On Teaching an Online Introduction to Fiction Class: Where are the Funny Short Stories?

mali_product_likeThis spring, I am once again teaching an entirely online Introduction to Literature (Fiction) course.  This is my fifth time teaching the course online, so, while I do shake up the reading selections each time, I have a lot of material already prepared.  I focus on short stories and novellas when I teach this class online:  the students already have to read all of my lectures (though I keep them brief), as well as participate in class discussion (and with 40 students, that’s a lot more reading to do).  I’ve added a few new novellas this year, and new stories, so that means my spring break will be spent creating new, what I call “mini-lectures”—including links. 

In many ways creating online course content is parallel to blogging…but that’s another blog post.

I also include film clips (thank you, UTube) and audio (thank you NPR, Selected Shorts and the FREE Internet) to break things up.  Here are a few links that seem to resonate with students:

  • Early in the term we listen to Azar Nafisi’s  “This I Believe” essay “I Believe in Empathy” as a prompt to discuss some of the reasons why humans read literature. Here’s the opening paragraph:

    I believe in empathy. I believe in the kind of empathy that is created through imagination and through intimate, personal relationships. I am a writer and a teacher, so much of my time is spent interpreting stories and connecting to other individuals. It is the urge to know more about ourselves and others that creates empathy. Through imagination and our desire for rapport, we transcend our limitations, freshen our eyes, and are able to look at ourselves and the world through a new and alternative lens.

  • Also early in the term we discuss Billy Collins’ humorous poem, “Introduction to Poetry”: This term, they can listen to Garrison Keillor’s reading of the poem.  The poem provides a light hearted way to address the ever present “what is the correct meaning/moral of the story” question.  Here’s an excerpt:

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


Now, please take this moment to go watch and listen to Taylor Mali—really, go NOW.  We need to laugh like that. Keeps us young.

When you’re done laughing, send me suggestions for other links, or, to short stories that make you laugh.  Have you ever gone through the standard Intro to Fiction textbook? How many stories really make you laugh so hard you cried? 

Funny stories wanted.

20 responses to “On Teaching an Online Introduction to Fiction Class: Where are the Funny Short Stories?

  1. Wow, great clips and things. I often teach online, too, and now I’m motivated to add some more to my classes.

    What textbook do you use? I’ve been using the Norton portable edition for the multigenre Intro to Lit class, but I change it up each time I do the Intro to Fiction class.

  2. Cool. I already use some of these (the Billy Collins and Taylor Mali, but I use “Like, Y’now” — I think it’s also called “Whatever.” It’s less laugh out loud funny, but it hits home about taking oneself seriously. You’ll like this: one genuinely confused student said, “is this poetry or a comedy club ?” I liked the assumed “OR.” Poetry ? Funny ? There is also a video of Billy Collins reading “Another Reason I Don’t Keep A Gun in the House” that I like. I didn’t know about the A&P short movie. For prose (and the sense of humor in this can be discussed), how about Annie Proulx’s “55 Miles to the Gas Pump ?”

  3. Hi Inky: I’m using Ann Charters/Story and Its Writer (Brief/Compact Edition)—-I usually supplement it with pdf versions of stories that aren’t included, but it works. I also have used Goia/Kennedy’s text. For the online class, I like the texts that lay out the elements of fiction clearly so I don’t have to add too much extra for my “mini lectures”.

    And Bobba Lynx, thank you for the Collins-Utube reference…I’ll look for that one. Collins/Mali: what a doubleheader that would be;-)

    “55 Miles”—I must have that somewhere. Thank you! Of course, I should have noted that I find Flannery O’Connor’s stories to be laugh out loud funny, but my students RARELY agree with me. I need to work on that mini-lecture (or somehow find the audio of O’Connor reading her own stories–I’m sure she laughed, right?).

  4. Like a good student I watched the clip and laughed. Like a bad student I don’t have my assignment 😦 cause I had like a doctors appointment and shiz. Hmm. I’ll think about it though.

  5. Well, partial credit, then, dear Dr. No.

    Of course you’ll have to figure out the math (partial credit is worth .0001% of the 10% of the participation credit worth 15% of your overall grade), and I’d like a Dr’s note indicating that the doctor’s only office hours are from precisely 12:45-2pm on Mons and Weds.

    Though, if you find me a funny, laugh out loud short story, we’ll just call it good at extra credit;-)

    [Yes, I did grade all weekend, and spent today, naturally, answering emails from those who unhappily received a B+ and A- Sigh.]

  6. My students laughed at Sherman Alexie’s “Do Not Go Gentle,” a very funny story about a very serious topic. And of course I find Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” funny, but some of my students miss the humor and just find it appalling.

  7. This is Dr. Accomodate from Student Health, Dr. No is suffering from too many horrendous and embarrassing health problems for me to elaborate…suffice to say, please excuse Dr. No from class.

    During intensive shock therapy, Dr. No did scream out “Lostronaut” by Jonathan Lethem, shrieking it was funny and sad…and something about reading it in the New Yorker in November or something.

  8. Bev—of course, Sherman Alexie! Thank you for the reminder about him. And I agree about O’Connor’s story: that one and even “A Good Man…” are both quite funny, but it’s the rare student who doesn’t respond in horror to her stories. I even discuss the comment by O’Connor where she says she can’t read her own stories without cracking up, but still, they don’t believe her;-)

    And dear Dr. Accomodate: thank you for sparing me from the gruesome details of No’s discharge or lobotomy or whatever the problem is. I’ll be sure not to refer to it during class, either…

    “Lostronaut”: the title alone is amusing! I’ll look for it—I must have read it but forgotten it (Lethem usually amuses me, too).

    Thanks, Doc!

  9. I don’t know that one by Atwood…off to look for it now. We do discuss Atwood’s metafictional tale “Happy Endings”….I love starting with that one.

    Thanks, Ink!

  10. I don’t remember reading any funny stories during my academic career, but I recall reading “The Mummy” by Poe and it made me laugh.

    Man, “Where are the funny short stories” is a question I know I asked before, but today it just pinged in me that we actually don’t read anything laugh-out-loud funny in class, and that sort of sucks.

  11. I agree: we really don’t read very many funny stories in literature classes (though I try so hard to point out the dark humor of Flannery O’Connor’s stories). I’ll look for “The Mummy” tho I suspect Poe’s story is also gallows humor.

    I wonder if, like movie comedies, funny stories are just not considered “high” art?

  12. So I see you’re leaving catnip out for me again at Feministe. 😉

    Not always great literature but Esther Friesner’s Chicks in Chainmail collections are full of massively funny feminist short stories.

    I love Maggie Estep’s Diary of an Emotional Idiot which is a series of linked stories, often quite funny but with an uneasy undercurrent.

    Kit Reed’s is an excellent satirist who can be very funny. Check out her collection The Dogs of Truth.

  13. I’m so glad you liked that one.

    And re: Poe: in class, when we discuss the melodramatic qualities of “The Cask of Amontillado,” we laugh because they are SO over the top. So while it doesn’t seem funny during the reading, it definitely becomes so in discussion, if that makes sense.

  14. The class has started this week, and they read the Atwood story for next week: I’ll let you know how that goes (I’m curious!).

    I love “Amontillado” but I must admit I was reluctant to do that one in an online class. I’m really a much better “live” teacher since I react to student faces when I teach. I agree: it’s a very funny story in a twisted O’Connor-esque way! But it is so difficult to “show” the humor (at least for me) in the online course.

    I’m keeping a list of students favorite books (the first “intro” posting asks for that info): an informal study of what 40 students think (and I have the gamut from high school students taking a college class to seniors who never completed their lower div. hum class—sigh).

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