Laugh it Up

The first day of class is always the hardest, isn’t it? There’s a lot riding on that one class. Insert your favorite cliche about first impressions here, but the truth of the first day is that students make decisions about their professor and the class during that initial meeting. Is this class going to be fun? Interesting? Boring? Is the professor approachable? Interested in students? Excited about the course? How much work is this class going to take? These are some of the questions they’re asking and determining the answer for in the first class.

And I’m asking related questions. Who are these students? Are they in the class because they thought my course description was awesome? Or just because the time slot fit their schedule? Do they resent having to take an English class? Do they understand how valuable a composition class can be to them? Will they participate in class discussions? Will they engage with each other in conversation? What kinds of language and cultural barriers might be present? Do they have a sense of humor?

That last one is actually pretty important to me. In my experience, I have found that the most important thing I can do on the first day is get my students laughing. Maybe I tell some jokes, or maybe I play a funny video or a comedy clip. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s funny enough to get them laughing. I’ve noticed that students who laugh together tend to be much more comfortable with each other and with me. They participate more readily in class discussions, and more of them are willing to speak up.

In an article on laughter in the classroom, JG York1 concludes, “Laughter [. . .] creates a community among those with little in common through the shared, bodily experience of laughing” (82-3). My own classes have consistently shown this to be true. Students who laugh together seem to be more likely to listen to and engage with each other. A sense of community is, of course, important in enriching class discussions, but it is essential in composition courses that require students to share their work and evaluate one another during workshops.

In addition to building a sense of community among the students in the class, humor also aids in establishing a sense of connection between students and myself and has educational benefits as well. In a 2004 study by Torok, McMorris and Lin2, students reported that humor in the classroom “has the power to make teachers more likeable, facilitate understanding of the course material, lower tension, boost student morale, and increase student attentiveness” (18). It’s like these students made a list of all of the things I want for my classes.

But in terms of my own ethos, it’s not just that I want to be more likeable, although that is important to me. I also want to be approachable. Especially in the composition classroom, I want my students to think of me as someone they can come to for help. Writing is hard, and it’s deeply personal even in an academic setting. I want my students to feel comfortable coming to me with terrible first drafts, or maybe terrible third drafts.

And beyond that, I’m at my best as an educator (probably also as a human being) when I don’t take myself too seriously. I don’t think I can pull off erudite in a believable, compelling way because that’s not really how I think of myself. I’m no good at being stern, and I doubt my capacity to be deep and inspirational except by accident on occasion. I’ve had professors who were effective because of those and other qualities, and I’ve tried some of them myself in my misspent early days of teaching (sorry, past students). I know now, though, that I’m most comfortable when I’m laughing and cracking jokes. I’m less concerned about making mistakes or not knowing answers to questions, and I feel more at ease and connected with my students.

Of course, humor has it’s limits, and it’s important to strike a balance between joking and covering content. The laughter has to come in service of learning, not at the expense of it. Sometimes that balance can be tricky to manage. And, of course, not all students think of the classroom as the appropriate place for humor. For some, education must be taken seriously. But generally, I find such students to be the exception.

Since the first day of class should help set up student expectations for the rest of the semester, one of my primary goals is always to get them laughing about something. If I can manage it, they’ll laugh at me. Sure, we hit some serious things too, like some important information on the syllabus and we talk about writing. But I want them to laugh. I want them to know from the very first day that we’re going to do serious work in this class, but we’re not going to take ourselves too seriously as we do it. I want them to begin to feel like a community, and to think of me as someone they can come to with questions.

This semester, my students laughed at all my jokes on the first day. I can’t say for sure how that affected them, but it made me feel certain that we’re going to have a great semester together.

  1. York, JG. “Democratizing Laughter.” Philosophical Studies in Education v 43 (2010): 73-83. Web. 

  2. McMorris, Robert F., Sarah E. Torok, and Wen-Chi Lin. “Is Humor an Appreciated Teaching Tool? Perceptions of Professors’ Teaching Styles and Use of Humor.” College Teaching 52.1 (2004): 14-20. JSTOR. Web. 05 Sept. 2014. 

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