Tuesday, April 5, 2022 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Today is also the UN’s “International Day of Conscience,” dedicated to promoting a culture of peace and human rights. Without a doubt, our world could use a dose of that right now. You will find my 11 blogs to date on the War in Ukraine here, and I’ll be returning to that theme soon to discuss some pretty serious geopolitical implications. But today, somewhat lighter fare…
Hopefully you had a chance to read yesterday’s blog, “Spring Fever & Frivolity,” in which I shared ~20 examples of higher ed April Foolery. (Thanks to eagle-eyed readers, I added a couple more examples later yesterday.)
No doubt, you could argue that I am dignifying such silliness with far too much critical analysis. (Blame my 10 years as an English major.) Like my Holiday Special video collections, I consider it part of my annual duty to monitor trends in PSE social media, although it’s unquestionably more about fun than comms strategy.
I think April Fool’s Day provides a showcase for campus marcom departments to unleash a bit of creativity and indulge their sense of humour – but perhaps more importantly, it’s also a useful annual barometer of campus morale. (And as I argued yesterday, a willingness to experiment, play, make mistakes or even look silly is a fundamental precondition for a healthy culture of innovation in any organization.)
So today, some reflections on this year’s higher ed hijinks, and what it can tell us about the state of our pandemic recovery…
A willingness to experiment, play, make mistakes or even look silly is a fundamental precondition for a healthy culture of innovation in any organization.
I can’t claim to have 100% complete quantitative data, but I’ve been reporting on PSE April Fool’s gags for almost a decade now, and here’s what I have seen…
Video gags peaked in 2017
Some of the most elaborate Apr 1 gags have taken video form, from the BBC’s famous 1957 “spaghetti harvest” documentary to ThinkGeek’s many incredible new products, Google’s “self-driving bicycle,” or Burger King’s “Whopper toothpaste.” My YouTube playlist collections of PSE examples grew steadily from the examples I showcased in my 25-min 2016 Ten with Ken anthology (“Ten Kinds of April Foolery”) to an even larger collection in 2017 ( “Higher Ed Hijinks”), a year in which I spotted 30 PSE examples. In 2018, I found 12 solid examples for my blog, but in 2019 only 6.
Squashed by COVID
If foolish enthusiasm was waning before COVID19, pandemic lockdowns in Mar 2020 made video shoots much more serious business. As campus communities pivoted to emergency remote instruction and working from home, I didn’t spot any April Fools vids from CdnPSE at all in 2020, and didn’t even blog about it. Marketers in all sectors feared jests might be “tone deaf,” so in many ways the day was “cancelled.” I asked aloud here whether April frivolity might be “extinct.”
2021: Limping Back?
At this time last year, I had enough time on my hands to produce a detailed blog. Yet despite spending most of Apr 1 scouring the globe, I found just 19 PSE examples, and only 2 of those took video form (Southern Connecticut State launched a new “School of Metal,” and SAIT reported that its “Living Building” had indeed come to life). Most of the gags were just idle tweets, sometimes with a graphic attached, or occasionally linking to a joke webpage.
2022: Pandemic Rebound?
Yesterday’s collection of Apr 1 jests still lacks the breadth, depth and exuberance of years past, in PSE and in other sectors alike, but 20 institutions gave it a go, and 9 put the effort into producing an April Fool’s video. (Of those, I’d say at least 7 were “serious” attempts, including RRU’s “Steenkamp’s School for the Gifted,” MSVU’s “Bachelor of Crow-munications,” ASI’s “90-Year-Old Lutfisk,” Indiana Tech’s “Dung-Beetles,” SAIT’s “UFO Sighting,” Emory’s “Puffy Shirt Pledge,” and FGCU’s “Dirty Birds.”)
In purely quantitative terms, higher ed April Foolery looks to be back to about two-thirds of its pre-pandemic 2017 peak.
Quality vs Quantity
In purely quantitative terms, higher ed April Foolery looks to be back to about two-thirds of its pre-pandemic 2017 peak. (My data may not be 100% complete, but I think they give us a fair impression of the overall trend.) But in qualitative terms, I have to admit that PSE foolery hasn’t yet returned to the creativity and production values of some of the great classics. My own all-time faves include Berklee College of Music’s Kazoo program(2015), Simon Fraser U’s “Semester in Space” (2014) and pedestrian texting lanes (2015), and the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s “Tribble breeding pilot project” (2016).
So what happened to our joyful exuberance?
Last week, CdnPSE marketing leaders at my CMO Roundtable discussed marketing creativity and innovation, some obstacles and potential solutions. In many ways, trends in PSE April Foolery reflect the overall situation in marcom departments…
Understaffed and Overworked
Public sector organizations have had to cope with substantial uncertainty and unexpected expenses in recent years. Although many CdnPSEs wound up with pretty healthy budgets anyway, most contained costs through freezes on salaries and on hiring. The pandemic has created massive demand for expertise in digital content, online marketing, social media and web development across all sectors – and unlike CdnPSE, other sectors have raised compensation to recruit and retain talent. Our institutions have been experiencing a marcom “brain drain,” at the same moment that the need for video, livestreaming, and digital communications channels has skyrocketed. I’m sure more than one marcom practitioner felt relief at deciding not to create Apr 1 content.
“Time is the fuel of innovation.” – Soren Kaplan, The Invisible Advantage: How to Create a Culture of Innovation
Creativity Demands Time
Although the most memorable media releases and ads often look deceptively simple, they usually require considerable time and effort by writers, designers, photographers or videographers to brainstorm creative concepts, rather than simply cranking out their first idea. Creative thinking takes time – that’s why faculty get sabbaticals, after all! Innovation consultant Soren Kaplan has pointed out that “time is the fuel of innovation.” Neuroscientists like Henning Beck explain that the best ideas arise from unconscious play: “Idleness is the root of all ideas,” he asserts.
“Idleness is the root of all ideas.” – Henning Beck, Scatterbrain: How the Mind’s Mistakes Make Humans Creative, Innovative and Successful
Two years of pandemic uncertainty, emergency communications, crippling workloads and creative burnout certainly contributes to a lack of joviality come April. But there is more going on here, too, I think…
While the pandemic has taken a toll, PSE marcom departments were already losing their April Foolishness back in 2018. It’s probably not a coincidence that academe has been feeling increasingly besieged, politically and financially…
Fighting for Credibility
Donald Trump and his ilk have been undermining the credibility of journalists and academics since the 2016 US presidential campaign, often labelling factual reporting as “fake news.” Some hesitation to embrace April Frivolity might be because we don’t want to provide ammunition to our worst critics.
Misinformation about COVID19, vaccines, the 2020 election, critical race theory, Ukrainian bioweapons, and much else has proliferated, requiring academics and institutions to speak up as voices of reason, fact, and science. Fake media releases, press conferences or promotional videos may be seen as off-brand and off-mission, so institutions may be sacrificing a bit of springtime frivolity in the name of remaining serious and credible.
In campus IT departments, April Fool’s Day only serves to amplify anxieties about phishing scams and cyberattacks. (Here’s an example from Ontario Tech.)
Times are Serious
There’s nothing funny about the circumstances in which many campus stakeholders find themselves right now, whether walking the picket lines or facing budget cuts, worrying about immune-compromised friends and family or millions of displaced Ukrainians. Many of us have moved from the pandemic frying pan into the fire of war in Ukraine. It’s challenging to tell jokes in the midst of tragedies like these, but a sense of humour has powerful mental health benefits.
News is Unbelievable Enough
The world is full of cruel pranks right now. After some tantalizing spring weather, Mother Nature has dumped more unwelcome winter weather on most Canadians. Just as we thought the end was in sight, COVID19 is back with a “sixth wave.” Russian troops are pretending to retreat from Ukraine (when they’re not sabotaging their own equipment or shooting down their own planes). Ottawa is adding a carbon tax increase atop record-breaking gasoline prices. Kwantlen Polytechnic has been shut down by a bomb threat, and – oh yeah – Joe Rogan has offered to train Elon Musk to fight a “death match” against Vladimir Putin. You just can’t make up sillier stuff!
Zero Tolerance for Fun
In recent years, we’ve seen many examples in which attempts to be humorous in the world of academia have been career-limiting, or even career-ending, moves. (You don’t have to be Chris Rock to get a rude awakening when your jokes are in poor taste.) Professional comedians have complained that college students no longer have a sense of humour. Just before the pandemic, a well-respected uAlberta VP had to fall on her sword over a single headline in the “Truth Matters” ad campaign. (Remember “Beefier Barley”?) I’ve rounded up other campus controversies in 2 episodes of Ten with Ken about “Branding Misfires,” and 7 others about PR “headaches.” (And there are so, so many other examples.) Florida Gulf Coast U even satirized so-called “cancel culture” by joking about ornithologists picketing campus to protest the name of their booster club, the “Dirty Birds.” (Is that a whiff of anxiety, simmering close beneath the surface?)
Less Secure Presidents
Senior PSE administrators have been vulnerable to political attack from inside and outside the campus. Presidential tenures are getting shorter, particularly for female leaders. Politicians are getting adversarial about compensation and expense accounts. No wonder few PSE figureheads are brave enough to appear silly on Apr 1. The exceptions deserve recognition: kudos to Royal Roads U’s Philip Steenkamp, who has earned a reputation as one of North America’s most social media savvy PSE leaders. Indiana Tech’s Karl Einolf and Emory’s Greg Fenves made good efforts this year. (And I have to think we have Andrew Petter to thank for SFU’s prolific Apr 1 videos in years gone by.)
Not only has our playfulness been sapped by overwork, stress, and misinformation, but many themes of April Fool pranks gone by now strike “too close to home” to seem funny anymore…
Name Changes were funny when it was Bryn Mawr dropping all its vowels, or Pittsburg State finally adding an ‘h’ to satisfy spellcheckers. But in an era when campuses around the world are dropping the names of slaveowners and colonists, and in a year when Ryerson U is working on a complete name change, such jokes may seem in poor taste.
Mocking Millennials was certainly the rage when SFU announced “pedestrian texting lanes” and SAIT introduced the campus “walkabot.” Lately, though, campuses have seen generation gaps writ large, student walkouts and demands for divestment, and of course we’ve all spent 2 years glued to screens – so we just can’t joke about smartphones anymore. (Ultimate frisbee, NFTs or dress codes still seem to be fair game.)
Improbable Infrastructure announcements were perhaps more light-hearted back when SAIT and Nipissing announced domes over their campuses, uFindlay or Smith College were announcing campus monorails, College of New Caledonia unveiled a waterslide in its main lobby, or SAIT’s “living building” came to life. But as institutional budgets are being squeezed, and politicians are challenging excess and waste at every turn, who feels safe joking about it? (Folks in Lancashire and Birmingham, apparently, as well as Canadore College.)
Campus Security used to joke at its own expense on April Fool’s Day, from Calvin U’s “keystone cops” to Kwantlen’s security horses. But after years of Black Lives Matter protests, allegations of campus police brutality, and efforts to defund the police, it looks like campus security offices are keeping a low profile for Apr 1.
Librarians may have lost some of their sense of humour, too, after years of shrinking collections, digitization and online services. In the past, UC Berkeley joked it was converting its library into a café, Brigham Young was converting its library into student dorms, uWindsor was reshelving all books by colour, uVic was adding an interactive petting zoo, and there were many more. This year, like marcom staff, overworked campus librarians simply don’t have the bandwidth to be playful, it seems.
Classroom Tech has been the butt of Apr 1 jokes for years now. Biola U math prof Matthew Weathers has attracted 16M views to some of his famous Apr 1 lecture videos, in which he struggles with his projection screenor his pre-recorded self. (Last year Weathers argued with himself during a Zoom classroom, which didn’t seem nearly so hilarious to the students.) Just months before COVID19 emerged, Simon Fraser U released a fateful Apr 1 video jesting that its teachers would be using telepresence robots in the classroom. (Not so funny now, huh?)
Mergers and Closures used to be joking matters, too. Simon Fraser U joked that it was closing its campus for summer and fall 2018, for a major Hollywood film shoot. One of the most elaborate examples was a joint jest by uFlorida and Florida State in 2016. Now, as several US states are forcing campus mergers and smaller private colleges are going bankrupt or winding down, this kind of joke also seems a bit too close to home.
So, judging from the crop of 2022 April Fool’s pranks, it looks like campus communities are still willing to joke about a few things…
I noted last year that half the PSE joke announcements were for new academic or research programs, like Vancouver Community College’s “exotic pet fashion design.” Some of the all-time best videos include Berklee College of Music’s new kazoo program, and of course Simon Fraser U’s “Semester in Space.” While it’s dicey to joke about cannabis programs because there are so many serious announcements being made right now, it’s still fair game to joke about winter breaks in space, mutant X-men academies, or Crow-munications.
In fact, campus wildlife still seems one of the safest topics for humour. PSE Apr 1 jests have often revolved around squirrels, geese, goats, or even moose. (Mooses?) My favourite animal vid announced the Smithsonian’s “tribble breeding program,” although Virginia Commonwealth U’s “sturgeons on call” program is pretty impressive too. Last year, we saw a lot more jokes inspired by pandemic puppies: uWindsor would begin admitting dogs to its Anthrozoology program, UT Martin would offer college credit for canines, and Yukon U researchers found a source of sustainable energy in their “Pooch-E” leash. This year, it’s crows,llamas, and cod.
Thank God for Mascots
If academe is a place where we all have to take ourselves too seriously, thank goodness for athletics mascots. Unlike human figureheads (presidents), these oversized, often-mute fuzzy characters defuse the tension on the playing field, and on PSE social media channels. They have been responsible for some of the most-viral TikTok videos and some of the more amusing holiday greeting parodies. And despite the pandemic, these campus critters have kept their sense of humour for April Fool’s Day. (Even when they’re just rickrolling us.)
One of the favourite jokes at the mascot’s expense continues to be the absurd mascot change. Last year it was the McMaster Sea Turtles. This year we saw the Camosun Mustangs, Binghamton’s Baby Baxter, the Indiana Tech Dung-Beetles, the VIU Bunnies, and even Rainy Racoon at VCC (who decided they needed a mascot, even without any athletics programs).
Sadly, few PSE strategic plans say, like Capilano U, “We will embrace imagination as a foundational capacity.” But remember, Albert Einstein famously asserted that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Let me say again, a willingness to experiment, play, make mistakes or even look silly is a fundamental precondition for a healthy culture of innovation in any organization. I hope the pandemic, geopolitical conflicts and tragedies, heightened sensitivities and respect for each other don’t completely eliminate the joyful frivolity around April Fool’s Days to come.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms, 1931
Creative play deserves more respect!
If only it had been released on April 1, I think this March 2015 classic would rank as my favourite higher ed April Fool’s video of all time…
Step Into Your Future!
Time travel has been a popular motif for student recruitment videos. (I’m thinking of Bow Valley College’s “Your Future Says Thanks,” but I’ve seen it imitated elsewhere too.) But back in 2015, uHuddersfield produced a really creative 5-min promotional video for their Open Day that unveiled their “ground-breaking invention – a time travel portal” and invited students touring the campus to jump into the future and check up on themselves. (“Altering the timeline is in violation of pretty much every university code of conduct that exists!”) The humour is hilarious, the music sounds reminiscent of Back to the Future, and the acting and special effects are actually top-notch. (If only April Fool’s vids were this impressive!) In honour of First Contact day, I should also point out that there’s a cameo by emeritus chancellor Sir Patrick Stewart. YouTube
As always, thanks for reading! I’m away from the office today, helping my eldest move between cities, so you’ll have to excuse me tomorrow. I’ll try to get back in your inbox just as soon as I can.
Meanwhile, stay safe – but do try to have a little fun!
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