Humor Can Do That! – The Serious Side of Laughter

In my introduction to literary genre course this semester, we had a running joke that all started with my introductory letter to students in January asking them to consider what humor could do. A bit of background: I begin and end each semester with the epistolary form – in August I introduce myself and my goals for the semester, as well as my rationale for selecting the various readings, and in May, my students craft their own letters back to me regarding their experiences in the course, their continuing struggles, and their diverse accomplishments. My students remark how these letters help them to reflect on everything they have learned, to express a new-found confidence they often feel as young writers and critical thinkers, to feel connected to their professor and their own learning, and to garner a sense of responsiveness and engagement for the future learning of peers who will take this course. Most students this semester examined their appreciation for the theme of our course, incorporating our joke in their responses: humor can do that!

You see, as a professor, like many of us I’m sure, I find myself constantly thinking about the progress of my students and my classes, especially while I’m performing tasks that permit my mind to wander and reflect, such as grocery shopping, waiting in line at the post office (yes, I still frequent the USPS), or trying to fall asleep. Recently, while sitting and waiting and waiting and waiting in my doctor’s office, I came across an abstract in an October 2003 issue of Science (see Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams’ abstract) detailing a study on the connectivity of social isolation to physical pain and instantly thought of my students. All semester long, they read plays, novels, short stories, and poems that showcased a variety of types of humor. I also supplemented their genre introduction with discussions on humor from physiological, economic, and psychological prospectives. This Science abstract, while not itself humorous, fit right into my theme, and I shared it with students via email as they were working hard to complete their final essays and reflective letters.

A few weeks prior, in a memorable ‘ah-ha’ moment, my students had made various connections to the benefits of humor and laughter in the ‘real world,’ and they were keen to repeat what had become our course mantra: ‘humor can do that’! While literature was the vehicle of my course, my students were encouraged to investigate a wide variety of mediums that addressed this theme. In class, they presented projects on how humor (and humorists) impacts, progresses, and even regresses social thought and action. Did they ever answer my call from my opening letter questioning what humor could do! They enjoyed “Laughter: Serious Business,” a YouTube video from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University in which Eric Tsytsylin discusses the significant benefits of laughter and, through an engaging presentation, challenges listeners to integrate humor into their personal and corporate lives.

Students also brought to my attention the viral video “Look Up,” a spoken word short on the value of human connectivity in our technologically driven world.

While the video is not exceedingly humorous, students reflected on how it connected well to another article they read on CNN Health about loneliness (see Hayes’ article on loneliness). These presentations helped to illustrate the multi-dimensional facets of humor in the worlds of business, medicine, and technology. They synthesized and applied the value of humor in many areas of their much smaller everyday lives as well, such as telling jokes to sick or lonely friends. When asked what humor could do, the nature and amount of response was overwhelming.

Our final conversation as a class revealed an astonishing amount of insight, all of which I could never fit into one blog post; furthermore, I learned that the theme of humor did more than act as comic relief in my course. While the students were still getting to know one another in the opening weeks of January, humor was a fantastic common ground on which to form friendships. When students were reading difficult works by difficult writers, humor in both the text and in our discussions aided in comprehension and cohesion. When writing essays, students responded in meaningful modes to the ways in which humorists and humorous texts get us to think about the impediments, complexities, and dimensions of a complicated American landscape. By challenging my students to cogitate about various aspects of American culture, they in turn challenged their peers, congressional representatives, and even their professor to think about the serious impacts of humor in all areas of modern life.

Many students left my course this semester with a firm grasp of the serious side of humor, as evident by their letters and participation in our final discussion. They built a foundational understanding of humor and worked hard to experiment with the theme and implement it in their everyday lives. I can only hope that they think about this course as they continue to be active members of the broader culture surrounding them, and remember that often times ‘humor can do that’!

© 2014 Tara Friedman
Tara E. Friedman currently teaches English and Professional Writing at Widener University in the outskirts of Philadelphia. She is ABD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and hopes to complete her dissertation on female resistance and agency in select late nineteenth and twentieth century American novels and graduate in 2014 with her PhD in Literature and Criticism. While she has presented on critical thinking and writing center theory and pedagogy at the CCCC, her other research interests include nineteenth century British novels, the sixties in America, and American humor.

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