Go on, have a laugh

When it comes to giving a good lecture, or teaching in general, I take inspiration where I can get it, and this post is about how I often think of favourite stand-up comedians when I’m trying to summon the confidence to speak in public (or to a class). I think humour can play a helpful role in teaching and learning. Here is the original link, from December 10, 2010: Go on, have a laugh.

NB, the Bill Bailey link in the original post no longer works, and I haven’t found a stable replacement. But it’s from the show “Part Troll”, which is worth watching in full.

This week’s long and rambling post, after a hiatus of about a month, comes out of my thoughts about the tutorial group I’ve been working with this term.

After each class, on the bus ride home, I think through the things that seemed to work and the things that didn’t. Which students were really engaged in class, and who was tuned out, playing on a laptop or sending text messages? Did we use media in the class and did that work well for the group? Did we look in a deeper way at the key points from the week’s readings, or did we spend a lot of time on irrelevant tangents? Perhaps most important, what was the overall dynamic in the room and did it help or hinder the discussion of issues important to the course?

Last week, I was “chuffed” when a student said she had remembered the meaning of a term based on a joke (a humourous anecdote) I had told about it. Her comment made me think about how humour is something I use in class, in a number of ways according to context—and I realise now that I’ve been ‘using’ it right from the moment I stepped into a classroom to teach for the first time. It turns out that my teaching role models are my favourite stand-up comedians as well as the best professors.

This led me to ask: What’s the function of humour in the classroom?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that humour, being humour, simply isn’t taken seriously as a pedagogical tool.

And yet there’s a use for it. When I was first learning how to lead tutorials, humour had the function if dissipating my own sense of awkwardness at the situation. Since I wasn’t used to taking on authority, and didn’t feel comfortable with that role (i.e. the kinds of expectations there were from the students), the laughter made it easier for me to deflect and dissolve my own anxiety and that of the students as well as creating a “cushion” for those times when I felt incompetent and unhelpful (usually this was just my own perception as I later learned). Another effect was that students seemed to feel more comfortable in a classroom where a few laughs were encouraged.

To me, humour has also been a means of highlighting the ridiculousness of ‘normality’, which is an entry point to critique (for example I showed this sketch in tutorial, as a way of addressing essentialism). I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself inadvertently ‘opening up’ (making accessible) a perfectly ‘serious’ issue by making a joke.

Humour is an important strategy when lecturing with a large class, as well. In some ways, the skills demonstrated by stand-up comedians could be seen as a pretty fair fit with those required of lecturers in the university setting–keeping the attention of a large audience for a couple of hours without them being distracted, in such a way that afterwards they somehow remember what you talked about. Those skills are applicable across boundaries. And just as many professors make jokes about their academic material, many of the best comedians have a serious point driving their work.

Two of my favourite performers of stand-up comedy are Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran. Like all successful stand-ups, Bailey (who is English) and Moran (Irish) have ‘trademark’ on-stage styles. From Moran’s shows, what strikes me in terms of applicability to teaching are his uses of narrative, creative language, and vocal modulation. In this clip, he discusses the idea of having untapped personal “potential”: “leave [it] absolutely alone”, he advises, before launching into a lengthy, fantastically detailed description of what you imagine your potential to be (“flamingos serving drinks”)–as opposed to what it actually is. Like the best lectures, this performance is impossible to re-create through quotes alone because Moran’s style is the greater part of what makes the material funny and engaging.

Bill Bailey, on the other hand, has a way of soliciting responses from the audience and incorporating them into his act; he also takes slight in-the-moment thoughts and accidental slips and turns them into commentary and productive tangents. In one section of his show “Part Troll”, he involves the audience in making the sound of “a giant breaking a twig“, then invites them to shout out the names of famous vegetarians (which he re-imagines as a horse-race). Bailey has a knack for creatively incorporating the unexpected into his ‘act’, in ways that generate relevant connections without losing the overall ‘thread’. I think this translates as an important classroom skill because it can help to involve students in a discussion, if we can relate their contributions, their experiences and examples, to a theme that’s part of the course–without ‘losing’ the point at hand.

I don’t consider teaching to be all ‘performance’–and not all humour is helpful or appropriate in the classroom. But after watching so many tedious, montonous lectures in which students (in some ways justifiably) tuned out of the course and in to their iPhones and laptops, I’ve developed an appreciation for presentation–and I’ll take my role models where I can find them-!

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