In One Tech-Filled Writing Class, The Class Clown Is the Professor

Digital Learning

In One Tech-Filled Writing Class, The Class Clown Is the Professor

By Jeffrey R. Young     Sep 28, 2017

In One Tech-Filled Writing Class, The Class Clown Is the Professor
Mark Marino, a writing professor at USC, getting pushed around in a wheelbarrow by a student.

This article is part of the guide: Putting It Into Words: The Future of Writing Instruction.

Students in Mark Marino’s Writing 340 class at the University of Southern California say the professor always walks into the classroom with a smile, and always begins by giving out carrots.

Specifically, he passes around a bag of baby carrots (the nibble-ready kind favored by toddlers) and encourages everyone to take one (along with a bottle of hand sanitizer). It’s one of the many unusual, often deadpan ways this professor approaches teaching by channeling the persona of the class clown.

“I like a classroom where things seem a little off-balance from the beginning,” he says. Throughout the semester, Marino works to encourage what he describes as “free-play,” using exercises that sound like they might happen in the writers’ room of a late-night comedy show rather than in a college classroom.

In one assignment, for instance, the students imagine they are part of a fictional sharing app called AirBnMe. Instead of renting another person’s house (as with AirBnb), people offer to sell hours of their lives (life-swapping). Among the experiences that have been for sale on the fictional service? Standing in line at the DMV and a “typical bro-style student picking up a student for a date.” Fellow students write reviews of what it might be like to experience those life-swapping hours.

“People might say, ‘I thought you were teaching writing,’” says Marino. “When I see students engaging with challenges like that with humor, the degrees of insight that I see in students shows an immense critical faculty.”

One of his teaching techniques, which he devised with Rob Wittig, an assistant professor of English and writing at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, involves students improvising narrative stories—taking turns writing a line at a time on Twitter. They call them netprovs, for networked improvisation, and often they take place in conjunction with writing classes at other colleges.

“There’s this thing that happens when you get 10, 20, or 50 people playing; things get really rich,” says Wittig.

Last semester the professors ran a netprov called Cooking With Anger. “We had an online forum where students would get a randomly-generated basket of ingredients—a father, a bus, an apple, a piece of lettuce. Then a packet of emotions—half pinch of jealousy or a quarter dollop of anger. And they would have to write a short story that used all of those ingredients,” says Marino.

“We like projects that are funny at the beginning,” says Wittig. “Then we see by the end if we can take it deep and turn it a little bit serious. It’s a swimming pool shape. You start out in the shallow end and by the end the bottom drops out.” He cites Garrison Keillor, longtime host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion, as a master of that kind of humor through his monologues from the imaginary town of Lake Woebegone.

Marino stresses that his goal is not simply to use humor to entertain students, though he does admit he has his “teacherly bits” to help keep students’ attention while explaining semicolons or writing good introductions. He suspects more than half of all writing classes use that kind of humor, perhaps not always to the intended effect. “It could be similar to Dad jokes,” he quips. “English professors like to tell jokes—whether they’re funny or not is another question.”

But he’s more interested in encouraging students to use humor to take a deeper look at the world around them. And he argues that the practice has deep roots in academia: “In my mind the Socratic method with its deep roots in irony has a sense of humor to it or a sense of playfulness.”

One of Marino’s recent students, Genevieve Danenberg, made sure to stress the class isn’t all fun and games. “He has a reputation for being very critical and not exactly an easy A or B but someone who challenges you as a writer and helps you find your voice,” she says of Marino. She and the other students call him “coach,” at the professor’s urging. “Humor requires a lot of vulnerability,” she adds. “He has to bring himself down a few notches in order to help us not be so afraid.”

Danenberg, a 27-year-old senior majoring in film production, says the assignment she found most useful was a weekly blog requirement. Students were encouraged to write free-form on a topic of their choice and then review the posts of other students. She says the exercise pushed her to develop her voice.

She notes that she didn’t fully participate in all the netprovs and other collaborative projects, in part because she describes herself as less tech-savvy.

Marino notes that some psychologists have argued that the generation now in college has never been allowed to do free play, so he tries to give them those spaces. “They’ve always had structured time,” he says. “Even their playtime was playdates.”

Asked to describe a favorite moment from class, Danenberg remembers the weekend Marino led a group of students volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity house, and he wound up sitting in a wheelbarrow letting students push him around. “I have a picture I’ll send you, you gotta see it,” says the student.

It seems just the effect Marino is going for. As he puts it: “Rather than try to be a pompous teacher, maybe I can trade in my mortar-board for the fool’s cap for a little bit of time and hopefully reach a place that’s a little more honest and open to what students have to offer.”

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