Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s UniversityAmy Nathan
Wright, Assistant Professor, St. Edward’s University
Tracy Wuster, Adjunct Professor, The University of Texas at Austin
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally written for the newsletter of the Association of General and Liberal Studies, but the newsletter was discontinued. Amy and Laura agreed that we could publish it here.
“…liberal learning—the development of knowledge, skills, values, and habits of mind characteristic of an educated person.” –AGLS Mission Statement
Whether humor is used as a strategy for teaching or as content in a general education course, one major goal of a liberal education should be the development of our students’ senses of humor—the skills and habits of mind to interpret and use humor well.
The cliché with humor is that if you have to explain a joke, then it ceases to be funny. The implication is that we, as educators, don’t really need to teach humor, since students either get it or they don’t, and that by explaining humor, we take the fun out of it.
This is true, insofar as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Humor cannot be translated into a non-funny statement of fact or analysis, which is the meaning most people mean when warning against explaining humor. But instances of humor can be contextualized, historicized, and interpreted in ways that can deepen students’ understanding of key subjects, of other people’s points of view, and of a society in which humor has long been a central means of communicating and contesting societal visions and values.
Humor is especially useful in general education classes to introduce, explore, and deepen the understanding of difficult subjects, such as race and gender, for a diverse population of students. In these cases, teachers must help students come to a rich and nuanced understanding of humor, or its can end up accomplishing the opposite of one’s intentions—it can reinforce stereotypes and divide people.
How do we help students distinguish between racial humor and racist humor? How do we help students distinguish between gender-based humor and sexist humor? How do we get students to take race and gender seriously? How do we use humor in the classroom, whether telling the jokes ourselves or providing comedic examples, while engaging students’ critical thinking skills so they get the joke?