Jonathan Branfman is one of UCAT’s Featured Teachers for the Spring 2018 semester. He is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Associate in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State.
Join Jon in a roundtable discussion about his ideas on
Monday, March 5 from 2–3 p.m.
I’ve always used humor as a teaching tool, from my days as a camp counselor to my current role as a graduate instructor in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies. However, my colleague Kristen Kolenz recently helped me to articulate this teaching strategy more clearly. In a paper that we’re co-authoring on sex education, Kristen blends the work of Paulo Freire and bell hooks to theorize a “pedagogy of laughter.”
Building on Freire and hooks’s commitment to liberatory education, the pedagogy of laughter is not just about cracking jokes. Instead, it uses humor as a central tool of instruction and a primary relationship between teacher and students. Most of us recognize that opening with a funny anecdote is a great way to begin a research talk, workshop, or guest lecture opportunity. But we may be concerned about extending humor through the entire semester, for fear that we (or our topic) will not be taken seriously. My experience suggests the opposite. When laughter fills the classroom—when students know that they’ll laugh hard and learn deeply every time they come to class—it’s much easier for them to stay excited about attending.
Instead of dismissing laughter as a bodily distraction from learning, Kristen and I take laughter seriously as a pedagogical tool to build classroom communities. In turn, these communities encourage mutual exploration rather than passive memorization. Inciting students to laugh also welcomes them to experience learning itself as a joyful, energizing activity that engages their whole body—rather than experiencing learning as a rigid form of inactivity that’s disconnected from their real lives.
In this post, I present the pedagogy of laughter as a valuable tool for instructors in all fields. Teachers can use the pedagogy of laughter to bond with students and defuse any sense of teacher-student conflict, to redirect negative behaviors, and to keep students upbeat when they feel worn down by the workload or by emotionally challenging topics.
Bonding With Students, Defusing Conflict, and Redirecting Negative Behaviors
Students can often view a new instructor as an adversary: an unknown authority figure who might assign stressful workloads, explain concepts unclearly, or set unfair expectations. Well-chosen jokes can show students that we understand their concerns, their learning needs, and their cultural context. In this way, the pedagogy of laughter can help to defuse expectations of a power struggle between teachers and students, showing students that we’re on their side. Building this sense of connection, positivity, and mutual purpose is what I mean by bonding with students. This bonding supports a productive classroom environment for learning. Using the pedagogy of laughter to bond with students can also serve to redirect specific negative behaviors (like texting or skipping assignments) without falling into a negative power struggle.
I always use one particular joke on the first day of class to help bond positively with students while setting clear expectations and shaping classroom behaviors. Halfway through the first day of each course, my Powerpoint includes a picture of Joey, the goofball from Friends. Joey’s scandalized face appears on a slide under the question “Does this class take work?!” Underneath his face, the slide answers, “Yep!” This slide is my comedic solution to a functional challenge: Students often expect my class to be effortless because they have chosen it for G.E. credit. During my first three semesters teaching at OSU, I always found that a handful SEIs would express frustration that a “G.E. class” required typical assignments like readings, exams, and papers. I also often noticed students on the first day of class looking ever more incredulous as I outlined assessments like midterms or essays. This feedback led me to reexamine my introductory work at the start of each course. Since many students are unfamiliar with Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies before entering college, I’d expected to explain WGSS at the start of each semester. I quickly realized, though, that I also needed to intervene in students’ expectations about workload.
Yet I wanted to handle this intervention in a positive, upbeat way. I didn’t want to sternly inform students to take this class “seriously.” Instead, I wanted to name and correct students’ misplaced expectations in a way that relieved classroom tension, put students at ease, and encouraged our process of bonding as a community. My solution to this problem was humor: Students always laugh out loud when they see Joey’s face spoof their own feelings of surprise, setting an easy environment for me to clarify that my course will include regular academic assignments. Since introducing this slide, my SEIs have conveyed much less indignation about this workload. And with this slide, the moment when I raise academic expectations simultaneously becomes a moment when I encourage students to enjoy the class, to view me as an ally rather than an adversary, and to engage with learning as a joyful experience rather than a chore.
Helping Students Stay Energized and Upbeat
The pedagogy of laughter is also an ideal form of care that protects students from getting worn down. This kind of care is especially useful for courses with heavy workloads and courses that address emotional or controversial topics. Humor helps students renew their energy and stay upbeat in the face of difficult conversations and stressful deadlines. In the department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, for example, my own classes often include emotionally difficult lessons on sexual violence and discrimination. I am careful never to make light of these issues, but rather to find appropriate moments for laughter and an emotional breather during these lessons. At the midpoint of difficult lessons, for example, I sometimes include a meme of a dog or cat looking comically overwhelmed. I use this meme to acknowledge and normalize the stress we may be feeling together (“It’s totally normal to feel like this kitten right now”), while also releasing some of that pain through laughter. I also look out for chances to quip about anything else going on in class—for example, poking fun at my own handwriting on the board. This respite helps students to continue the hard work of examining such serious topics. As one student of mine wrote on an SEI, “I like how you manage to keep it light even when we’re talking about some real heavy stuff.”
How to be Funny?
Many instructors may worry that they’re just not funny enough to pull off the pedagogy of laughter. If you’re concerned that your own jokes and quips won’t “land,” integrating funny memes and GIFs into class PowerPoints or Prezis is an easy way to introduce laughter into the classroom. Though memes and GIFs may seem like low-brow laughs, they really can strike a chord with students and promote learning. For example, a student in my first semester of teaching commented on the mid-semester survey, “All the GIFs really help me feel comfortable in this class.” I use one specific GIF at three-quarter mark of each semester to help students stay invested in the course as the semester winds down. Right after Thanksgiving (for fall semester) and after spring break (for spring semester), I show a GIF of a manatee gently floating face-first into the glass of its aquarium tank. While this goofy image repeats on the screen, I add the words: “One month left—don’t hit a wall!” As students laugh, I take a minute to acknowledge that it’s easy to lose motivation at this point in the semester. I then assure them that I’ll bring all my energy and focus to the very end of the course, and I ask them to join me in doing the same. This joke works by recognizing students’ physical and mental fatigue while poking fun at the open secret that most people feel tempted to slack off toward the end of the semester. At the same time, this joke invites students to mentally and physically reinvest in the class by encouraging them to experience it as a fun space where they laugh together.
I encourage instructors to experiment with different styles of comedy, like verbal quips visual memes, and different uses of comedy, like bonding, defusing class anxiety, keeping students engaged, or redirecting classroom behavior. For teachers who feel shy “onstage,” funny images and videos can carry the weight of a comedic moment. While written feedback proves the efficacy of this pedagogy of laughter, students’ facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice can powerfully convey their sense of pleasure (and often surprise) as they realize that a lesson or a course will be genuinely fun and exciting. I also encourage instructors to reflect on how their own identities shape students’ perceptions of them, and how humor may help these perceptions (or not). For example, while some instructors who are women, LGBT, and/or people of color may find humor a useful way to rewire students’ stereotypes, others may find it best to navigate those stereotypes with a firmly serious image. Lastly, I want to note that integrating the pedagogy of laughter really can make teaching more enjoyable for instructors as well as their students. When you show students that you’re having a blast while teaching, students are much more likely to feed their own passion and excitement into the class.
Resources for Further Reading
Adams, Wesley. 1974. “The Use of Sexual Humor in Teaching Human Sexuality at the University Level.” The Family Coordinator 23 (4): 265–68.
Bryant, Jennings & Comisky, Paul & Zillman, Dolf. 1979. “Teachers’ Humor in the College Classroom.” Communication Education 28 (2): 110–18.