A funny thing happened on the way to the classroom…

This weekend, I got buttonholed by my father-in-law, with one of those questions one dreads: “have you got a joke I can use for a talk I’m doing?”

Needless to say, I didn’t and an awkward silence ensued, especially once I’d announced that “I don’t really do jokes.” I leave that for you to judge for yourselves.

Once the conversation had moved on, I got to thinking about how we use humour in our teaching, mainly because it raised an interesting point, but also partly because it allowed me to theorise my way out of an embarrassing situation.

Politics is an area that appears to lend itself to humour: you only have to turn on the TV to see stand-ups do just that every night. But that’s primarily at the level of “aren’t politicians rubbish?”, which isn’t really very insightful, except in highlighting that politicians are people too.

But in terms of engaging with more fundamental concepts, humour doesn’t get us so very far. Either we do the IR thing of fantastical worlds (that maybe be humorous or tongue-in-cheek) or we try to enliven our classes with funny examples (e.g. political ideologies using cows). Neither feels terribly satisfactory.

That’s not to say that humour doesn’t have a place in the classroom, but that its value lies in engaging students with the material. The more we can build an affective layer to our work with them, the more likely it is that we can get students to internalise and operationalise what they are presented with.

To take one pertinent – to me, at least – example, the reason my research focuses on euroscepticism is that I found it highly amusing that individuals could hold such beliefs, often within wild world-views, and I wanted to know more about that. These days, I don’t find it amusing in the same way, but I do still find it engaging and interesting.

Humour, then, is just one part of a wider strategy of engagement. When I look at some of the games we’ve talked about on this blog, they engender feelings of frustration, confusion or humour as pathways into learning. The key question then becomes not “how can I get my students to laugh?”, but “can I get my students to think about why they laugh?”

Jokes qua jokes aren’t the way to do that, their volume notwithstanding. Instead, we might do better to acknowledge humour when we find it, as part of a wider strategy of opening up a topic for students to get stuck in.

And that’s why I’ll never get to use my hilarious joke about the new eurosceptic group in the European Parliament.

2 thoughts on “A funny thing happened on the way to the classroom…

  1. Thanks Simon. A nice piece.

    While comedy won’t take us far conceptually, it can sometimes provide a more powerful, profound and thoroughgoing critique than students will be exposed to in the academic literature and news reports, such as Doug Stanhope on George W Bush’s use of the word evil (“are you a president or an exorcist?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kc3hhsd5JM at 12:30) and Bill Hicks on the politics of pornography, although I’m not sure I would quote the latter in the classroom.

    On another level, there is some literature on comedy as pedagogy, such as http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14703290802377158#.U8UN1PldXTQ.

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