Like a lot of professors in 2015, Columbia professor Joseph Howley had a problem with students “class shopping.”
Some would sign up for his class only to see if it was easy, then bail after the first session if it wasn’t. But only Howley thought to counter this quiet menace with something that could stop it: a cat-eating space alien who was expelled from Earth to face his inevitable death in 1990.
The assistant classics professor stuck a command for his students to send him a picture of Alf—the ’80s sitcom star and alien from the planet Melmac—into the middle of his syllabus to see if anybody noticed.
From the number of Alf images he received, he figured he'd be able to find out early on if he'd have enough students to keep the class engaged, or even to keep it going. And maybe, he thought, he’d teach them something along the way.
So did it work?
“Eight out of 20 have [responded] so far,” he said. “I don’t know what to make of that.”
But it’s an enthusiastic eight. A “very funny eight.”
“It’s a rich tapestry of Alf,” said Howley. “They’re getting pretty deep on the Google image search for Alf here.”
Since Howley tweeted a picture of the challenge and his best Alf screengrabs, his trap has, predictably, gone a little viral. But that’s not what surprised him. What got him is that he still had 12 holdouts, despite their homework assignment’s appearance in the news.
“From that I conclude, mostly, that no one in the class knows each other,” he said.
For what it’s worth, Howley thinks the Alf test has mostly gained traction among educators who are desperate for their students to read their syllabi and want kids to, you know, be excited about their class.
“I think we’re always wondering nowadays, ‘Are they actually reading this stuff?’ I figured, ‘Why not just stick something in there to see how many are actually reading?’” he said.
Howley called the whole experience “more of a diagnostic for me than anything” and said it has mostly served to help him learn about the kids who’ve opted into his literature course.
“I want them to think a little bit. I want to see how they grapple with the absurdity of the exercise,” he said. “And you can find a delightful piece of their personality in it.”
Like the guy who sent in the picture of Alf holding a “very controversial sandwich”?
“Yeah, like that!” he said. “That was a cat sub, by the way.”
As for the biggest thing he learned from his students—and maybe the best part of this whole gambit?
None of these kids know who Alf is.
That’s how he came up with the idea for the Alf test, anyway. Howley, who’s only had his Ph.D. for about five years, is one of the younger professors at Columbia. He wanted to know exactly what references he could and couldn’t make anymore.
“I could feel that I was young enough to not be clear about where, exactly, the generational gulf actually was,” he said. “So I figured, one day, I’d quiz them. And Alf was the most recent thing I could come up with that no one in the room knew what it was.”
So even if these kids learn nothing about literature, they’ll now know about an alien with eight stomachs who lived near Los Angeles with the Tanner family from 1986 to 1990, right?
“I’m not just out here to teach. I’m out here to save lives,” Howley said, laughing. “But seriously, this is something that helps me shape their cultural frame of reference. And it can show them there’s a big, weird world, even recently, that they know nothing about.”
And it’s working. After Howley spoke to The Daily Beast, one more student caught on.
“I’m sorry this is late. I did read this syllabus, I guess just not every word,” his student wrote. “Even if this doesn’t count, the search was worth it in itself.”
“Pursuant to what I mentioned, it’s about the journey,” Howley joked. “The main thing I learned: The kids are all right.”