Chances are, you’ve seen, laughed at, shared, or even created internet content that positions doing poorly in school as a punchline.
There are countless meme pages on Instagram and Twitter dedicated to sharing jokes with a common theme: not having your shit together.
Since these pages have large student demographics, they tend to create and share content that is specific to being a student. Here’s what I’m talking about in case you’re unclear: given the success and quantity of the content, it’s obvious that this type of humour is very relatable to a lot of us.
Comedy in any form is most effective when its message rings true to its audience. In fact, there is a direct correlation between how much something resonates with us and how funny we find it. This is why we often react to a joke by exclaiming “that’s so true!” because more often than not, the more we can identify with a joke, the more we enjoy it.
So this begs the question: in the atmosphere of academia, where students are presumably here to pave the way to prosperity and success, why is this content so relatable? Why do students think that it’s funny to not have their shit together, and what are the consequences of glorifying incompetence and failure, if any?
Comedy is fundamentally an expression, critique, or reframing of some version of reality. Failing is a potential reality for every student. It makes sense that humour, which mirrors our own reality, would be relatable and therefore funny. Mix in the element of fear and a lack of self-confidence and you are prone to self-deprecating rhetoric.
Self-deprecation is a manifestation of lacking self-confidence which acts as a defence mechanism against fear. It's why many students don't feel confident about their studies. By joking about prospective failures, students feel in control of their fate.
So, perhaps adopting this sort of rhetoric is useful. It alleviates the pressure to be perfect because it rejects the notion that we expected ourselves to be perfect to begin with. Taking control and defending ourselves from pressure creates relief. What’s more is that laughing, in and of itself, is a relief; a medicine.
Not only does owning our imperfection provide ease and alleviate pressure, it also gives us an opportunity to commiserate with others; it allows us to understand that this fear of failure is universal. Laughing and feeling connected with others are both things that have healing power, so when your friend tags you in a meme the morning of an exam, you can both laugh and temporarily put your anxiety on pause.
It also doesn't really seem like joking about failing actually encourages anyone to sacrifice their grades. The voice behind the humour worries about not doing well, but it doesn't complacently fail. In fact, the undertone of worrying is exactly what fuels the humour, which means that complacency and willingness to fail have no place in it. Part of the “truth” is that we care about our grades, which is why we are worried in the first place.
So while the rhetoric is clearly accepting of failure, it doesn’t necessarily encourage it. Laughing about not having our shit together isn’t responsible for causing detriment to our grades; on the contrary, it only seems to acknowledge that we do in fact care about succeeding.
This humour is less a threat to thriving as it is a tool that comforts and relieves us, something to remind us that being imperfect is enough — perhaps it is even something worth celebrating.
-Olivia Stadler, MIT IV