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!

Scams Target Millennial Job Searchers… Music Exec Offers Pitch-Perfect Job Advice… Networking No-Nos

Scams Target Millennial Job Searchers

The lure of an entry-level position that requires little experience can be attractive to new job seekers, and scammers are taking advantage of that weakness. Millennials, who have been especially hard hit by a rash of cons, have reported thousands of incidents in which they have applied for fake jobs and provided sensitive data to scammers while doing so.

These incidents are tied to online employment procedures. Because so much of the employment application process is digital—everything from applications to psychological tests to interviews are frequently administered online—vetting a potential employer can be difficult. To make things worse, the scammers are sophisticated. The Federal Trade Commission reports job seekers have been approached by phony hiring managers at companies that look legitimate online but that are entirely unreal. The trickery extends to hackers, who create fictional LinkedIn profiles to help them appear legitimate.

From the Wall Street Journal

Music Exec Offers Pitch-Perfect Job Advice

Mike O’Neill, CEO of music rights management company BMI, has advice for people starting their careers. His first tip is to treat everyone with respect. His second is to remember that a career is not a race. No one’s first job is being the CEO of a multinational music company, he notes.

O’Neill also advises job seekers to be assertive rather than aggressive. Being pushy can backfire, he says. In his own career, he has landed jobs he pushed his way into only to discover he was not ready to handle the position. Rather, he says, be open to opportunities that present themselves that may not be on your radar. He adds that some of the best jobs he’s had were ones he had never considered.

From The New York Times

Networking No-Nos

Networking has become an integral part of anyone’s career. However, experts warn that knowing what not to say is as important as knowing what to say. Maureen Harrington from Glassdoor offers advice about what not to do while making contacts for work.

Harrington advises not to:

 

  • blurtInstead, listen, observe, be aware, and be prepared. Ask questions rather than say something that can be misunderstood or that sounds inane.
  • complain. Even if your current company is going bankrupt or your boss is unbearable, stifle your impulse to grouse.
  • drop names. You may be justifiably proud that you went to Stanford, but there’s no need to squeeze your alma mater into the first sentence you utter.
  • mention politics or religion. Unless the job you’re going after is in politics or religion, stay away from those topics.
  • use clichés. Hackneyed sayings will elicit eye rolls. Lose clichés such as “think outside the box” and “push the envelope.”

From FastCompany

Parsing Paraphrasing: Classroom Exercise

Students struggle with paraphrasing. Frequently they stay too close to the source text and only exchange words or expressions for synonyms. Occasionally they just copy. Teaching paraphrasing is important if we want our students to cite and document sources correctly and write reports with integrity.

The best advice? Encourage students to read the original text carefully; then ask them to recast the passage into their own language from memory. This will prevent them from piecing together their summaries and paraphrases. Last, ensure that students check for accuracy.

This exercise can be used with individuals or small groups. First, ask students to read “Humanics,” the original source text below. Then follow steps 1-3.

Original Source: “Humanics”

Economists say the United States has lost about five million manufacturing jobs since 2000, twice the losses of the 1980s and ’90s, as offshoring and machines have taken over routine labor. Meanwhile the economy has added tens of millions of service jobs, which require higher levels of education. But white-collar jobs are hardly safe, as artificial intelligence could oust workers from fields as diverse as radiology, accounting, and insurance. We face a churning, unstable labor market, in which everyone is vulnerable to replacement by a robot.

Joseph E. Aoun, a theoretical linguist by training, is an advocate of Northeastern University’s co-op model of education, with students working in real-world jobs related to their studies. Students need training in “humanics”: a mixture of data science, technology, the liberal arts, and empathy, he believes. Colleges should take a broader lens on disciplines, helping students connect disparate issues. Those lessons come best outside the cloister of the classroom, in messy yet engaging ­real-world environments:

We should embrace experiential education, because it is a humbling experience. It leads us to be in tune with the reality, the changes, and the opportunities that exist. We run the risk of becoming like the railway industry, which said, We are focusing on railway transportation—and they missed the airline revolution. Companies are starting universities. Why are they doing that? Because we are not meeting their needs.

 If you look at your job as a 9-to-5 job, it means that you are not passionate. You are not excited about your job, but you are doing it because you have to. Those jobs are subject to automation. Everything that can be turned into a process is going to disappear.*

*This excerpt is based on an interview of Joseph E. Aoun conducted by Scott Carlson: Carlson, S. (2017, November 20). How real-world learning could help people compete with machines. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

STEP 1: Highlight Main Ideas.  Ask students to identify the core ideas in the passage by highlighting important phrases and sentences. The result could look like this:

“Humanics”— Original with Highlighted Main Ideas

 Economists say the United States has lost about five million manufacturing jobs since 2000, twice the losses of the 1980s and ’90s, as offshoring and machines have taken over routine labor. Meanwhile the economy has added tens of millions of service jobs, which require higher levels of education. But white-collar jobs are hardly safe, as artificial intelligence could oust workers from fields as diverse as radiology, accounting, and insurance. We face a churning, unstable labor market, in which everyone is vulnerable to replacement by a robot.

Joseph E. Aoun, a theoretical linguist by training, is an advocate of Northeastern University’s co-op model of education, with students working in real-world jobs related to their studies. Students need training in “humanics”: a mixture of data science, technology, the liberal arts, and empathy, he believes. Colleges should take a broader lens on disciplines, helping students connect disparate issues. Those lessons come best outside the cloister of the classroom, in messy yet engaging ­real-world environments:

We should embrace experiential education, because it is a humbling experience. It leads us to be in tune with the reality, the changes, and the opportunities that exist. We run the risk of becoming like the railway industry, which said, We are focusing on railway transportation—and they missed the airline revolution. Companies are starting universities. Why are they doing that? Because we are not meeting their needs.

If you look at your job as a 9-to-5 job, it means that you are not passionate. You are not excited about your job, but you are doing it because you have to. Those jobs are subject to automation. Everything that can be turned into a process is going to disappear.

STEP 2: Discuss Plagiarized Version. Let students highlight phrases that were copied verbatim and note the strong dependence on the original’s organization and sentence structure. This version is too close to the original. The writer follows the order in which ideas are introduced as well as the sentence structure and substitutes synonyms for some words in the excerpt. Ideally, paraphrases are accurate representations of the original, often summarized or condensed, but recast in the writer’s own words. To avoid inadvertent plagiarism, writers should paraphrase from memory. This type of plagiarism is common. 

“Humanics”— Poorly Paraphrased/Plagiarized Version

 Workers in jobs requiring education, in fields such as radiology, accounting, and insurance, could be displaced by artificial intelligence. The labor market is in flux and unstable; everyone could be replaced by a robot. This is why Joseph E. Aoun, a theoretical linguist, embraces Northeastern University’s co-op model of education, with students working in real-world jobs relevant to their studies. Students must be trained in “humanics”—a blend of data science, technology, the liberal arts, and empathy, he argues. Experiential learning is a humbling experience but it leads us to align with reality, changes, and opportunities. Because the current educational system does not meet their needs, some companies are starting universities. Tomorrow’s workers must be passionate or they are subject to automation. Every job that can be turned into a process will disappear.

STEP 3: Paraphrase the Original Without Plagiarizing. Ask students to reread the source text, move it from their sight, and put the ideas in the excerpt into their own words. Below is a potential acceptable paraphrase. Answers will vary. 

“Humanics”—Competent Paraphrasing

 Joseph E. Aoun, a theoretical linguist at Northeastern University, believes that students need to learn in realistic, relevant workplace settings to be competitive in a world that will see automation even in white-collar industries, for example, accounting or insurance. Any jobs that can be streamlined will be replaced by artificial intelligence in a fast changing, unpredictable labor market. Employers criticize the traditional educational system for not preparing graduates for the workplace of the future; therefore, some have started their own universities. Aoun calls for a broad experiential approach he calls “humanics,” encompassing data science, technology, the liberal arts, and empathy. He says that future-proof workers need to be enthusiastic, creative, and multi-faceted.

Download the paraphrasing exercise as a PDF document suitable for posting or printing:

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WITHOUT Annotation

Intended for classroom use only–posting or wide distribution with authors’ permission only (c) The Guffey Team, 2018