Teaching with Humor

Around this time of year, I can always feel the tension whenever I walk into the building.  Everyone I greet has puffy eyes, the bags under them extending all the way to their knees, from too many late nights, too many hours hunched over computer screens, books, and essays, frantically trying to get it all done before the deadline.

And those are just the instructors.

The students, though they have the resilience of youth on their side, tend to be in even worse shape, all of their tension exacerbated by too many dining hall meals, homesickness, lingering self-doubt, and being rousted out of bed or the shower in the wee small hours of the morning by fire alarms pulled in the dorms.

And yet, the serious business of learning must continue, and it must continue to be effective.

Humor can be a useful tool to deflect the tension and keep us focused on what matters.  It can also be an extremely effective mnemonic device if it hammers home a concept.   But I have discovered over the years, for myself anyway, that it isn’t a good idea to wait until this time of the year to try to inject that sanity-saving humor.  It works best if by this time of the semester, it is already a habit.

Numerous studies have explored the links between laughter and learning, demonstrating that when humor complements and reinforces the concepts — not distracting from them — students retain more, their anxiety levels drop, and their motivation increases (Garner 2006).  Self-deprecating humor on the part of professors relaxes students and makes them seem more approachable or understandable (Shatz and LoSchiavo 2005).  The focus must always remain on learning, and a teacher must be careful not to undercut his or her purpose or credibility by becoming more of an entertainer in students’ eyes (Bryant and Zillman 2005).

A teacher must never forget the power dynamic in the room, either, and use humor to target a student or group of students (Gorham and Christophel 1990), or “put them in their place.”  Such humor is far too aggressive and has no place in the classroom.  As I’ve written elsewhere on Humor in America (Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?), humor depends upon some level of shared ground, and because of this reveals the boundaries of a particular community.  Making a student or group of students the butt of a joke sets them outside the community rather than bringing them in, and further, raises anxiety levels in all of the students, causing them to wonder what would make them become a target.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t kid around with students or gently tease them, but the focus must always be on enhancing their learning or reassuring them that you don’t doubt their abilities.  You can never forget who holds the real power in the classroom, or the damage you can casually do.

Humor shouldn’t be forced or feel obligatory either.  It isn’t for everyone, but it sure gets me through the day, and my students seem to enjoy it.  More important, they learn, doing themselves and me proud.

I teach writing and literature, with a focus on research.  Much of the humor I use in the classroom is geared toward revealing the absurdity behind bad habits of writing or sloppy thinking, or toward removing some of the mystery about what makes good scholars, writers, and researchers — and students’ anxiety about whether they have what it takes.

Because many of them come to the classroom well-trained in timed exam writing, they tend to want to have a thesis before they start writing, to need to know what they want to say before they begin, before they really look into the evidence.  I’ve kidded around with them about this for years — if a thesis is an interpretation of evidence, how can you interpret what you haven’t got yet?  But this video is the best thing I’ve found for helping students see that when you narrow your focus too soon, you cherry-pick the evidence, seeing only what you want to see or have decided that you will see — and often miss the best part in the process:

After watching this video, I have a ready-made shorthand for marginal comments or conferences.  As the video says, “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for,” so it is dangerous to have a thesis too early, and in the evidence-gathering part of the process, you must remain open to what is there.  When a student is having problems with this, I can just point out briefly that there seem to be some moonwalking bears around.  And instead of getting defensive, they laugh ruefully, and settle in to talk about what else might be there.

Another problem students often have is missing key facts in a text, reading hurriedly or sloppily, and ending up with arguments that cannot be supported because the facts are against them.  While there is never one correct interpretation of a text, there are wrong ones, interpretations that violate or ignore facts.  But when you point out that a student is doing this, s/he often feels defensive, stupid.  Humor can help.  So I tell students, “You can’t make a stunningly brilliant argument about the symbolic significance of a yellow shirt if . . . the shirt is actually red.”  For the rest of the semester, all I have to write in the margin, say in a conference, or suggest as a peer comment is “Check the text.  Looks like a red shirt here.”  Students may feel a little sheepish (don’t we all?  Everyone has a few red shirts hiding in the closet), but they more easily shift to looking for the right “shirt” and re-evaluating their argument in the light of the actual facts of the text.

And then there’s this plagiarism exercise that my department uses.  It offers a quotation from a source about Asiatic black bears, then cites three mock “student” examples of using the information in an essay about the problem a Missoula, Montana town was having with bears coming into town, attracted by the dump and open trash cans.  We go through the exercise, with students duly differentiating between proper quotation or paraphrase and plagiarism, usually learning that some of what they thought was appropriate is actually a form of plagiarism.  This often makes them feel a little demoralized and defensive.

And that’s when I spring the joke.

I ask them whether the topic actually excites them and whether they think it excited the “student” writers — or the teachers who were crafting the example.  We bat it back and forth, and they usually come to the conclusion that the only people who would really care are folks in Missoula.  We talk about the hazards of writing about something you have found no reason to care about, to be committed to, and I ask them to look for the problem with the research source itself.  Eventually someone notices that the research is about Asiatic black bears, and we’ll pull up information about them, including their range and habitat — which is a world away from Missoula, MT.  And since Asiatic black bears have difficulty surviving and reproducing in zoos, it is highly unlikely that even escaped animals could be harassing the good citizens of Missoula, nor would learning about these bears help a lot with understanding the behavior of American black bears or what to do about them.  There’s a lot of good-natured joking, usually, and then they sober up, but smile, when I tell them I don’t want to see any Asiatic black bears sniffing around their essays.

Not sure why bears seem to haunt the jokes.  Maybe because they look so cuddly, but are actually dangerous.  Anyway, there it is.

I could go on —

Oh, you’ve noticed that have you?  Hush.

— but I’ll close with this, a link to an article I often give students for some solid writing advice. The article is “10 Ways to Improve Your Writing While Thinking Like a Comedy Writer” by Leigh Anne Jasheway, from the Writers’ Digest website.  It offers many suggestions that more “serious” articles or handbooks on writing offer, but students seem to use the language here more often when they’re describing their efforts at stylistic innovation or cohesion, and to feel less threatened by its advice.

Maybe that’s because there aren’t any bears.  Or growling, sleep-deprived professors.

© Sharon D. McCoy, 14 November 2013

2 responses

  1. Love this article! Am sharing with AATH (Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor). Do join our conference April 3-6 in Vincennes. Lots of educators! We are your peeps. Check out my book, Using Humor to Maximize Learning! http://tinyurl.com/khk4qsh

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