Humor as a Strategy in Writing Across the Curriculum

We all understand that writing is important and our students should do it well. Even so, many professors feel uncertain when teaching it, especially when their subject area is something far removed from “Composition 101.” Even instructors who work on writing skills find it challenging to maintain momentum when their own academic content inevitably requires attention. Moreover, students, many of whom are easily stressed, worry that their grades will suffer when an “outsider” teaches writing. Some colleges have found it hard to sustain Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs just because of this. But it isn’t a lost cause. Writing need not be so frightening and teaching it can be fun…for both students and instructors. And the writing lessons themselves don’t have to detract from any other academic content. Really!

A popular misconception is that writing instruction requires grammar drills or worksheets and instructors have to teach tenses, adverbs, adjectives, misplaced modifiers, or a dozen other rulebook technicalities. But that isn’t true. There are ways to teach writing in amusing little units that don’t seem like work, don’t feel like a burden, and most importantly, don’t depend upon any sort of time-consuming grammatical legalism. Humor and well-chosen case studies will do the trick.

Here is how it works. Identify a particular topic or problem to address. For example, misplaced modifiers can be the source of confusion, misunderstanding, and good humor. It is easy to find examples because newspaper headlines and corporate memos are full of them. Give students a few cases and then invite them to explain the problems and correct them. This does not need to involve lengthy discussions about rules…rather, the idea is to stress the importance of clear writing—the kind of writing that says what you want it to say without confusion or ambiguity. The instructor doesn’t need to say much more than that. In terms of writing improvement, students teach themselves! Students see and understand errors quickly when they are presented with humor precisely because they understand it is the error that makes it funny. They see problems intuitively and correct them effortlessly, thereby learning the importance and techniques of clear written expression.

Here is a sample taken from the newspaper report of a trial where a doctor testified, “After interviewing the defendant at length I sent him to a psychiatrist with homicidal thoughts and delusions.” Most of us might prefer a more sympathetic therapist! Obviously the writer intended to say the defendant showed these murderous tendencies, not the psychiatrist; but the wording creates confusion. In this case, it is amusing, but in other situations it can cause real problems.

Or this, which was taken from an obituary: “Mourners will gather at the Methodist church after Mr. Parker’s funeral, who died July 20th to accommodate his relatives.” He was very considerate indeed! After a little laugh, students are completely capable of fixing the problem and learning about writing at the same time.

Students enjoy these examples and especially enjoy making up outrageous examples of their own. This is an important part of the process because students actually have permission to make mistakes. They’re even encouraged to make them! So, they see what to do and what not to do, while learning something about the language, and having fun—all at the same time.

It only takes a few minutes of class time to “teach” such a unit because the examples are short, interesting, humorous, and students quickly get the point. Then, you move on to other class activities. This kind of teaching helps students write more effectively, gives them a little humor to ease any concern about the lesson, and lets non-writing instructors teach writing without feeling it is a burden.

Of course, this same strategy can be used with many writing problems: misplaced commas, spelling mistakes, confused phrasing, and any number of errors which can result in a smile and a “teaching moment.”

Try this one: A college president, who reacted with pleasure when his school received an award for academic excellence, wrote to a local newspaper: “We are extremely proud of this honor because we know it was given after a very thorough beer review.” He might have done a little better proof reading … or it might be the awards committee actually met at the local pub. Who knows? Cheers!

Dr. James R. Keating is an English instructor at Butler University.

© 2014 Faculty Focus, Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved. Use of any content without permission is strictly prohibited.