Unit 8: GRUNT Ch. 1-4

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The book’s considerations of just a few of the challenges facing military service people are developed in a language that is both scientifically explicit and conversationally engaging, with frequent present-tense narration accompanied by interjections of sardonic humor and occasional glimpses of somewhat deeper, emotionally resonant contemplations of what it means to be a soldier … or, in several cases, what it means to be someone who works to both keep soldiers alive, and honor their sacrifice when they are dead.

Reviewers often comment about how funny Mary Roach is, and how this makes her scientific writing particularly effective.  What role does humor play in writing about things that aren't immediately humorous?  What benefits do you see?  What downfalls might result?

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22 thoughts on “Unit 8: GRUNT Ch. 1-4

  1. James W.

    Mary Roach use of humor twice in this reading, that caught my attention. First was in the descriptions of corpses used in testing the damage done by explosions. Second is the humor used in describing the horrible trauma and recovery that soldiers have been going through after the trauma of an explosion. Roach uses humor to make it easier for the readers to handle the difficult things that she is describing. Allowing her to not shy away from difficult situations. In her writing, it is important that the gravity of the situations is realized. The research for developing uniforms that don’t disintegrate into wounds, or surgeons harvesting skin from inside the cheek to reform a soldiers penis. For readers, these difficult and graphic explanations might be difficult to stomach. Roach uses humor as a way to break the ice, and make the topics more accessible.

    Humor used in dealing with heavy situations is great for making it easier to face. If done incorrectly, or indelicately you can either eliminate the message, or belittle the topic. It is a fine line to make light of of a soldier who has lost his penis, allowing there to be humor in the situation instead of at the soldier. If done incorrectly, instead of writing a book about the needs of american soldiers, it becomes a comedy about the ridiculous things the military researches. Roach does a great job of building a sense of gravity for the needs of injured soldiers, while at the same time allowing there to be laughter about there altered sex lives.

    1. Chelsea Barnett

      I think that Roach does well in conveying humor in her writing and that including humor is important to help open communication around difficult subjects like war. Humor can be very helpful in making information easier to read and become engaged in. I also think that it is important to not let hour in writing overpower the facts because that may make people not realize the seriousness of an issue. Roach does well balancing seriousness with humor.

    2. Justin Baugh

      I agree that Roach uses humor to break the ice with the readers that otherwise would be awkward to talk about. She also uses comedy to bring to light about what the military does to find enjoyment and to make themselves laugh or how the military is used to using foamies in their daily lives.

  2. Marissa King

    Humor plays a very important role in writing because it enriches communication, relations, and education. Mary Roach uses humor to draw attention to herself. Humor to me is what makes a good story because I am not the biggest fan of reading and if a book isn’t funny I’m not able to finish it, same goes for movies. More benefits would be it helps ease pain for people in stories. Making something funny that isn’t humorous is a great way to catch the readers eye and engage people into your book. Roach does a great job explaining at what happened to the soldiers in a serious matter but she also creates laughter for the readers and makes it more fun to read. Being funny though isn’t always that easy and intelligence is a major key. It is also a lot of pressure because you have to make it humorous to every audience not just one.
    Roach does a great job using humor in her story. An example is “A word about Kevlar underwear. A version of which was successfully marketed to the British Army: Blast Boxers–protection against life-altering injuries…. Fox News had called, asking why the Brits has bombproof under pants and our guys didn’t. (pg 37).” They were really just silk underwear that they were designing and she creates humor out of it and calls that Blast Boxers. Another example is “Like when you’re reading on the toilet too long. And you get toilet palsy. (pg 45).” Its another great line of humor she uses to keep the story going. She also does a great job at making very graphic situations easier to read like when she talks about whether their penis is their or not (pg 75). She uses humor to help ease what she is saying and created connections there.

    1. James W.

      Roach does an outstanding job riding the fine line of humor. The danger of this, from a less adept writer, is moving the joke from the way a situation is described, to the person it involves. While Roach was discussing the soldier who lost both legs, to the soldier who had his genitals mutilated, there must never be comedy directed to the soldiers themselves. Especially in this case where these soldiers lost so much, in situations they volunteered to be in. Keeping the reverence of the situations they are living through, while providing comedy to ease the shock of the descriptions of their injuries. Roach shows her skill as a writer in a way that I wouln’t touch with a ten foot pole.

    2. Manny C

      Creating humor to a variety of audiences is a key observation. I think that may be every true comedian’s challenge, how much harder it must be for the science writer?

  3. Chelsea Barnett

    Humor is important when writing about serious issues like war because it makes the writing more engaging, breaks tension in difficult topics, and makes information easier to digest. Roach uses humor well to make the topic of war something that a reader can feel comfortable reading and helps engage the reader in the topic. War is not something that many people want to read about, it is a sad and sometimes disturbing topic, but it is important to talk about. War, as well as the science and technology behind the military, are important topics to inform people about and create discussion around which makes writing with humor so important. Humor makes these difficult topics more light-hearted and easy to gain information about.

    Some downfalls that may result from using humor in topics like this because it can desensitize readers or humor can make a piece of writing fail in conveying the seriousness or importance of a topic. I believe that this can be avoided by concluding a piece of writing by mentioning how what one is writing about affects real people and the reader.

    1. Isabella Darrah

      Agreed! If we are so stubborn that we are unable to realistically talk about man of the issues that Roach brings up, then we may never advance where we really need to!

    2. Manny C

      Humor used in a way that could possible desensitize was not an implication for me at all, but I can agree with that observation. I know in the medical field it is easy to become desensitized to difficult or disturbing situations in order to complete your job effectively, humor being a coping mechanism. Humor used in science writing, I would agree, could cause desensitization because it creates a barrier for the reader, and may lessen the impact of the topic.

  4. Isabella Darrah

    Roach’s humor in her writing makes in very easy to read and process. This is especially true in her more vile topics as it normalizes them. And normalizing these odd topics does seem to be the goal of Roach and the researchers the interviews. If the majority of people are a little less grossed out by talking extensively about what could go on below the belt, then it would be easier to gather information and opinions, like Roach was trying to do. Humor as a coping mechanism can be very useful for many people, including myself, as it can diffuse some tension/awkwardness/etc. However, many people grow more upset when humor is used where it is not expected. It is possible that many readers of Grunt, (maybe especially those affected by the discussed topics) would feel offended as if Roach doesn’t actually care and may even be making fun.

    1. Ryan Hoskins-Chaddon

      You make a great point about making light of a situation being able to offend select audiences. It’s really important to know when to stop or just how far you can go when trying to make a difficult discussion topic easier to talk about. Humor requires proper timing and a proper lead to the punchline so that everyone who is reading, listening, or watching knows what author is making fun of and that they mean no offense by what is said. Without those things the person is just an insult comedian, funny until they start talking about you.

  5. Ryan Hoskins-Chaddon

    Humor in scientific writing, so long as it is not a research paper, is great to include. If the author is successful the paper can level the field of understanding of the reader, even if they have no idea of what the paper is about at first. Humor is such a relatable concept in human culture that most people can tell if something was supposed to be a joke, or otherwise funny, even across cultural and language boundaries. For instance, if you watch Monte Python’s Flying Circus, or any of their movies, you can tell what is supposed to be funny even if it doesn’t exactly play to your tastes. Likewise, watching a sitcom or funny game show in Japan, where you might not know the language, you can get a sense where it’s supposed to be funny. The same concept, when applied to technical and scientific writing can help with understanding the subject matter and it should, at least, be more enjoyable to read than pages of equations, hypotheses, and conclusions. It engages more people into the scientific field, if only for a short time.

    The author did not do this very well for me. It’s not that she isn’t funny, many people think so, but her attempts at humor only detracted me from the reading. At best, at least in my opinion, her attempts at humor were amusing and at worst they were tangential and removed me from the point that she was trying to make. The writing, in general, is a little difficult to follow along with. The subject matter is interesting and I enjoyed learning how some current military technologies are developed, but early on and throughout the chapters I encountered many paragraphs where I was asking, “Why is this even in here?” There was most of a paragraph dedicated to different kinds and shape of hair when it was supposed to be talking about a soldier’s uniform (pg 32). Mentioning the uniformity of the allowed hair styles would have been fine, since it was on the subject of uniformity of the clothing, but it was the entire paragraph.

    The whole reading wasn’t bad, it just seemed like there were many places that felt like she was explaining a punchline before the joke even started.

    1. Scott Chaddon Jr

      I like the cultural point you make about humor. A good laugh can indeed connect people no matter the cultural or linguistic differences (depending on the joke of course), though I might point out that your examples seem to mainly describe only slapstick humor, which works but seems a bit limited.
      I do agree that at points it was easy to get lost in her descriptions, especially when she seemed to be switching from one name to another and then back to the first, or when she seemed to go almost entirely off subject.

    2. Moira O'Bryant

      I enjoyed her humor a lot! She was funny. But I think do feel it was overdone. I agree with you that she spent more time over-explaining and playing the punch line than necessary and it took away from the content of the book. I found the subject matter interesting enough on its own. At times it’s helpful to draw the audience in with humor, but it didn’t need to be done here. It just took me further away from it, when lack of interest wouldn’t have been an issue to begin with.

    3. Ruby

      I really like your cross cultural view on humor. I hadn’t thought about that and it makes a lot of sense. Thinking about it, I can appreciate why you would feel that way about these chapters. I do feel like Roach was pushing boundaries on her humor, as if she was trying too hard, but in my opinion she was still successful at maintaining her goal in regard to her subject but lessening the shock to readers with the content by using humor. I feel like any more humor and she would have been too funny over informative. I honestly hadn’t even noticed how much time she was spending explaining the jokes but looking back I can see where you’re coming from. When it came to the hairstyles I considered that a way of the author trying to perhaps exemplify the uniformity of the clothing by describing the nonuniformity of the hair styles because even if there are different shapes of the allowed hair styles the clothing remained constant. But maybe I was reading too much into that. Great response, very thought provoking!

  6. Scott Chaddon Jr

    “Unsure whether perhaps I was missing the point, I asked a Navy commander about the rationale [of blue camouflage print]. He looked down at his trousers and sighed. “That’s so no one can see you if you fall overboard” (p.35).

    The above quote is one that actually had me laughing for a couple of minutes (even more so than the idea of explaining alternate sexual techniques to an admiral), making this part of the chapter fairly memorable. This was one of the near-constant humorous moments in the reading. Roach’s humor brings life to areas of the text that can feel a bit dry to the reader (for me this was the first chapter) and can lighten up the otherwise dark subject matter.
    If a topic is too dark and gruesome, more often than not, a psychologically normative reader may turn away from the text due to a sense of unease or disgust. This can be especially true when talking about war. Many people acknowledge that war exists and that it is a terrible thing, but few people are comfortable talking about the dark details. Humor helps soften the harshness of the reality, similar to the fat pad of your heel softening the impact and pain of a step. Roach tries to get the reader to smile or chuckle here and there as they read and this keeps the reader from thinking about the grisly subject matter for too long, never allowing discomfort or boredom to settle in.
    Overall using humor in this fashion has a good many benefits. The light jokes keep the reader interested, livening up the material a bit. Because the reader is more interested, then they are more likely to absorb and remember what they have read. This works even better if a bit of the humor hits home enough to cause a laugh, the mind treating the joke and the knowledge surrounding it akin to a happy or at least amusing memory. This also encourages the reader to keep going. Even if they are not particularly interested in the subject matter, they can at least look forward to another laugh or smile if they keep reading. A reward for learning.
    The downside for this is if humor is used improperly or is scaled wrong for the subject matter, then it can damage the perceived integrity of the writer. A poorly placed wisecrack could prove to be a sensitive point to the reader, causing a solid halt in their willingness to learn from the author due to disgruntlement or insult.

  7. Moira O'Bryant

    I really enjoyed this week’s reading. My boyfriend saw the book in my office and expressed interest, so I read out loud to listen along. Roach’s humor made it enjoyable and we were both had a few chuckles.
    There are definitely pros and cons to this type of writing. I think humor is a very good way to make bland topics more interesting and readable.
    Unfortunately, depending on the nature of the content, humor can be interpreted as insensitivity on part of the author. Especially when discussing war — even behind the scenes aspects of it — readers may be offended by added humor.
    Personally, I found Roach’s sense of humor to be similar to my own. I found the first chapter, discussing the fabrics used in protective equipment and clothing particularly interesting. She referenced Nomex fabric being used by firefighters. Being a firefighter, I am familiar with Nomex and use it daily. Although it is a different level than the military, the discussion of protective fabric resonates with me. I am teaching in at the fire academy this year and on Friday afternoon had a discussion with one of the students about the importance of properly wearing your gear and found myself using a humorous angle to prove my point about safety and being mindful when you’re getting dressed for a fire. In our profession we use humor to get through difficult situations and hard topics in a way that can be seen as inappropriate by outsiders. I think it applies to scientific writing in the same way.

  8. Manny C

    I have a friend that is a public speaker in the lower 48. People always seemed to be very receptive to his message, and were always floored by his use of humor at his speaking engagements. He commented to me about it once, stating, “laughter shortens the distance between me and you.” That phrase and its truth has stuck with me over the years, and I agree that humor has a place in science writing, and Mary Roach has utilized it appropriately.

    My friend’s statement essentially says that people are more receptive to you when humor is involved, creating an environment that makes you feel more receptive to that person. The humor used by Mary Roach brings you in to that same environment, allowing you to feel at ease about the topics she’s writing about, and again, more receptive to the content. The benefit is that people that would normally be turned off by science writing have now found common ground in the use of humor. In a way it plays the senses, allowing us to feel comfortable while diving into the intricacies of a topic like military technology.

    The downfall is that the overuse of humor may come across as scrutiny or as mocking the topic, making it seem less important. There is a balance in the use of humor that should be used, in these first few chapters I think Mary’s use of humor was appropriate and would be able to captivate an audience that normally wouldn’t pick up a sci-tech novel.

    1. Kimberly Ulery

      I have never heard that statement before, and am absolutely floored by it. That is so true in so many ways. Science writing can be… well, very uninteresting with certain topics to certain people. I, myself, found the topic uninteresting, even with the respect I have for the matter; it just doesn’t spark my interest. So far I’ve already learned much by the way of humorous writing, and find it to be refreshing, while also educating. I completely agree with the downfall that you stated, and agree that Roach handles it well thus far and shows a respect for the topic along with the humor to keep engagement and receptiveness high.

  9. Justin Baugh

    Mary Roach’s approach to serious topics allows the reader not to be depressed when reading the book. It also allows the reader to be able to understand what is going on in the book and not dismiss it as a science fiction book. I do think that she could have used less humor in the first 4 chapters. When she did use humor it was funny and was related to the topic she was writing about. She also did a good job describing what it is like to be in a barracks with a bunch of infantry soldiers and marines. With the humor being a vital part of capturing the audience into reading the book it seems like if a person wanted to read the book but was taken back by the humor because it seemed insensitive that this would be a downside of her writing style.

  10. Kimberly Ulery

    Writing with humor is a great way to catch an audiences attention on a subject that may seem very uninteresting to them. For instance, while I have a massive amount of respect for the military, I wasn’t looking forward to reading about the science of them at war because while very important, it just didn’t originally spark my interest, which makes reading the subject matter and comprehending it very difficult. Well, Grunt has already shown me that this is going to be a fun read that continuously keeps my attention because it makes me smile and sparks the interest that makes it so easy to read, and understand. Humor in text is an absolutely great way to bring uninterested eyes to a piece. If her humor wasn’t in this book, I know it would be a struggle to get through it.
    Humor in some instances can easily be seen as inappropriate, as well though. Roach has a great way of incorporating humor so that it isn’t very offensive though, and truly it does come down to perspective and a persons level of sarcasm. Knowing Roach’s history and how she came of this knowledge, shows that she does truly respect what the military does and has done, and shows she is using the humor to lighten the seriousness of the text, which allows those of us who would typically be uninterested, to learn so much more than we would have ever known.
    Ultimately, the benefits are bringing new eyes to the topic matter and educating them about it. Yes, humor may come across a little wrong, but those of us who have a level-head understand the seriousness behind the humor. Downfalls could be it being seen as offensive or degrading the seriousness of the military, and what they do for the world, but if anyone had heard how Roach came of this knowledge, I would hope they understand she comes from a non-offending point and simply uses humor to lighten the topic and broaden the scope of readers.

  11. Ruby

    When it comes to scientific writings that are meant for a broader audience beyond the immediate members of a specific scientific field it is important to implicate humor into the piece. Done correctly it helps make the piece engaging rather than droning. Hints and areas of humor can give writing different tones rather than remaining monotonous scientific jargon. I think Roach used this well because otherwise I might have felt compelled to put the book down and read the rest at another time, instead my interest remained. I have no personally connection linking myself to military or their protective wear so bland writing would lose its appeal right away.
    That being said the subject was also gory and detailed when describing the damages caused by explosions to the soldiers that survived and those that did not. Humor was sort of a way of desensitizing the reader to an uncomfortable matter. The use of humor in Roach’s book was effective on lessening the initial shock to the reader but still allowed the meaning to come through. It is also important to note that although Roach was effective she is still pushing boundaries a bit and that is something to be careful of. Too many jokes can cause the reader to focus more on the humor than the science, she wasn’t quite at that point in my opinion but I can see her getting there. In these chapters she is near the edge but I felt she didn’t push beyond and was successful in her efforts.
    That is one of the downfalls to look for when touching humor in scientific writing, you need to decide are you writing to be informative or funny because if your too funny who is going to take your information seriously? Always put your science first.

    All in all I enjoyed the reading.

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