When my august institution was creating its new course evaluation form, I was asked to provide input, and I dutifully suggested a number of questions that I thought should be on such a form.
One of my ideas, a question asking whether the professor was funny, was rejected outright on the grounds that not all professors are funny, so it wouldn’t be fair to include that criterion.
To my mind, the response begged the question, though. Some professors may lack foresight— does that mean you can’t ask if the course seemed to have been planned well?
That’s why I was excited to see Mark Phillips of Edutopia daring to write about the value of humour in teaching. But after an amusing anecdote about straightening his tie too many times, Phillips (who sounds like he’s pretty funny), blows the punchline by getting all high-minded about classroom comedy:
By a sense of humor, I don’t mean the ability to tell jokes or include humorous anecdotes in one’s lessons. That’s not a bad thing and makes for a more entertaining class (particularly if they’re funny!). But I know some great joke tellers who are also pretty humorless. What I mean by a sense of humor is an ability to see absurdity in the class, school meetings and in oneself, and an ability to laugh at it.
Like too many observers, Phillips makes the assumption that humour is simply a matter of being entertaining and that entertainment is entirely separate from teaching. But used well, a sense of humour, by which I do mean jokes and funny anecdotes, is a vital teaching tool.
For one thing, what is funny is often memorable. The pleasure of laughter makes us take especial note of the thing that makes us laugh (which is why my wife remembers every good line from every season of The Simpsons). Thus a bon mot can make a key concept stick.
More importantly, the reality of university classes is that sometimes they can be long and, depending on the material, hard going. A well timed joke part way through a difficult section provides a refreshing break from the tedium, renews the attention, and reminds everyone that they are all in this together.
Which brings us to the most important point of all: humour helps build trust in the classroom. Those who make us laugh feel more genuine to us, more friendly, and more approachable. Similarly, those who laugh at our jokes seem like they are on our side and we are more likely to give of ourselves to those who appreciate a well-wrought gag.
Now, before you dismiss this as a call for the university professor to be a stand-up comedian, understand that I am not suggesting a professor should be only funny, or even mostly funny. Nor am I suggesting that you have to be funny to be a good professor. An unfunny prof can still be good, just as a badly organized professor can still be effective.
But given two profs who are equally knowledgable, equally passionate, and equally dedicated—don’t you think you’d learn more from the funnier one?
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.