I’ve been asked why I’m so bothered by the invitation to sit in a dunk tank as part of our orientation activities for new students. Surely dunk tanks fall into the category of harmless fun? Don’t they?
OK, here are a few reasons, without even beginning to think about their resonance among students who’ve had enough of high school because of the bullying and are hoping for something better from higher education.
First, this is how they’re promoted:
Does Dunking Your Teacher or Boss in a Dunk Tank Make You Feel Like You Got Revenge?
Most events with a dunk tank rental involve either a boss or teacher stepping up to the tank. This is when you can normally judge their popularity by how long the line gets. So does this let you get revenge on them for the hard times they put you through?
You can’t fault the candour; I’m just not sure it’s the best way to start our relationship with new university students. What message are we sending them when we do this, especially our international students? Dunk us now, because you’ll be mad at us later?
Secondly, I don’t buy the Bakhtinian bonhomie of the whole thing. The dunk tank says “Working in universities doesn’t make us dull or formal, and once you’ve dunked us you’ll have a pretty fair idea of what we look like without our clothes on, so that’s sure to have some kind of benefit in the long run.” But I don’t think we have the first idea what we’re pitching for here, unless it’s the traditionally overplayed Australian value of egalitarianism—in which case it’s a pretty unconvincing attempt to pass off our power as the exception to the rule of our everyday cameraderie. If we really want to get serious about undermining rank and privilege in universities, this is a long road, not a carnivalesque sideshow.
And the sideshow element is the source of my third objection to this rubbish. The problem with history is that if you know nothing about it, and care even less, it has a way of showing up at awkward moments. (Another example that has come up recently is a university branding strategy that mentions winning “hearts and minds” without a trace of irony.)
So where did dunk tanks come from? How long have they been around? And is there a reason why the mesmerising YouTube genre of dunk tank videos starts to seem a little samey after a while? Sure, I was expecting that it would mostly be women being hurled into the tank, and I wasn’t at all surprised to read that (brace yourself) sometimes men even pay money for women to go into the tank wearing bikinis! Well, gosh.
But there’s something else.
Far from representing a longstanding tradition of allowing the uppity worker to take aim at the boss, dunk tanks have a really ugly racial history. Denis Mercier’s essay on 19th and 20th century fairground attractions that used African Americans as the source of sport for white folks gives a very different view of the relationship of power and humiliation to money-making:
The target games found in traveling carnival shows, seashore resorts and fairgrounds throughout the nation were among the most racially aggressive of all popular games. One popular carnival game which featured names like “Dump the Nigger,” “African Dip,” or “Coon Dip” did not require directly hitting a Black person, but hitting the target device attached to a delicately balanced plank upon which a Black person sat. The target, if hit squarely, caused the sitter to be dumped into the tank below.
In several accounts of amusement park history, the sitter’s role is spelled out more clearly. African American men and boys were hired to spend the day on the platform revving up the crowd of (white) patrons with insults, just enough that their eventual dunking seemed reasonable revenge for the taunting—in segregated venues that wouldn’t admit them or their families as paying customers. So the dunk tank recruited those who were most likely to experience racial violence from crowds into a bitter simulation of asking for it. If you know even one thing about lynching history you’ll see why this is a ruse of staggering cruelty.
And before we’re too quick to dispatch all this to the remote past, here’s a quietly horrifying photograph from 1965:
Are we having fun yet?
So what I’ve learned from all this (apart from the fact that there’s a limit to the number of dunk tank videos you can watch without becoming slightly depressed) is that dunk tanks don’t bother me because I think we should be above this kind of thing, or because it’s undignified, or because it’s not what universities are supposed to be about.
And I don’t even think this excursion into historical poor taste reveals some secret truth about campus racism, or racism at corporate parties and the other fun events where dunk tanks might show up—any more than I think Prince Harry (or whichever one it was) is secretly a Nazi sympathiser because he thought that was a fun way to dress for a party with his mates. The fact that someone in marketing doesn’t know where dunk tanks came from isn’t a gotcha moment—a week ago, neither did I.
Nope. It bothers me because it feels as though we’re signing up for the sitter’s role out of a sense of helplessness as we lurch into the uncertain future of demand-driven funding. We read every day that higher education is in crisis, that we’re out of touch, that big publishing can deliver educational content more impressively than us, and that even the final thankless vestige of our professionalism—academic judgment—can be exercised more efficiently by automated grading bots. To this we’ve now added a generalised fear of underprepared students as flighty customers, who will vote with their feet unless we can catch and keep their attention.
So instead of welcoming our students calmly and warmly, and letting them know that we have what it takes to support them in changing the world they will enter when they graduate, universities are turning to bad taste party stunts, and we’re making ourselves look desperate as we do — desperate for their approval, and in a strange way, desperate for their protection.
This isn’t what they want from us, and it really isn’t the best that we can do.