An Educated Sense of Humor

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?

So, it is important that our students “get the joke” when we introduce humor into a classroom. But the cliché holds one important pedagogical insight: we can’t force our students to understand humor by telling them what is funny and why.  Instead, like any good comedian, we must set up the context of humor in order to deliver an effective punch line (i.e. lesson) that, hopefully, makes our students laugh (and think) about important cultural concepts.

The risk of using humor seems to pay off.  Research from the last several decades indicates that an increasing number of educators across the disciplines are using humor as an effective teaching tool.  Studies indicate that humor in the classroom keeps students engaged, defuses conflict, reduces status inequality, and fuels curiosity and creativity.

Humor has been positively linked to learning outcomes such as facilitating the retention of novel information (Cornett 1986; Vance 1987; Ziv 1988), increasing learning speed (Gorham and Christophel 1990), improving problem solving (Klavir and Gorodefsky 2001), relieving stress (White 2001) and reducing test anxiety (Berk 1999; McMorris, Boothroyd, and Pietrangelo 1997; Newton and Dowd 1990). Students have positive perceptions about humor in the classroom. In one recent study, 73% of students agreed humor a good idea in the classroom (Torok, McMorris, and Lin 2006).

Yet some studies also indicate that humor is used best in moderation. When researchers surveyed faculty at one university to determine how much humor they used in the classroom, the study found that humor was used slightly less frequently among award-winning faculty than among the faculty at large (Downs, Javidi and Nussbaum 1988).

However, students do not seem to appreciate all types of humor. In general, students are not as supportive of sexual humor, ethnic humor, or humor that seems “hostile” or disparaging (Torok, McMorris and Lin 2006). Female students are more wary of humor in general (Sev’er and Ungar 1997), and for faculty there are contradictory studies of student perceptions, but some find humor less effective for female faculty (Bryant, Crane and Zillman 1980)(Gorham and Christophel 1990).

This research suggests that educators must be sensitive to the intentions of race and gender-based humor in particular. The most important distinction in much of this research is between “positive” humor that reduces status inequality and “negative” or “hostile” humor that might reinforce power differentials in the classroom.

One study found that humor is most effective when it creates a “community of laughter,” breaking down gender, race, and class barriers. Teachers are most effective when they use humor that reduces the distance between themselves and others, making fun of themselves, and collaborating with students to find creative, and sometimes subversive, ways of teaching and learning (Cohen 1997).

While using gendered and racial humor can be treacherous ground, it also can be an incredibly effective tool in opening up discussion on controversial and sensitive topics.  Research has demonstrated how humor functions as safety valve for “our collective guilt, anger, confusion, and repression” over issues of discrimination and oppression (Beckerman 2008).

The challenge for educators goes back to the necessity of teaching students how to understand humor—how to help them get the punch line and its broader context.  Like other forms of popular culture, such as music and film, humor can lighten the mood and help foster community among a diverse group of students.  When instructors use comedic examples from popular media to illustrate a complex point, they are entering into a conversation with students using a shared language.  Complex concepts like the social construction of race and gender can be more easily understood when using examples with which students are already familiar.  Even if the shared language is one of stereotypes, having a common knowledge of attitudes toward different marginalized groups can be a first step in comprehending why these groups have suffered discrimination and how their experiences are both similar and different.

Using comedic examples from popular culture in the classroom can also foster a call-response reaction where students begin to find their own pop culture examples that challenge gender or racial discrimination.  This type of response demonstrates the lasting effect of using humor in the classroom—students are encouraged to think about the course content outside the classroom.

The challenge is for both educators and students to recognize when racial or gendered humor is being used to bust/challenge gender and racial stereotypes rather than reify them.  Comedians are often the public intellectuals with the greatest freedom to “speak truth to power” and expose the ills of contemporary society in often brutally straightforward terms.  But in order for students to get the point of political comedians’ jokes, they must first understand the social and historical context of the joke.

Using humor as a pedagogical tool requires educators take their use of humor seriously—not to take the fun out of it, but to make the fun educational within the goals of a liberal arts education.

2 responses

  1. […] As many of us prep our syllabi and get ready to head back to school, some of our readers will be so lucky as to get to teach humor to their students–either in a specifically focused class or in a more general context.  One of the founding goals of this website was the importance of the pedagogical discussion of humor.  Amy Wright, Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, and Tracy Wuster discussed some of these issues in An Educated Sense of Humor. […]

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