Humour is really, really difficult to manage in a classroom context. Teachers who have reputations for being funny are typically people who are funny (or who exploit humour, or value wit) more generally. To a certain extent, they can’t help themselves – their being funny or witty is an expression of their personality. All classroom teachers construct some persona, some version of themselves, for display purposes. The more closely the persona resembles the core personality, the more likely it is that the teacher will exhibit and exploit the behaviours that characterise her in her non-teaching life.

I don’t mean to be funny – not all the time – but it seems to be part of my classroom persona. Results have been mixed over my career. One student, writing her evaluation of a course, sniped “if I wanted to hear stand up, I’d go to a club”. I’ve been able to exploit the funny side of my mistakes, groaners, and idiocies. One year, I reminded a class that “You have four days to prep for the final – that’s 98 hours.” A voice from the back of the class piped up,  “It’s 96, miss.” “Now you know why I teach English and not mathematics”, I told him. There have been jokes that fell flat, wit that was unexpectedly searing, and moments of pure joy.

To understand the Funny Professor, it helps to ask what constitutes humour – not just in the classroom, but anywhere. Let’s say that humour might include anything that produces (or is intended to produce) laughter or at least amusement as part of the audience response. So, e.g., if I trip over a cord as I’m wandering around the classroom, it’ll be funny (assuming I don’t leave campus on a stretcher) but not humorous – because that’s not what I was aiming for. (I was aiming for the window.)

Profs who are “funny” draw on wit, improvisation, mimicry, and straight up storytelling (or joke telling). There’s a dark side to the Funny Professor, though. She can be mean. Mimicry turns into mockery, and playfulness sours into sarcasm. The trick is not always what you say, or even how, but why you say it.

Humour has a place in the class, for sure. I’ve noticed that I use it to break up long classes. Frankly, few of us in this profession ever get tired of hearing ourselves talk, but uninterrupted instruction can be wearing, to say the least. Especially when the material I’m working through is new, detailed, tough, complex, or complicated, I’m inclined to stop every so often and introduce a short comic intermission.

Or I might find that some concept I’m hammering away at can be illuminated by an anecdote or an analogy – and if it makes students laugh at the point of realisation, so much the better. Finally, tense or unexpected or difficult moments in a classroom can be defused through humour. One of comedy’s great gifts is that it cuts giants down to size – it’s essentially deflationary, putting things into perspective and reducing them to normal proportions.

So there are lots of good reasons to use comedy, or humour, in the classroom. Physiologically, laughter relieves tension, especially in the upper body. It improves respiration, straightens posture, and helps loosen muscles that are held too tight. There can be psychological benefits: humour provides relief (even for a short space) from stress; it can induce a comforting sense of superiority (my teacher is such a nut). Occasionally, the change in focus that comedy or humour creates (a lot of humour relies on a complicated pattern of schema switching, but never mind that now) can break up a non-functioning approach to problem-solving.

But it’s not all fun and games. The power differential in a classroom exists for a reason: the disparity in expertise, experience, and capacity (developed or latent) between students and teacher. Ideally, the purpose of the classroom relationship is to diminish and eventually eliminate the distance. But that ideal is hard to maintain: profs are typically older than their students, and may respond as they would to any younger person socially. Those of us who have difficulty communicating with people outside our sphere of expertise may use humour in ways that express that discomfort or maintain a distance that can’t be diminished (you will never know as much as I do).

People who are insensitive to audience cues may offend students without recognising what they’re doing. Profs who fail to link their humour with their pedagogical goals can risk becoming ineffective. Teachers who are cruel can be extremely hurtful because their position gives them unfair advantages on the basis of age, expertise, and power imbalance. And of course, humour isn’t universal: jokes that work in one context or culture won’t in another – and the results can be appalling.

Humour, like all classroom behaviours, works best – if it is to work at all – when it satisfies two conditions: ideally it should be an extension of the teacher’s personality, but necessarily it must preserve and communicate the qualities that are essential to responsible teaching: respect for the subject; respect for the students; respect for the power dynamic. Classroom humour must unify and not divide; it must protect and not attack; it must enlighten and not shame.

So long as the teacher is exploiting this behaviour – that is, reviewing her use of humour, reflecting on it, adjusting it, improving its effectiveness – there seems to me little harm in it. Without reflection and evaluation, a prof runs the real risk of alienating her audience, damaging her reputation and her teaching, and causing pain to the people least able to defend themselves in the moment. If a professor has fostered a positive relationship with her students, then occasional or accidental lapses and errors will pass without lasting harm. If not, she’ll slice herself on the edges of her own wit.
By: Dr. Anne Furlong