Use Your Wit to Engage Your Students

by Eileen Hoenigman Meyer

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.
You've worked diligently to shape your expertise. You can make a good argument for not wanting to bend over backwards to entertain the adult learners who are fortunate enough to have robust educational opportunities, such as the ones in your class.

If you've had the skill and discipline to endure the rigors that earned you a role at the head of a college classroom, then kudos. Yours is a tremendous accomplishment. It only stands to be furthered by positive interactions with your students. If you engage your students, your experience and theirs is likely to be more comfortable and productive. One way to do this is by inviting humor into your instructional routine.

Clearly, you can't be something you're not. It will make you and your students uncomfortable if you assume some ridiculous persona. The key is to buy into the idea that humor is important in the classroom, to recognize how it can serve your learning community, and then to tap into the humor that's already part of your personality.

Humor and Emotional Intelligence
Humor is a lightness of being. It's an ease of wit. It's a recognition that life is full of unexpected hilarities. Humor is a deep-seeded chill, a generosity of spirit. It's a willingness to laugh at one's circumstances and one's self.

Lowri Dowthwaite studies positive psychology and the science of happiness. In an article Dowthwaite wrote in The Conversation, she points out: "[H]aving a good sense of humor is linked to high emotional intelligence and is a highly desirable quality." Dowthwaite further explains: "Evidence suggests that humor actually boosts perceptions of confidence, competence and status, making funny people very influential. Humor gets people to listen, helps communicate messages and aids learning. It is a powerful tool that many successful leaders use to enhance group cohesiveness and organizational culture."

Institutions of higher education can be severe and serious places. They can also be utterly, wonderfully ridiculous. Laughing at this can be a helpful coping mechanism for you, and it's a great skill to pass along to your students. It stands to prepare them to emotionally weather the challenges of their academic experience as well as the professional life for which it helps prepare them.

Recognize What Using Humor Earns You
Teaching is the transfer of knowledge via a series of communication initiatives. Clearly you have the knowledge in spades. The trick is the transfer. And it suits you well professionally if you can enact that transfer in a way that relaxes and engages your class.

Dr. Melissa Fore, who teaches at James Madison College and Michigan State University, explains how she uses humor to broach difficult topics: "Because today's climate is so charged and people are worlds apart in their thinking, there are few things that bring people to the middle. Humor has that potential."

Fore points out that using humor also ties in another important dimension of EQ: "One of the most important elements of emotional intelligence is the ability to empathize with others, especially people who do not share your own viewpoints. Students bring a host of volatile emotions to issues such as affirmative action, the gender wage gap, government assistance programs, and same-sex marriage. I try to use humor to diffuse possible hostility or discomfort before engaging the readings on these topics."

Fore points out that a tangible benefit of using humor in her classroom is that it "lowers the stakes." It eases the tension, affording students some levity and release as they grapple with important, but often heavy conversations.

The Strategy Behind the Humor
Obviously, you don't need your students' approval. You don't need them to think you're hip, cool, or smart. Your qualifications speak for themselves. But your students are probably your most regular audience. It can make your daily life easier and more enjoyable to find the formula that engages them. If your students enjoy the vibe that they experience in your class, they are easier to reach. It serves you well to foster that as a presenter and as a writer.

Fore is fond of incorporating readings and videos from well-known comedians like Amy Schumer and Trevor Noah who've earned their acclaim from handling challenging topics in humorous ways. Fore explains her strategy:

"One of the big buzz words in Pedagogy is 'decentering.' A good teacher decenters herself in the classroom, making sure that students understand that she is not the center of knowledge, the expert on display. Using humor in the classroom does an excellent job of decentering... It tells students that first, I don't take myself so seriously that I can't bring in some of the best comedians in popular culture to say things better than I can. It also shows a bit of my own personality -- the videos I show, the jokes I crack, bring levity to some difficult dialogues. The videos and jokes also provide a great way into these topics that students can jump right into."

This environment, a college classroom, is your lab. It's your stage. You thrive here. So revel in that by sharing the glow. Use your enthusiasm to project the warmth that enticed you to this space. That enthusiasm is another tenet of emotional intelligence.

What Humor Can Earn You as an Educator
Fore explains that one way she recognizes that her strategy is working is that her students mirror her enthusiasm. She frequently gets emails from students who want to share their own clips and humorous anecdotes that further what they learned in her class. That's the engagement. Fore explains: "I consistently get feedback on my evaluations that say, 'She really cares about students and one way I build those relationships is by laughing with students."

Fore also sees this approach inspiring students to be more authentically themselves, which comes out in their writing. She explains: "[U]sing humor in the classroom helps students take risks in their writing by finding a voice that is more aligned with their own... Finding your voice can be easier when you are not taking yourself so seriously. The reason the humor hits so hard is because it's clear, concise, stripped of any airs."

Nerd It Up
Incorporating humor can have measurable, positive results for students. But academics may not, as a constituency, be considered the funniest people on campus.

The good news, though, is that nerdiness is totally in! Exaggerating your enthusiasm for your subject matter tends to be funny. So, revel in that glorious nerdiness. It can make you seem more tangible and more human to students who may be intimidated by your academic prowess.

Fore explains: "I think many students are desperate for a laugh. They are stressed, scared, intimidated in the college classroom and are desperate for it not to be a scary place."