One of the most powerful and effective tools I am employing during virtual teaching isn’t an app, isn’t a website, and isn’t a device. It’s humor. And it’s lame humor: tons and tonnes of groan-inducing puns and dad jokes.
At first, my jokes were met with silence and some cringes. But, over the last few weeks, the reactions have grown into grins, guffaws, “LOL”s on the group chat, and – on occasion – a drink being spit out.
All this laughter is no laughing matter.
In The Distance Learning Playbook, Douglas Fisher talks about the importance of “touchpoints” during virtual learning. Prior to COVID, these interactions used to take the form of small, informal conversations in the classroom and the corridors. Now that these personal connections are impossible, Fisher argues, it is important to find ways to recreate them virtually.
Humor is an easy, affordable, and human way to build connections to your Zoom students. And, humor also offers many side benefits. In the article Using Humor in the College Classroom to Enhance Teaching Effectiveness in “Dread Courses” authors Neelam Kher, Susan Molstad, Roberta Donahue write that “Humor can decrease the perceived difficulty of material and enhance student self confidence.”
Beyond academic anxiety, humor can help address pandemic-related anxiety. Michael G. Lovorn, in his 2008 article Humor In The Home And In The Classroom: The Benefits Of Laughing While We Learn said “laughter is an effective way for people of all ages to release pent-up tensions or energy, permit the expression of ideas or feelings that would otherwise be difficult to express and facilitate coping with trying circumstances.”
Currently I am having some success with puns and dad jokes. But, I can’t stay in that wheelhouse forever. Like variety in your diet, mixing up your jokes is important. Different kinds of humor triggers responses in separate areas throughout the brain. This diagram from newscientist.com shows some of the distinct areas that light up when we laugh in different ways.
Daniel Elkan, in the January, 2010 issue of New Scientist, reported that humor sparked areas in the brain “linked with association formation, learning and decision-making” and the regular use of humor may be one of the key elements in human evolution.
Sarcasm, for example, triggers the frontal lobe and helps develop sharper perception and, according to a 2011 article in the Daily Mail, may play a role in preventing dementia later in life.
Just to be certain that my jokes were actually helpful in my virtual classroom, and not simply feeding into my ego, I asked my students for their opinions. Here are some of the responses:
- “makes school less stressed”
- “helps me understand more”
- “helps me feel more comfortable in the classroom”
- “gets me more interested in the subject”
- “I am more engaged”
Some historically serious heavyweights also have positive things to say about humor. Dwight D. Eisenhower, former U.S. President and Second World War Supreme Allied Commander, as well as the guy who used his farewell address to warn everyone of the perils of the military-industrial complex, had this to say about comedy: “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” This quote might have been more impactful if Dwight had included some actual humor in it. Would it have killed him to include something like “I just flew in from Europe, and boy are my arms tired!” or “Take my Vice President…please!”
This highlights the double-edged sword that is comedy. One the one hand, as Eisenhower points out, there’s real value in being able to see the funny side of situations. In his book The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing All the Way to the Bank, Michael Kerr warns that taking yourself too seriously often results in one not being taken seriously at all. Kerr goes on to discuss a number of other ways that humor can be beneficial.
First, the appropriate use of humor can diminish the intensity of high-pressure situations. “Humor,” Kerr explains, “offers a cognitive shift in how you view your stressors; an emotional response; and a physical response that relaxes you when you laugh.” Next, humor can spark creativity. Kerr says that humor silences that critical voice in our heads that undermines our confidence and limits our thinking. With that voice out of play, we are free to follow our ideas wherever they take us.
These are stressful times. Instruction and assessment are undergoing significant, and rapid, changes. There’s a lot of frustration and anxiety on both sides of the Zoom camera. Humor is an easy and fun way to build engagement and positively impact your students’ brains and their spirits.