Humor in Teaching

We’ve recently added a lot of seriousness to the offices of teaching, from the too-high cost of a degree to the desire to produce specific results (jobs, right?) that are not really promise-able in any environment. But humor is an important tool to keep in the toolbox, for a number of reasons.

I was first alerted to this in a critique, a number of years ago, when a very perceptive student noted to the class that I used humor specifically when I was getting most serious and specific about something in the work discussed–follow the humor, he said, to find what I thought.  Now, I teach in a studio environment, in art, which is extremely discursive, seemingly “subjective”, and is essentially evaluative about student results that are, in essence, propositions about a problem or thesis. While there is much attendant theory and critical structure, essentially most teaching involves students delivering a product which is then discussed as to its efficacy (success or failure).  Even in class, when things are being rather publicly produced (calculus on stage), one works exposed.  This is, at the least, a stressful process. So clearly humor can help, given its traditional psychological role of defusing tension and leveling difference.  But humor often hurts, and this can be good and bad.

So a few ground rules I intuitively follow:

1. The best humorists work at the expense of themselves, not others.  A former graduate student compiled a video of all of Rodney Dangerfield’s entrances to Johnny Carson shows–it was heartbreaking.  Instantly, you wanted to be helping him, for whatever he wanted.

2. Humor is hard.  If one looks at the files of comics, one sees such a vast array of approaches and failures to get the point across that most of us look lazy.  They involve not just words but physical attitude.  They are dependent on context–if a particular group doesn’t get it, a new path will be tried.

3. Humor follows a specific thesis structure–a problem is set, and results are tried.  Interestingly they are all “failures”, because the dominant mode of humor is desire and failure.  This applies not just to the conveyance of a problem, but to the problem itself–the problem perhaps has no solution.

What results from a (virtuous)  humorous cycle is of great interest psychologically.  The lowering of structurally defined power enables subjects to try for power themselves.  The lightness of identifying difficulty invites approaches to its challenges. The identification with failure as the common result creates community rather than exclusion.

That humor creates a space in which to operate is not a particularly new idea.  Tonight, at a talk about Afghan poetry in the “Landlay” style, we essentially viewed the creation of a safe space for women through a very simple but wickedly humorous art-form, essentially a text-message in its brevity.  While we are perhaps all to aware broadly of the negative side of humor, as it is employed to deprecate others,  specifically focused humor specifically focuses its power in ways that, for the “powerless” would not exist.  Witness Swift, and it is not insignificant that the most powerful figures in Shakespeare are often fools; power that cannot lower itself is never really power. This is particularly true for teaching, which is one of the most asymmetric relationships possible, but one which doesn’t clearly enunciate its asymmetries–students are mostly powerless, so give them a shot.  And shoot back.


About Jay Sullivan

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