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I am currently a full-time instructor at a SLAC and am teaching a two intro sections and a sports-psychology section. In my sports-psychology class today, I noticed that one of the emergency windows was open. I asked if anyone would like it closed in case the wind bugged them. They did not want it closed since they thought it felt good.

I replied: “Ok. Well, don't jump.” Students laughed in response, but I am not confident if it was at me for making it in such poor taste or the joke itself. For those wondering, the height was not lethal at all so I meant it in a horsing-around kind of sense (I made a follow up joke that specifically said “horsing around” so students knew my intent). I realize now that this may have implied a joke about a self-harm and I understand that may be an issue.

I'm considering making an announcement on Canvas to apologize and prevent this from getting potentially out of hand if a student has already reported it. What can I do to damage control this as much as I can?

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    I think that documenting this in a written announcement is a bad idea. Sep 22, 2023 at 3:00
  • Moderator’s notice: I deleted most comments and locked comments. If you want to answer or comment on the answers, strictly adhere to the code of conduct: Be respectful of others, even unspecific groups.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Sep 22, 2023 at 19:48
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    The question is clearly about Academia and I don't see anything in the rules that stops a question like this from being legitimate. It has attracted a good number of upvotes, many answers, and a good deal of controversy. I don't think it should be closed. Sep 24, 2023 at 10:34
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    What is SLAC....?
    – Dilworth
    Oct 1, 2023 at 14:30
  • @Dilworth Small liberal arts college, usually.
    – wizzwizz4
    Nov 7, 2023 at 22:08

8 Answers 8

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Skip the Maoist struggle-session and just continue your teaching

Personally, I don't find your joke to be in poor taste. To me it sounds like a self-deprecating remark making fun of your own course (i.e., don't get so bored in my class that you want to jump out the window). It may also have some other interpretations, some of which are perhaps in poor taste, but it sounds fine to me, or at worst mildly tasteless but not a big deal. (I have lost a loved one to suicide, so I am aware that this is a serious subject, but this does not mean that we all need to be hypersensitive and walk on eggshells with each other.) Also, your students laughed at your joke, so it looks like it went over well and was not offensive. Indeed, your joke may have established a more laid-back dynamic in your class where your students feel like they're having a bit more fun and feel like they can joke around with their course lecturer. I'd count that as a success.

As a secondary matter, as a general rule I think it is good for adult students to get used to the fact that other adults (including professionals) make occasional faux pas and this is what is to be expected when you have a large number of potentially awkward interactions in a professional setting. Failed attempts at humour (which this does not even seem to be) are an example of this. Sometimes people are going to say things that are a bit on the borderline, and you have to decide if you're going to interpret their remarks charitably or get offended. The tendency of modern US universities and other corporate institutions seems to be to jump right to the most extreme possible offence, with the expectation that you then need a Maoist struggle-session where the speaker repents for their infraction; I think this is a destructive trend that detracts from people's ability to interact with each other in a friendly manner.

In view of all this, I recommend that you don't make a big deal of this and don't issue any clarification, walk-back, apology, announcement, etc. If you now think your joke was bad, just make a personal resolution not to tell that type of joke again, but don't make any announcement about it. At best, issuing an apology will further highlight the joke you're now uncomfortable with rather than letting it lie. At worst, it will now feel like you are implicitly scolding and insulting those students who laughed at your joke and shared in the humour. Honestly, if I were one of the students who laughed at your joke, I would probably think you're a cool and fun lecturer --- if you follow that up by sending me an announcement of repentance (with the implication that I was also bad for laughing), I would then have no confidence in any future attempt at having fun or lightening the mood in the lecture, and would now have an adverse view of your lecturing.

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    Besides your "At best" and "At worst" consequences, apologizing provides ammunition to those who might (now or in the future) be angry at something unrelated (e.g. a poor test grade, dislike of your late homework policy, etc.) and want to cause trouble for you by keeping track of everything you say that could be construed in a negative way. Until they heard your apology they might never have considered that something like this could cause trouble for you. It also could stifle the climate for open classroom discussions, which some students would then avoid due to what may seem like a minefield. Sep 22, 2023 at 11:24
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    I completely agree with nearly all here, except for the worry of apologies giving ammunition to your enemies. This is not an appropriate mindset for moving through the world. Apologize when it is right to do so, and do so and without a second thought. This is simply not a case where an apology is needed. It is a sensitive topic and perhaps shouldn't be joked about, but that's it. Sep 25, 2023 at 7:37
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It's VERY important to give people a good solid dose of the aspects of reality they don't like, because ultimately, these uncomfortable things such as suicide are a reality of life and need to be dealt with.

If you allow people's hypersensitivities to things they don't like, to force you to constantly tiptoe over eggshells, all you are doing is supporting a never-ending lowering of the bar, of what some people will feel entitled to get outraged about.

The ever-escalating outrage never improves anything - it simply lowers the bar, permitting people to tune their hair triggers to become ever more sensitive to getting outraged. The outrage and oversensitivity will always be there, no matter how low the bar gets, because there will always be somebody craving their own personal perception of moral superiority over others, regardless of whether being on a hair trigger to get outraged actually IS morally superior or not.

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    +1 I get the feeling that some people are afriad of their life to say or do anything these days lest it lead to a threat to their job or career.
    – Trunk
    Sep 22, 2023 at 10:28
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    @Trunk the more of us stand up in solidarity with each other for frankness, honesty and reason, the less hate and division there will be between people. Sep 22, 2023 at 10:32
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    And you know what, when this mindset becomes endemic the "winners" are the people who don't really give a damn about student suicide - but see socio-professional ranking advancement in playing the offended party at the expense of a genuine teacher.
    – Trunk
    Sep 22, 2023 at 10:43
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    The most important part: Don't walk on eggshells because you think people might get offended. Just as it is your job to not cause offense, so is it for others to either not get offended, or communicate the issue in an adult fashion, in the form of setting healthy boundaries. But said healthy boundaries go two ways; if someone is offended by this joke, they can either try and exert control over people causing the offense by telling them they shouldn't (low chance of success), or remove themselves from the situation - vote with their feet, so to speak.
    – cthulhu
    Sep 22, 2023 at 14:43
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    @cthulhu Can't say I wholly agree with all the "if you are offended, you are the problem" mindset. In this specific scenario, it certainly wasn't an offensive joke, even for me (I tend to take things too literally because of the kind of life I had). But I feel like it's dangerous to outright tell people to suck it up/grow a thicker skin, especially when we have no idea what exactly people just went through. On a normal day, that joke may make me chuckle. But on a particularly bad day, telling people off because they gently express (keyword: gently) having taken offence isn't going to help.
    – Clockwork
    Sep 22, 2023 at 15:52
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Here's where I agree with the other answers posted so far: I don't think making an announcement about this joke will be all that helpful. (Certainly do commit to staying away from such jokes in the future.)

Here's where I disagree with the other answers: just because "(some) students laughed" doesn't mean the joke was okay—that's a poor argument. If the joke landed harmfully on a single depressed student, it doesn't matter whether all the other students found it funny.

I recommend the following: find your institution's web pages that deal with mental health resources for students. Link to that information from your course's web page. Take two minutes during some class to announce to your students that this information exists, that mental health is a serious challenge for lots of students, and that those resources exist precisely for students to access whenever they want to.

That will probably help you feel that you've atoned for making this (one-time) mistake. But the main reason I recommend this is because I would recommend this for any instructor of any class.

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  • I agree with your answer, even if I answered in the contrary direction. " If the joke landed harmfully on a single depressed student" this is a big issue, because statistically depression is more common than ever: how do unwindle the system that is generating so much depression on people (rethorical quesiton, no need to answer here).
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 3 at 4:43
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In general, you are right to be concerned of possible impact of your actions on your students' mental health.

On the other hand, emergency window are there for an emergency, and in an emergency you jump out of them (providing there is some soft material below and/or that the height is not that high).

I think it was a funny joke. I think your brain spontaneously said that joke in reference to jump out of the window as in the movies, not as "to commit self-harm". If it is otherwise, well, lesson learned for you.

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    +1 for the first sentence. Even if there may be people who take offence too easily, I cannot dismiss the possibility that someone is going through a difficult time; although this specific joke was quite harmless in my opinion.
    – Clockwork
    Sep 22, 2023 at 16:03
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Are you teaching intro to Psych? If you personally feel that your joke may have offended anyone (maybe there is a student in the class whose relative or friend committed suicide?), just apologize to those people and clear your conscience. I mean, Psychology. This stuff is pertinent.

"Oh, as an aside, if my joke last class about the window offended anyone, please accept my apologies. Suicide isn't really an appropriate subject to joke about, and I should know that. Again, my apologies. Ok, when we last met, we were discussing...."

There is nothing wrong with showing students that people in positions of authority can be humbled, concerned about their (the students') feelings, and can make dumb mistakes. And far too few apologies are offered for behaviors that deserve them. If it were Organic Chemistry you were teaching, no apology strictly necessary. But if you're teaching Psychology, this could be a valuable example to your students to think about the subject of caring for the feelings of all people.

People being critical of "wokeness", or needing to expose your students to the harsh realities of real life are missing the point: a student may have been saddened by your (totally understandable) offhanded comment. You're teaching Psychology (I presume), and dealing with suicide/suicidal ideation is a big thing. No sackcloth and ashes necessary, but there's nothing wrong about caring for someone's emotions. Some of your students might actually see this as positive on your part.

Oh, and if you're not teaching Psychology, I apologize for the presumption and the lecture.

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    What is "wokeness"? The word's meaning has been diverted so many times that I feel the need to ask to be sure to understand the intent.
    – Clockwork
    Sep 22, 2023 at 15:56
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I am a bit late with this answer, but as someone who would think about such incident for weeks, I figured I'd add something anyway.

First of all, consider... changing the title of the question. Or rather: try to reframe the last part. "Is there anything I can do to salvage myself?" is way to strong, you do not need salvaging, the situation, perhaps, does.

As I said, I would think about similar situations I may have caused or witnessed for frankly unnecessary amounts of time. Both along the lines of "will that negatively impact the students?" and "will that negatively impact the students' experience working with me?", but also "will that escalate to my superiors?". I think different people in different positions would have different combinations of (at least) these three. Fortunately, they have a common remedy: talk to the students. In your situation, the moment may have passed, but I'd make a mental note to drop a comment if opportunity presents itself - perhaps the next time I told a joke that fell flat, or need to backtrack something, or correct a mistake on the blackboard, I would take a moment to say that "we teachers sometimes say things that we regret instantly, for example...". I agree with @Ben that the students need to get used to that awkward situations and faux pas happen, but I think it is better to talk about it and establish this understanding, than to expect that all of the students spontaneously develop it at the same time. I think it's worth repeating both that we are all only human and we slip sometimes - and that we see and empathise with people for which an insensitive joke hits to close to home. Of course your mileage may vary.

Finally, I would actually share the link to this thread with the students in question. Of course I would first consider if I am OK with students being able to access my other questions/answers on this site, perhaps would anonymise my nick for this particular question. I often advertise SE sites to my students, Academia included, precisely because it's better to read about viewpoints and attitudes of others before you form your own. This is sort-of-teachable moment, by sharing this discussion you share your concerns with the students, without the stress and awkwardness of discussing with a whole class of people with, probably, quite varying takes on the whole situation (if they remember it at all). Plus, leaving the discussion of the attitudes and opinions aside, if any of your students do actually struggle with the topic, and the joke was not as abstract for them as for the others - they would be reminded (by @Greg Martin's answer with which I strongly agree) that your institution probably has a support center to help them.

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Before the text of my original answer I like to point to an edit that I have made. I have added some general remarks on the role of peoples' emotions in this at the end that I think are very important here, particularly seeing how the discussion has played out in the meantime. Now here's my original answer:

I'm in between the answers that already have been posted. I do think your joke was potentially problematic, and it counts in your favour that you see this and worry about it to some extent.

However I also think that there are important potential disadvantages of any follow-up action from your side. The two major ones have already been given by @Ben: (1) You bring back the attention of the students to this situation, which in itself may be problematic, and (2) you may make students feel bad who initially laughed about the joke (although on the other hand some of these may regret they have done that or may have felt bad at the moment and only joined in because their classmates did).

On the other hand, @Ben wrote: "Honestly, if I were one of the students who laughed at your joke, I would probably think you're a cool and fun lecturer". @Ben meant this as a reason to not apologise, but actually you may distinctively not want to be identified with such a joke by students who found it cool.

I have learnt a lot from Ruth Cohn's Theme-Centered Interaction. Two of its major principles ("Postulates") are that "disturbances and passionate involvements take precedence", and "Be your own chair person". Applied to your situation I'd see this as an appeal to evaluate your own emotional state regarding the situation. To what extent do you think this could harm a good working relationship between you and your students, particularly considering how you feel about it? To what extent you really feel you should do something about this, as it is on your conscience? I think that this is a very individual decision, also it may have to do with your general impression of the mood in the class and the interaction in it and with it. (The acknowledgement of the importance of the relations within the group is another major aspect of TCI). In some groups, particularly in psychology, I can even imagine that a discussion about how bad people think such a joke is and whether an apology is a good thing to do can be constructive and interesting. You should certainly not impose your view about this on the students, and as you see in this thread, there may be perceptions very different from yours, but this doesn't mean you should not talk about it at all. So I can't ultimately say what you should do; I can see justifications for both not doing anything, or talking about it including that you say you regret it (but this will also depend on how exactly you say things and whether and to what extent students are then involved in any kind of discussion).

An issue that comes up in the discussion here is that some people identify your suggestion to apologise with a general tendency to be overly (self-)critical and sensitive regarding the things that are said, maybe fuelled by media, certain institutions, or political interest groups. Now this general tendency may exist and there may be reasons to be critical about it, however this should not distract us from trying to be aware of the things we say and the consequences and implications that that might have, and from having a conscience and occasionally act on it, even if it may be perceived as tedious by some others. I don't think it is a good idea to apologise in order to do "damage control" or because you were somehow made to believe that we should apologise more if we make bad jokes. But if you feel a genuine personal need to do it, even having in mind the potential disadvantages and issues with it, that is a much better reason.

Edit: Some general added remarks. I think it is important to acknowledge that emotions of people exist and are important, and that they don't always behave in a rational manner. I also think we need to acknowledge the fundamental subjectivity of such emotions. The implication here is this:

Whether a joke is offensive, insensitive, or "in poor taste", or not, is not an objective fact, but rather an issue of individual perception. The discussion clearly shows that many perceive the joke in question as not problematic, and the questioner is apparently also in the lucky situation to not have observed any evidence that some students would have found it offensive or insensitive. However I find it important to acknowledge that (1) neither the questioner nor we can know whether there was actually the odd student who had problems with this, and (2) that the questioner themselves felt worried about it afterwards. And also (3) that many people feel annoyed by the idea that is apparently held by some that there is a necessity to always be super careful when talking in order to avoid that anyone could be potentially offended or disturbed, and that we should feel bad afterwards if something potentially problematic has slipped off our tongue, as happens so easily.

What is important here is that to the extent that these emotions happen, their existence and importance for the person in question has to be acknowledged. This is not an issue of right or wrong; these are inappropriate categories for emotions. Nobody is a better or worse person for feeling this or that (it is actually possible to question one's own feelings and to decide to not act on them; acknowledging our feelings doesn't mean they have to dominate us).

The general topic of this question is a tough one because there is apparently a temptation to think that either a joke is or isn't really problematic, and, somewhat independently, is or isn't really funny. This would imply that if the joke in fact weren't problematic, students who felt offended or otherwise bad about it would be wrong. Or, on the other hand, if the joke really were insensitive and of poor taste, the lecturer (and also the students who actually found the joke funny) would rightly need to feel bad about themselves and go through all kinds of self-castigation.

I argue that this is an inappropriate way to assess the situation. I think in the first place the existing feelings need to be acknowledged and respected, without implying that they are in the right. A student who feels offended has the right to feel offended. This does not mean that there was any "objective" wrongdoing on the side of the lecturer whose joke may have led to the student taking offense.

Also, the lecturer may be concerned (and this is neither right nor wrong, just their state of emotion) even if in fact the joke didn't harm anyone (and of course a student may have felt hurt even if in fact no such student was in the room). The lecturer still has to deal with their own emotions, which may or may not include addressing the issue with students again (there are advantages and disadvantages and it depends on the specific situation and also the involved persons how they can proceed). Of course in that case telling them "we think this is no big deal" may help, particularly if indeed no student was offended or disturbed, which we can't know.

In situations in which indeed somebody feels offended but there was no bad intention, and many others even liked the joke (which in itself is positive, and also a sentiment that isn't right or wrong in the first place), there is genuine conflict. It needs to be acknowledged that the emotions of different people in such a situation can be in conflict without one of them being clearly right and the other one being clearly wrong. Any idea how to deal with the situation can start from there, but there will be no simple solution because the conflict is implicit in the emotional setup.

These situations are very difficult and therefore also of interest. The question has a good number of upvotes for a reason, and I really don't think it should be closed as a "non-question" (as some apparently do). I will though also acknowledge the emotions of those who don't like to be asked to reflect on every single word that they're saying all the time, and who are worried about freedom of speech and that communication may become super tedious and ultimately unbearable if we need to worry all the time about not offending and not being insensitive even in the most innocent of situations. I may on occasion also identify with this group, if not today.

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Did someone commit suicide by jumping out of a window the day before, and everyone knew it? In that case you were insensitive. You have the choice to apologise and make everyone remember forever what you did, or to keep quiet and hope they forget. If someone brings it up, you say "What the hell, you think that was serious? What is wrong with you?". Which is not a good way to act, but you have to look after #1 first.

If there were no events that this would connect to, then just ignore it. If someone brings it up, same answer as in the first case, except that you are 100% right replying that way.

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    I don't think "What is wrong with you?" is a phrase that should ever be used by a teacher towards a student if a student brings up something they aren't comfortable with. Even if you don't agree, basic politeness still applies. And "commit" suicide ? It's not a crime any longer, in case you hadn't noticed (see e.g. hub.supportaftersuicide.org.uk/glossary) Sep 22, 2023 at 12:15
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    "What is wrong with you?" I would strongly advise against saying that. I have been on the receiving side of bad jokes during bad days, because of which people complained that I didn't have a sense of humour. And being told that very question could go horribly wrong.
    – Clockwork
    Sep 22, 2023 at 16:00

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