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Touch of Humor Goes a Long Way in Class
December 13, 1999

"Warning from the Surgeon General: This presentation may contain Reba McEntire music." If you see that caution on the screen in class, you can figure the professor doesn't take himself or herself too seriously.

That's the way Keith Barker, director of the University's Institute for Teaching and Learning, opened a workshop on the "Use of Humo(u)r in the Classroom." The 'u' is in honor of Barker, a native of England.

"Humor can help relieve the intensity in the classroom and shows the students that you're human."

Charles Vinsonhaler
Head, Mathematics Department

The workshop, which Barker presented with Charles Vinsonhaler, professor and head of the mathematics department, was part of a series of lunchtime teaching workshops the Institute offers for faculty and teaching assistants. It was the first the Institute has presented on humor.

Barker said the choice of topic grew out of questions from graduate students in his class on Teaching and Learning Fundamentals, and from nominations for Teaching Fellows, where one of the common factors cited is professors' use of humor.

"Humor can help relieve the intensity in the classroom, and it shows the students that you're human," Vinsonhaler said.

The "students" in the workshop agreed, adding what they see as benefits to using humor: to help students understand difficult concepts, to help create interaction between teacher and students, to help introduce awkward subjects, and so on. Barker and Vinsonhaler added other reasons: to break up a presentation, to reduce stress, to emphasize a point, to change the pace of a lecture.

Barker cautioned, however, that teachers must use care in selecting humor topics so they don't offend the students or embarrass themselves or forget that they're teachers and not stand-up comics.

The types of humor they suggested include incongruity, Top 10 lists, stories or jokes, one-liners, ad-libs, cartoons, multiple choice items, and self-effacing humor.

Barker and Vinsonhaler gave as an example of a multiple choice question: Why avoid the use of humor in the classroom?

  1. Your subject is too important to make fun of.
  2. In the 2 1/2 minutes it takes to tell a joke, you could cover another section of the text.
  3. It is too painful for students to laugh with lip, tongue and face piercings.
  4. Students may begin to question your divinity.
  5. You prefer the ambiance of funeral parlors.

Barker, an electrical engineer, presented a Top 10 list of engineering faculty spouses' responses to the statement: You might be an engineer if:

  1. You've tried to repair a $5 radio.
  2. Your wife hasn't the foggiest idea of what you do at work.
  3. You have saved every power cord from all your broken appliances.
  4. At an air show, you know how fast the skydivers are falling.
  5. You see a good design and still have to change it.
  6. You think that people yawning around you are sleep deprived.
  7. You've already calculated how much you earn per second.
  8. You still own a slide rule and know how to use it.
  9. The sales people at the local computer store can't answer any of your questions.
  10. You look forward to Christmas so you can put the kids' toys together.

The presenters - and their workshop attendees - agreed that humor can work in the classroom, but it also can be overdone.

Barker said it's almost impossible to find a pedagogical text that mentions the use of humor, and he demonstrated by showing index pages of popular texts. The only work he cited was "Faculty Are From Mars, Students Are From Snickers."

Some of the snickers at the workshop were granted to the strains of Reba McEntire, as Barker, indeed, followed up on his introductory advisory.

Ken Ross