The Nutty Professor: Pedagogy of Classroom Humor

by Janet Mizrahi, The Guffey Team

The longer I teach, the more I am thankful for my sense of humor. Not only do I need it to get through teaching ten courses each year—I have found my students need a laugh sometimes, too. I’m no Amy Schumer or Joan Rivers, but I do crack wise in my classroom upon occasion, and I have come to believe that doing so is a crucial aspect of my pedagogy.

I’m not alone in that assessment. Much research has reported the benefits of using humor in the classroom. It is well documented, for example, that humans like to laugh—doing so alleviates boredom, surprises us, and creates an enjoyable experience, all of which can help engender a positive learning atmosphere. Perhaps even more important is that humor disables the threat response. The student/professor relationship can be intimidating, as can new subject matter. By being funny at times, a professor can be seen as less of a threat, allowing students to connect with both the subject matter and the deliverer of that information.

In addition, humor can enhance boring or dreaded subjects. None of us wants to admit that our subject inspires snoozing or fear, but learning can be daunting, and humor can help defuse that sentiment. Likewise, humor helps capture student interest; a funny story may encourage students to connect with subject matter. Finally, humor increases students’ attention. A witty remark mid-lecture can reignite most students’ wandering attention and even make them want to retell a joke. Such retelling is the key to remembering, a goal we all want to achieve with our students.

Integrating humor into your classroom

Most of us who teach college students realize that much of what we do in the classroom is a performance, and that the manner in which we deliver information is just as important as that information itself. Humor can be part of that performance. However, experts advise starting early in the semester; you need to prime your students to expect humor so they know it’s okay to laugh. In fact, tell them so!

While you want to always be genuine, use any trick you think will work. Can you do a great English or Australian accent? Use it! Try exaggerating where appropriate (“I will give the first person to answer the next question an A in the class… kidding! Or am I?”) If a prepared or spontaneous joke doesn’t elicit a reaction, recover with a quick reaction: “Hey, that was supposed to be funny—you guys are a tough audience!” I’ve heard of professors using props such as balloons with content written on them, referring to iconic music or actors known to the younger generation, and deliberately flubbing up technical devices, all to get a laugh.

If none of those suggestions appeal to you, below are some alternate ways to include humor in your teaching style.

  • Develop funny stories for specific topics. Just like no standup comic would perform cold, prepare your bits ahead of time. Alter them after you learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • Employ self-deprecating humor in small doses. Many comedians are the brunt of their own jokes. Personally, I find this style of humor quite useful. For example, when I teach résumé writing, I use my own [somewhat ancient] college history as an example. When I write the dates I received my degrees, I cover my mouth and mumble, “Nineteen blah-blah-blah.” The students always laugh.
  • Make your mistakes funny. Acknowledging your own errors can help humanize you and therefore create a bond between you and the class.
  • Use humor in bits and pieces. You don’t want to appear to be clownish or unprofessional, so be judicious with the timing and frequency of your humor.

Of course, there are some taboos to be aware of when you use humor.

  • Never, never, never make a student the butt of a joke. Once the students have heard a classmate ridiculed, every one of them will all be wary of becoming the next victim, activating the threat response and reducing your ability to connect with your audience.
  • Avoid “insult comedy” for the same reason. Offensive remarks that refer to age, ethnicity, physical appearance, religion, sexual orientation, or violence should be off the table.
  • Steer clear of alcohol and drugs as a topic. They both are landmines that can lead to unintended consequences.

One final piece of advice: Realize that your humor will not work every time. Not every funny comment will garner a laugh, and not every class can be won over. However, if you’re at all like me, you’ll have more fun if you are enjoying yourself on the stage that is our classroom… and hopefully, so will your students!


Do you use humor in your classroom? Tell us about it!

2 thoughts on “The Nutty Professor: Pedagogy of Classroom Humor

  1. Ali Mohareri

    Excellent post Janet. Humor is a big part of my teaching philosophy, in particular on the first day of class. I subscribe to your advice on using humor early on in the course to acclimate the students. I usually use the line from Southwest Airlines, “We know you have choices, we appreciate you choosing us” and the students have a good laugh. It’s also a great ice breaker during the early minutes of the first day of class.

    Ali from MiraCosta College

    Reply

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