don't know. "I never thought that anyone might find that offensive." The overly-callous response is to dismiss the offended as thin-skinned. An overly cautious response might be to simply expunge all attempts at being humorous. A better response IMO is to use the opportunity to question our assumptions.
And if you run up against a joke that doesn't work for you, fall back on the principle I suggested earlier: Assume good intentions unless demonstrated otherwise, and cut the other person some slack.
The people that write the "Dummies" books seem to have found a way to combine humour and instruction in an inoffensive way. Most of their humour seems to be of the self-deprecating variety that is designed to remove tension. I'm working from memory, but one line from the book Laptops for Dummies warns about magnetic fields by saying something like "If I remember correctly from the days when I slept through science class, a magnetic field is..." They also intersperse their work with relevant cartoons, humourous examples, interesting things to do--all with the intention of relieving tension.
I personally don't appreciate their humour that much (though I do like Corner Gas), nor do I buy these books, but they have obviously found a niche in the marketplace and they do contain many techniques that can be emulated without offending too many people or boring too many others.
I agree, the humour is pretty lame, but we don't usually buy those books for their laff-a-minute quotient. In the Dummies books, the joke is on us, the consumer, as signalled by the title.
Self-deprecating humour seems to be a pretty safe technique, and, judging by the success of the Dummies books, pretty successful. So, are we coming to the conclusion that humour in instruction has to be safe? That instructors shouldn't introduce provocative humour because of the risk of being misunderstood, or offending someone? This seems to be where I started from, by noting my cautions to course developers to use humour sparingly and carefully.
I can only add a heartfelt "Amen" to that!
"The overly-callous response is to dismiss the offended as thin-skinned. An overly cautious response might be to simply expunge all attempts at being humorous. A better response IMO is to use the opportunity to question our assumptions. "
That brings my mind around to one of my pet peeves - the dismissal of another person's discomfort or offense as "politically correctness" - as though consideration of another's concerns or beliefs is a sign of weakness or worse, evidence of an inability to laugh at oneself. V-. (I hope that brings up the "thoughtful" emoticon! See, Sylvia, Liz, et al., I really can learn a new trick. Or at least attempt it!)
Personally, and here I reveal my own not-too-subtle bias, I don't find anything objectionable in the fish with feet - in my perspective, it's simply a graphical statement of conviction. While my car doesn't sport such a bumper sticker, if it did, and if I were to be questioned about it, I would expect a respectful dialogue of what it means to believe that creation and evolution are not mutually-exclusive concepts. I would no more expect another person to be offended by it than I am offended by the more conventional, footless, fish graphic. :-D
Similarly, with the Pastafarian issue, I find it no more offensive than I find the exclusion of other, more time-honoured creation mythologies from the Intelligent Design discussion. (Side note: I don't use the word "myth", or "mythology" to mean an untruth here - I use it to mean a metaphor that is traditional within a culture.) To my mind, it's a poke in the ribs (gentle or pointed, you decide!) at how much is excluded from the discussion.
Here in the midst of Vancouver's extended rainy season, for example, I have been thinking for the past several days of the Haida creation story, specifically about how Raven stole the sun -- and if you've ever dealt with ravens in the PNW, you have no trouble at all with recognizing how and why Raven became such a powerful figure in coastal mythology.
As luck would have it, I've been teaching resume writing to my business students this week. They are no doubt as bored as I am of the canned application letters available in the textbooks and websites, so I decided to include your ad in my ppt presentation. It is a well-written sales pitch. If nothing else, it will help to hold the students' attention.
I decided to go out on a limb and use the pot smuggler ad in a job hunting lesson. Of course I prefaced my lectured with the usual warnings ("Don't try this at home kids") but the ad had the desired effect. Not only did it put some life back into a potentially-tedious lesson, but the students did learn how they could use a little imagination to present their qualities in the best light.
As an added bonus, one student demonstrated some very skillful research abilites. By the end of the class she had found out how the story turned out and sent me a link to the article. (The ad got 200 job offers and the guy is now a sucessful writer and TV producer). I 'm sure there's a message in here somewhere for Oprah Winfrey and James Frey, but I don't know what it is.