Humor has a place in education. College teachers can use it to create a welcoming classroom environment, increase learning, improve attendance, and reduce test anxiety (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, & Liu, 2011). Such results should encourage all who teach to explore how to integrate humor into their courses.
The key to using humor successfully lies in its authenticity. It needs to reflect the personality of the teacher using it. Inauthentic humor prompts awkward reactions. I’d like to make four suggestions that can help teachers use humor effectively.
In the current political and social climate, people assess humor on its apparent intent. Though students should never be the butt of a joke, barbed or personalized humor does occur in college courses (Wanzer, Frymier, Wojtaszczyk, & Smith, 2006). The difficulty in distinguishing offensive from inoffensive humor is trying to gauge the variety of sensitivities to humor. Wanzer et al. (2006) categorize three types of inappropriate humor: offensive humor, humor that disparages a student, and humor that disparages the “other.” They warn against targeting “groups of students . . . based on their intelligence, gender, or appearance . . . personal opinions . . . or religion” (p. 191). Unfortunately, the culture is quite polarized at present, so many formerly ripe areas for humor, such as politics, are now off limits. Professors should evaluate the use of humor in their classes to ensure that marginalized and underrepresented students are not singled out or given unwanted attention.
The best defense again humor that offends is knowing your audience. For teachers, that’s challenging because many student audiences are diverse. Students aren’t all the same age; come from different backgrounds and cultures; and have different majors, interests, and beliefs. If these differences aren’t accounted for, it’s easy to use humor that stereotypes or mocks beliefs. Inappropriate or offensive humor can be avoided with accurate, firsthand knowledge of the audience.
Students can be participants in humor, and in fact, most would like to be included. It’s easier to get students involved if the humor draws on subject, topics, and trends that are important to them. Faculty interests and areas of expertise frequently don’t overlap with student interests. This means teachers must make a special effort to connect with students, talking informally with them, keeping up with student activities and events on campus, and otherwise being aware the youth culture (if students are in that age cohort). These efforts to connect with students also develop knowledge of the audience that prevents use of humor students may consider inappropriate or offensive.
Humor provided by students can be used in a course. They might be able to offer a funny comment about some aspect of course content, or an event about which students can joke may occur in the course. Professors who are willing to allow students to share stories, insights, and experiences can make them active participants in the classroom.
The boundaries between professors and students are pronounced, and crossing those barriers is not always easy. Professors typically hang out with other professors; the academic world is not a place where most students hang out. Professors who rely on their academic wit may lose students in their attempts at humor. Jokes need to be accessible. Humor should be easily recognized rather than cause students to stretch their intellectual and comedic muscles at the same time. In my undergraduate education, I had a professor who posted a joke in Latin on the board and was totally surprised when only two students laughed. Somehow she hadn’t anticipated that her humor might be over the heads of almost all of us.
I would venture to guess that few professors think so highly of themselves that they cannot stomach a joke at their own expense. Some very funny comedians use their own lives as source material for their humor. Many professors—maybe most—have silly quirks and idiosyncrasies that are ripe for the comedic picking. A willingness to draw attention to our own foibles illustrates that we are people just like the students taking the course.
Too many professors have earned the stereotype of individuals who hang out for hours in the library and urge others to respect the signs that warn against any noise louder than a whisper. Students want instructors that they can connect with. A sense of humor reveals a professor’s desire to personally connect with students, even if only briefly. In The Mysterious Stranger, Mark Twain wrote, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” I urge my peers across disciplines to use humor and let it become a weapon of mass instruction.
Banas, J. A., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D., & Liu, S. (2011). A review of humor in educational settings: Four decades of research. Communication Education, 60(1), 115–144. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2010.496867
Wanzer, M. B., Frymier, A. B., Wojtaszczyk, A. M., & T. Smith. (2006) Appropriate and inappropriate uses of humor by teachers. Communication Education, 55(2), 178–196. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634520600566132
Daniel C. Allen, PhD, is a professor of history at Trinity Valley Community College. He received his doctorate from Texas Tech University in 2014 and has published work in the fields of rural education, curriculum and instruction, and the history of education.