Humor in the Classroom

I have a confession to make. I’m not funny. I like to think that I’m funny. I tell jokes. I often get the punchline wrong or my timing is off, but I tell them. Unfortunately, I’m usually the only one laughing. But does my solitary laughter stop me? Oh, no. It never does. I just keep right on . . . telling jokes and laughing by myself. My second confession? I do this in a classroom.

Usually, telling badly phrased jokes and laughing by myself is OK. Students will give the fake three-toned laugh, “ha, ha, ha.” You know, the one that actually says, “you-are-not-funny,-but-you-grade-my-work-so-I-have-to-play-along” laugh. It works in the classroom, though. Telling jokes badly becomes my shtick. I know I’m not funny and they know I’m not funny. We revel in our my delusion of someday having my own comedy show.  While my bad attempt at humor can seem ill-advised, it is a calculated strategy at openness and authenticity.

Humor has a place in today’s college classroom. It has a place in pedagogy, as it aids in student learning. That is, it aids in student learning when it’s authentic, not contrived, not forced. Humor can help students relax in a classroom setting, particularly if they are fearful or insecure in their ability to master the material of a course. Writing classes or mathematics courses can be examples of classes that students dread. Timely and appropriate humor can help students see their professors as authentic and approachable.

Humor has a “humanizing effect on the image of an instructor,” according to John Huss, at Northern Kentucky University.   It’s no secret that I am a Springsteen fanatic fan. I make jokes about Springsteen in class. As students warm up to me and to my method of instruction, they begin making Springsteen jokes, too. (Actually, their jokes are not funny in the slightest, as the students’ jokes tend to disparage the god of rock “The Boss” as being past his prime, but in the spirit of fair play and keeping student learning at the center of my pedagogy, I laugh.)

I have a million just like that.

These silly, stupid jokes help us form a community in the classroom. We have shared knowledge. We belong. Together we draw comparisons between what we are doing in class and what’s happening in the world.  Sometimes those comparisons are very strange, and we laugh.  But the students remember.

How about you?  How do you use humor in your classes?   How has it affected student learning?  Please leave comments below.

Oh, and my joke?  I only know one.  Here goes:

–Why are there so many Smiths in the phone book?

–Because they all have telephones!

[Image of "Laughing Star" by Flickr user cindy47452. Licensed under Creative Commons.]

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