Humor in the Classroom, or Wherever

The other day I was chatting with a friend and fellow librarian about using humor in presentations and in the classroom. Whenever we’re working on presentations, we’ll run ideas by each other, and she has to endure comments from me like, “I have the basic outline, but I can’t figure out where to put in any jokes.” This may sound unnecessary, but I’m a firm believer in using humor in presentations as well as in the classroom. Humor engages listeners and reduces their anxiety.

Though I said “jokes,” I don’t really mean jokes in the general sense. I’m not very good at telling jokes, mostly because I can never remember any. Humor (or if it’s extemporaneous, wit) is more what I’m talking about. I know a few jokes of the “guy walks into a bar” variety, but I can’t imagine they would be very useful in a presentation to librarians or to a group of students in a class. Possibly I could develop some “guy walks into a library” jokes, but they probably wouldn’t be funny and wouldn’t blend into the material being presented. (I’ve appended my attempt at a “guy walks into a library” joke below, based on another joke I know.)

Sometimes I can actually plan a joke. I gave a talk on Google this summer, and was briefly comparing the now defunct Lively to Second Life. I’ve always been skeptical about Second Life, which seems to be losing its buzz (pace the claims of the SL people). In my presentation I said: “I haven’t seen any reason to use Second Life yet. Every time I’m there, I just end up naked and bumping into walls.” So far, so good. There were several head nods and a couple of titters, because anyone who’s used or read about SL knows this stuff happens. Then I followed with, “Since that’s how I spend a lot of my time in real life, I don’t see much point in going online.” I thought the joke went well. It highlighted my sketicism about SL as a useful tool while keeping the audience’s attention.

Usually whatever jokes I make are spontaneous. Recently, I was talking to a group of librarians about my theories and experiences weeding the collection for offsite storage. If anything cries out for levity, it’s this subject, which can manage to be boring and contentious at the same time. I was speaking off the cuff, but in discussing what kinds of little used materials I might send offsite, I remembered that I’d once discovered in a tight area of the stacks a whole shelf of books about Albert Schweitzer that hadn’t circulated since the 1960s. They were easy to send offsite. “So Albert Schweitzer, years after his death, was still performing good works by creating space in my stacks.” This joke might not work with college students, because it assumes at least a minimal familiarity with Schweitzer.

Audience is important. At another recent talk I was recalling a discussion I’d once had with one of my superiors about the way philosophy students work. I was being pressured to perform some library-related activities for which there was no need. For some reason, the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall popped into my head, and I did an impersonation of him in that scene. “You know nothing of my work.” I was just playing around, but a lot of the audience had obviously seen Annie Hall, which wouldn’t have been the case with most college students, especially freshmen.

In general, librarians are an easy crowd, though. Freshmen writing classes are another story. For those, I have almost no canned humor, but look for spaces to insert a witty comment. I’m not looking for belly-laughs, but simply want to hold their attention so they’ll listen to what I’m trying to communicate. Sometimes this is a joke about a book or article title we find. Or sometimes I tell them that while they might wait until the night before to write their research papers, they sure don’t want to wait until the night before to research them. I think it shocks them a bit that I say this, and it allows for a game instructor to jump in and reinforce lessons about time planning.

I’ve never set out to try to be funny in presentations, and I’ve tended to use humor more as I feel more comfortable being myself in front of groups of people, which has been a long time coming. I like joking around with friends, but for much of my life found it difficult to allow myself levity in public performances. Some people think funny can’t be taught, and to some extent I suppose this is true. Plenty of people have senses of humor without being funny themeselves. Some funniness possibly can be taught, though.

There are a lot of instructional materials to learn to be funnier, but it turns out that there’s a bit of library literature on the topic of using humor for library instruction as well. I found the recent Walker article in Library Lit, and that led me to the Trefts/Blakeslee article, which in turn led me to the Booth-Butterfield article in the communications literature (citations below, all available through ProQuest). Walker discusses the benefits to using humor in the classroom, like keeping students’ attention, increasing their retention of material, and reducing their information anxiety. She also summarizes someone’s suggestions of how to cultivate humor in the classroom (p. 120):

  • Smile/ be light-hearted.
  • Be spontaneous/natural.
  • Foster an informal climate/be conversations and loose.
  • Begin class with an ice-breaker, a short anecdote, or a humorous climate.
  • Encourage a give-and-take between yourself and students. Play off their comments.

These all seemed good recommendations to me, and in line with my experience.

Trefts and Blakeslee enrolled in a comedy course to see if they could become funnier. Their instructor divided people into two kinds of people: those who divide people into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. No, I’m kidding. He divided them into Fog People and Comedy People.

He says that the Fog People are people who “just don’t get It” (humor), and Comedy People are the ones who “reveal It” to the Fog People. From Greg Dean’s comedy tapes we learned that there is a distinct difference between having a sense of humor and being funny, or, as he describes it, having a “sense of funny”. Many of us probably feel we have a pretty good sense of humor, but that we are not particularly funny. Being funny, or having a sense of funny, is having the ability to make other people laugh; knowing what is funny in certain situations; and being able to look at the world, to observe, and to find humor in everything – even libraries! Therefore, Comedy People, the ones that can make people laugh, have both a sense of funny and a sense of humor. The Fog People only have a sense of humor.

To use humor in the classroom, the goal is to move from being a Fog Person to being a Comedy Person, the person who sees what is funny in a given situation. They have several tips tips to pass on:

  1. Do not give up after one try.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Be yourself.
  4. Think about your audience.
  5. Keep a comedy journal.

They discuss each of these in turn. For me, 3 and 4 have been the most useful. They also do a good job of enumerating and discussing various practical ways to introduce humor: jokes, icebreakers, audio, questionaires, videos, cartoons, the unexpected, spontaneous wit, planned wit, and active learning.

The Booth-Butterfield article is much more abstract and less specifically applicable to library instruction. It does have a Humor Orientation (HO) scale that Trefts and Blakeslee use, though. It uses a Lickert scale to see if you agree or disagree with seventeen statements such as “1. I regularly tell jokes or funny stories when I am with a group” or “10. Even funny jokes seem flat when I tell them” (207). They also have an impressive taxonmy of types of humor with many examples. The types include Low Humor, Nonverbal, Impersonation, Language, Other Orientation, and Expressiveness, and gives examples of when these types are in play (212). Like most discussions of humor, the article itself isn’t very funny, but it does tell us a lot about funny people, or high-HO people. Unsurprisingly, they see potential for humor in more situations than low-HO people, and communicate more specifically what that potential is.

A large cognitive difference exists between a description which states “I’d tell a joke,” versus “Did you hear the one about…” It is the difference between “I’d give a great speech” and “Fourscore and seven years ago…” People who report high humor use know more exactly what they can say and do to elicit the laughter response, while low humor use people must describe that behavior in general and abstract terms. (215)

It’s also the difference between “I’d tell a joke about Second Life,” and “I’d talk about being naked and bumping into walls.”

Based on my own experience and the studies I’ve cited, the use of humor in the classroom or in presentations has many benefits, though it can’t be taken too far. There are some caveats in the articles I’ve been discussing, such as that the use of ethnic humor, culturally specific humor, or sarcasm can be problematic. One must also avoid the shift from being funny to just being a clown. This is well captured in a vignette from The Elements of Teaching (which I highly recommend as a thoughtful analysis and discussion of said elements). The book has chapters discussing Learning, Authority, Ethics, etc. Each chapter ends with a case study of a fictional, but plausible teacher. The chapter on Character finishes with a professor who conveyed no content and engaged no learning, but who was very popular with students because his class demanded little and had the nature of a vaudeville routine (115-19) which always left the students laughing, but not learning. I don’t think there’s any danger of that happening with librarians in instruction sessions, but it still is something to look out for if you want to use humor in the classroom.

Addendum: A guy walks into a library wearing a duck on his head and wants to use a computer. The librarian says, “We don’t allow pigs near our computers.” The guy says, “That’s not a pig. That’s a duck.” The librarian says, “I was talking to the duck!”

Banner, Jr., James M., and Harold C. Cannon. The Elements of Teaching. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Booth-Butterfield, S., and M. Booth-Butterfield. “Individual Differences in the Communication of Humorous Messages.” Southern Communication Journal 56, no. 3 (1991): 205-18.

Trefts, Kristin, and Sarah Blakeslee. “Did You Hear the One About the Boolean Operators? Incorporating Comedy into Library Instruction.” Reference Services Review  28, no. 4 (2000): 369-377.

Walker., B.E. “Using humor in Library Instruction.” Reference Services Review  34, no. 1 (2006): 117-28.


6 thoughts on “Humor in the Classroom, or Wherever

  1. I agree with everything you say here. Understanding your audience and how they are likely to appreciate an element of humour is always a paramount consideration as there is a risk of negative association in some business contexts – that said:
    A guy walks into a library and asks the Librarian if they have a nanotechnology section; “You just trod in it!”, comes the reply…

  2. I have no idea how y read some article of your blog. My congratulationsan THANKS. You managed good language and efectiness comunication. Sorry I am chilean …so my english is very poor. I can read english. No problem.
    Well straith to the point, I want shared with you that teaching with humor, give a strong efectivess in students.
    My experienc is when my perfomances with teachers audience, are created with special humor and CREATIVE…. are fun because emotional networks go inside them…is very curious!!
    I ususally sing, dance and whatever you imagene, at my academic lectures and always I gave them some special surprise… in the beginning, at the middle or at the end …it is very important your feel at the moment …you must touch the feelings of the audience…. always feeling yorself FREE.
    I can beleive today buy I had enjoy this kind of perfomance, I enyoy a lot(the topic) and the most important thing, the people are learning.
    Enjoy your life, Constanza
    Constanza Mekis
    Coordinadora Nacional
    Bibliotecas Escolares CRA
    Ministerio de Educación de Chile
    Alameda 1146 – Sector B – Of. 303
    Santiago, Región Metropolitana, CHILE
    Fono: 56-02-487-5027

  3. Humor in the classroom or conferenece/meeting makes sense if its related to the subject and keep the conference/meeting entertaining along with attentiveness at the classroom. Basically i feel i need some kind of humor in classroom so that my mind is focused on the subject we are going through..

  4. Pingback: Hackers Enjoy the Little Things | Hack Library School

  5. Humor is really such a must in our classrooms today.In my humble point of view, the dailly problems students face are mostly associated with the classroom climate; the more welcoming the environment is , the better learning outcomes can be obtained. In this respect , humor is a paramount characteristic of any effective teacher in the sense that it helps generating such a welcoming environment that would be conducive to learning.

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