I'm here all week, ba-dum-tish! (Is this thing still on?)

Scholars should go easy on the jokes as a bad crack can cause all sorts of problems. Jack Grove reports

January 19, 2012

Throwing in a few jokes to liven up a lecture is often seen as good practice, but tutors have been warned that humour can backfire unless it is employed judiciously.

John Struthers, a PhD candidate in educational research at Lancaster University, argues that academics should analyse what drives their own sense of humour before trying out jokes on students, since an ill-judged crack can tarnish their professionalism.

To avoid such problems, Mr Struthers advises tutors to consider five factors: the audience, the desired outcome, their own motivation, the cultural context of the joke and - perhaps most importantly - whether they have the comedic skills to pull it off.

The approach is based on the interpersonal communication competence model, a theoretical framework developed by US academics Brian Spitzberg and William Cupach, which identifies effective and appropriate communication skills.

For instance, the appropriate level of openness to adopt with students could be assessed by analysing one's own motivation for telling a story, Mr Struthers argues in "The case for mixed methodologies in researching the teacher's use of humour in adult education", a paper in the Journal of Further and Higher Education.

Some studies show that "students value the openness of the teacher when sharing their humorous stories about past experiences", he writes, while others suggest that "humour as displaced anger" is often "a coping strategy" that does not improve teaching.

Situations in which the use of humour is beneficial include setting the tone of a particular class, as a "stress buffer" and for dealing with unpleasant situations, the paper says. Using it to illuminate course content, for example through cartoons, dancing and mimicking, can also be effective, and Mr Struthers suggests that there is a role for slapstick and sarcasm in the classroom if used appropriately.

But academics needed to be aware of the risks, he adds. The paper notes, for example, that laughing or smiling at jokes is "not thought to be reverent to those in seniority in Asia". It also warns lecturers not to attempt to emulate stand-up comics, advising that "a little humour can go a long way".

Such advice may make sense in general terms, but Mr Struthers acknowledges that the subjective nature of what is and is not funny makes research on the issue difficult.

He finishes with some sound advice, warning that self-doubt is the comic's enemy: "It is paralysis in practice caused by conflicting knowledge that leaves the teacher professionally vulnerable in terms of humour use."


Painfully funny

We asked on Twitter for jokes that had fallen flat in the lecture hall. Here are six of the best (or should that be the worst?):

@OU_Michael: "I used to be Saussure, but now I know Foucault about anything."

@DrTomCrick: "There are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don't."

@JD_blaise: "I used to make up chemistry jokes but all the good ones Argon."

@ChrisALangley: "You can try and reverse a vasectomy but it won't make a vas deferens."

@ian_c_elliott: "Old professors never die, they just lose their faculties."

@telescoper: "Q: How many moles are there in guacamole? A: Avocado's number."

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