Dare to be stupid

CMN Guest Blog 10/22/09 7:35 PM

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Dr. Vince Filak is an award-winning teacher, scholar and college media adviser. He currently works as an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where he advises the Advance-Titan, the school's weekly newspaper. Prior to his arrival at UW-O, he was an associate professor of journalism at Ball State University where he served as the adviser to the Ball State Daily News.

In 2007, he was named an Honor Roll recipient by College Media Advisers, Inc., an award given to distinguished advisers with fewer than five years experience as an adviser. As a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he helped resurrect the Daily Cardinal, the country's sixth-oldest student daily paper through the savvy negotiation of more than $137,000 worth of debt. His efforts landed him on the list of the paper's 110 Most Notable Alumni, which was released in 2002. He currently sits on both the Daily Cardinal Alumni Association and the Daily Cardinal boards of directors. He currently lives in Omro, Wis. with his wife, Amy, and their daughter, Zoe.

Despite all of this, his most joyous moment was meeting Mike Eruzione of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team (the guy on his right). Yes, he is very weird, which is why he fits in perfectly in a newsroom.

Vince Filak, Ph.D.
Advance-Titan Adviser
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Much has been made of the decision to host the CMA/ACP conference along Halloween weekend. While I’m just as perturbed as many of the folks who are upset they won’t be seeing their children off to trick or treating, I do consider the timing to be a fortuitous blessing nonetheless.

 

Halloween is one of two times each year that the Advance-Titan puts out a spoof issue. (The other, obviously, is April Fool’s.) The benefit of being in Austin this coming week is that I will have plausible deniability when it comes to whatever infantile ideas drop out of their heads. The downside is that I’ll likely be up at 3 a.m., hitting the refresh button on my Web browser, trying to find out exactly how crass they were this year.

 

Truth be told, I’m not a humorless adviser. I enjoy a great bit of comedy as much as anyone else. I cut my teeth on Bill Cosby’s tapes and I think I wore out the needle on my phonograph listening to George Carlin’s “Class Clown.” I own the Richard Pryor box set and I still listen to it on long car rides. (Those without my 4-year-old present, mind you.) I love humor in all of its forms.

 

However, what I’ve found is that there’s a fine line between humor and caustic meanness. Finding exactly where that line is can be difficult and those folks who do it once a year often find themselves on the wrong side of that line. It’s also not great being on the other side of someone’s humor faux pas.

 

Here are the compelling arguments I tend to make each time someone talks about doing an issue like this:

 

- Humor is a drastically wide-ranging and variable thing. If you need any proof of this, just show up at my parents’ house when a Peter Sellers movie comes on. Dad and I are laughing our heads off while Mom and Amy are looking at us like we are in some way brain damaged. Conversely, when Amy is listening to an audio book of some British lady talking about some weird thing going on in London, she’s laughing and I’m wondering if there’s a way to create a trade embargo against stuff like this. When you spend a lot of time in the newsroom, you tend to find things funny that most people find offensive. It’s mortician’s humor, so to speak, and it’s a great defense mechanism against what we see every day. However, it doesn’t translate well.

 

- Inside jokes are best kept inside the newsroom. Things that are funny in the newsroom are often funny because you know what is involved in them. If you rip on an editor for having a strange drunken tryst or for failing to show up for an 8 a.m. class with the adviser, it’s funny to you. However, the 5,000, 10,000 or 50,000 people remaining on your campus are likely left in the dark and it’s no longer funny.

 

- The effort is a waste. If you’ve got time to carefully hone a humorous message that will knock the socks off of your readers, you’ve got time to figure out how to file a FOIA request, study deeper problems with student government or work on an epic profile. We tend to invest too much into stuff that doesn’t matter. For more proof of this, I think there is an E! True Hollywood Stories marathon running right about now.

 

- You don’t need help to look stupid. If there’s any argument worth making it’s this one. The students screw stuff up all the time. We run corrections far too often and we are often on the edge of “not quite right.” And those are on the good days. Ask a handful of students on your campus what they think of the student paper and words like “a joke,” “pointless,” “stupid” and “worthless” aren’t rarities in those conversations. Of course, that’s a bit harsh, but the last thing you’re looking to do is give them more ammo for their negative opinions. The more you go about doing purposefully dumb stuff, the more these people are going to be right.

 

I make these arguments often, but in the end, the show goes on.

 

Fortunately for me, I won’t be near the stage when it does.

 

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