Thursday, February 08, 2007

Laughter in the classroom

In an earlier incarnation of my statement of teaching philosophy, I wrote about the importance of being able to laugh in my classrooms, and how that could co-exist with very serious inquiry. Somewhere in the last round of job applications, I rewrote my philosophy, and I cut out that discussion of the importance of humour. I've been thinking about how much I want to write that back into any document that describes my approach to teaching.

There was lots of laughing in my Theory class last night. There were a couple of incidents that were so quietly funny that they have stuck with me into today, making me laugh to myself over and over again - sometimes, embarrassingly, in public, like on the crowded bus this morning. At first I had a niggling worry about whether last night we crossed the line - however sketchily it is drawn - into chaos. (This was connected to my intermittent and, I think, ultimately ill-founded anxieties about just not being any "good at" authority - and whether I even care if I'm good at it. I don't think I really do care.) The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that laughing in the class was inseparable from the intellectual work that we were doing - and there was plenty of hard thinking being done. I can't help but understand laughter as enhancing the class, rather than plunging it into chaos.

I think this happens in a number of related ways. On the most basic level, it is a testament to students' and my comfort with each other and with the material. Every time we laugh, it feels as if we are drawn closer together - and I notice that some people's willingness to speak up in class has increased in this atmosphere of greater intimacy. As for the material, well, it's hard stuff - anxiety- and dropout-producing theory. (I've lost a couple of people who said they just couldn't hack it. Even though it's a required course for the major - eep.) So if the students understand that it is stuff in the presence of which we can also laugh, well, then I potentially have people understanding that it's connected to their lives, somehow, in a way they might not be able to imagine without the laughing. And that's the whole point of the theory that I teach - that it is conncted to people's lives. In that sense, laughter actually helps to instantiate this major conceptual point that is so hard to hammer home.

There’s another intrinsic point that laughter – or maybe, in this case, humour – conveniently helps me make. I think that laughter helps to reveal the fallibility and contingency of knowledge. I know that there is some theory about humour that argues that is inherently relational and context-dependent, demanding that one oscillates between different paradigms or belief systems. I feel that this is what happens sometimes when laughter erupts in the classroom. It is often arising from a sense of irony – the clash between students’ belief systems and those that are being articulated at the centre of the theory they’re reading. Humour calls attention to, interrogates, competing ways of knowing. This is crucial to the work we do in this theory course, which requires a careful attention to constructions of knowledge. In this sense, too, the presence of humour in the classroom helps me do some of the conceptual work that I need to do.

Sometimes when we laugh, we are laughing at things directly related to the theory we’re working on. But sometimes we just laugh at extraneous things…These are the points at which I worry about being too chaotic. (They are also the points that have me laughing my head off still today, I must admit. They are the funniest points.) Upon reflection, though, I realize that even these little moments, which direct us momentarily off our course, are important to reducing the anxiety that surrounds the classroom experience. It is important to know that our attention can be diverted, and that we always return to the questions that occupy us. This, I think, allows us to relax into the task of making theory, to realize that it doesn’t own us.

How do humour and laughter work in your classrooms?


medieval woman said...

Hilaire, this is such a delightful post! You're so good at reflecting about your teaching and how humor can be a way of strengthening the bonds of a class that is working on difficult material. I do think it's a sign of your authority/competance in the classroom that you can laugh with your students. It's the profs who hold on so tight that they choke the life out of everything that I worry about.

I laugh with my students, but it's usually me making fun of myself about being an eccentric medieval geek - my humor is a bit more like antics, but it's still what keeps the blood flowing so to speak.

Amy Palko said...

I teach on the English lit undergraduate first and second semester evening class, which is completely populated with mature students, and I would say that laughter is an absolutely vital component of my teaching. I too had concerns over my authority, particularly as I'm the youngest in the classroom. I remember my very first class when I was asked the difference between a metaphor and a similie, and due to my nerves, I gave a description of each and then mixed up my examples, which they all wrote down, of course. After worrying it over in my head all week, I decided to clear it up at the first opportunity. After explaining my error we all had a good laugh and it showed them that we are all fallible. I have found that mature students are generally very nervous about coming back into education, and humour and humility, rather than gravity and authority, is a far more helpful approach. And I'm pretty sure that this extends to all students no matter what their age.
Thank you for your post, as it has reminded me how much I'm looking forward to the beginning of semester!

Hilaire said...

MW, I like the way you think about this as denoting some authority. I was musing about this some more after I wrote this, and thinking that my students actually *respect* me because we laugh in the class. Respect me more than they otherwise would. I do feel that respect very strongly.

Anyway, having met you, I can really imagine your classroom as one characterized by levity - I bet students love your sense of humour. I actually think that the willingness to laugh at oneself, as a prof, is GOLD to students.

And Amy, same thing - admitting your mistakes, admitting your fallibility, being able to laugh at yourself...all that makes for the same kind of really good dynamic, I think.

Thanks for stopping by!