May 25th, 2010



“One can still be committed to one’s discipline, one can still be scholarly, studious and literate … and SMILE while you are doing it.” That was the message early in John Huss’ session on humor at The Teaching Professor Conference this past weekend.

It was one of many great sessions at the conference. Huss, an education faculty member at Northern Kentucky University, pointed out that humor does not cause learning, but it creates conditions conducive to it. Then he went on to identify a wonderful collection of ways faculty can incorporate humor into the classroom. He showed examples of how humorous material could be inserted into the otherwise serious syllabus: “Course pre-requisite: students must have read three Curious George books, including the last book in the series, Curious George and the Electric Fence.”

To relieve some of the stress students feel in courses they expect to be very challenging, instructors might create a list of the “Top Ten Things more Fun than Taking Statistics” or “Public Speaking” or “Chemistry” and fill the list with hokey things not likely to be fun at all.

Instructors can use music, perhaps having a theme song they play every day as class starts. Of course, cartoons and comics are standbys. On one of the exam days Huss gives each student a small bag of “smarties.” He has also renamed exams—in his class they are “Celebrations of Knowledge.”

As the examples accumulated, Huss made this important point. There is no one or right way to incorporate humor—the possibilities are endless. Each instructor must find what works best for him or her—what can be done comfortably and pulled off with aplomb. And all of us can start with a smile. Smiles indicate that we don’t take ourselves or our content too seriously. They let students know we are happy to be with them in class. We can be playful and still have all the credibility we need to convince students that education is serious business.