Don’t Smile Until December?

As the semester concludes, your battery may be running low. Reflect on the potential energy of humor to help you recharge, Maria Shine Stewart suggests.

December 7, 2012

“Work is far too important to be taken seriously.” -- Oscar Wilde

As the term decelerates, I’m starting to sound like some of my students when I write, sometimes choosing glitchy -- even ditzy -- words not quite right for the sentence. I have a choice to worry or to gently observe the trait, even smile at my imperfections, while reading more professional writing to reverse the trend.

And how was your semester? If all was even and steady, I’m glad. But if you had a bumpy ride, I empathize. A virus slowed me down as I taught writing, took a class and completed a practicum in counseling. My husband and son had illnesses that necessitated quick action. Several colleagues learned of serious diagnoses. At close range with students, clients, faculty and family – all simultaneously struggling and resilient -- I thought of the power of humor to help us through difficult times and to improve the culture of our campuses.

Yes, humor. As we are human, and the two words share an initial syllable, I insist they are connected. Though etymologists might scold my whimsical derivation, I’ll take my chances on this line of thought. As a novice teacher decades back, I was told “don’t smile before midterms.” I’ve even heard K-12 teachers-in-training told: “Don’t smile before December.” I took the advice literally the first time around in teaching, discarding it when, older and wiser, I re-entered the profession with increased confidence.

Of course, such stern advice is well-intended, as in: “You don’t want to be taken for a softie” or “You don’t want students to think that the class is a joke.” But being stiffly formal may have a downside. Smiling and laughter can relax muscles, improve mood, boost cognition, and release endorphins. Work groups – and classrooms certainly qualify  – may bond in moments of humor. And though the flavors of humor may run through the whole alphabet (a = arid ... i = ironic … z = zany) to suit various cultures and individuals, the entire absence of humor might create an unnecessarily bleak inner and outer landscape.

The psychiatrist and author Edward M. Hallowell has advised “never worry alone,” and I think we shouldn’t have to cultivate joy alone, either. A colleague of mine, Leah Wescott, practices what I preach. The pseudonymous founder and editor-in-chief of the satirical higher education publication The Cronk of Higher Education at, Leah has 20 years of experience in university teaching and administration and four years as a featured karaoke singer at her local Econolodge Basement Lounge. She answered questions I drafted to distract myself during the devastating storm in October.

MSS: I have read that humor promotes a flexibility of thinking. What do you think?

LW: As a teacher, administrator and amateur stand-up comic I see the necessity to read the room, engage with individuals, deliver great material and adapt in the moment. It all requires listening, analyzing, experimenting, failing and finding the magic. As soon as you find the magic, you have to know the spell might change and you have to start all over again. The intellectual play never stops if you're doing it right – and you'll never do it right. That's the beauty.  

MSS: Is humor a coping mechanism?

LW: Humor is such a beautiful relief if you're trapped in a place that's lost its sense of mission. If you can find a friend or a community that shares your grief over missed potential, humor provides a shared language (and a soul-saving message that you're not crazy). I started The Cronk of Higher Education when I couldn't find that community in my work place. I hoped maybe I could create one.  

MSS: You choose to retain a pseudonym. Why?

LW: I first used a pen name for job security. I worked in a place that couldn't laugh at itself and suspected they wouldn't appreciate the satire – or would feel targeted by it. After The Cronk caught on, I realized that with a pseudonym, I had the power to be Everyperson. As nobody, I had more power than I did as myself. In a small way, I can help give a voice to people who struggle to have power.

MSS: Do you come by your own sense of humor naturally, do you cultivate it, or some combination of both?

LW: I love reading about humor and satire, but studying the craft of humor is never as good as just surrounding myself with funny people. I take classes with humor at the core and marvel at all the differences in style and point of view. I don't know if it makes me funnier, but it helps me know who I am as a humorist.

MSS: In all seriousness, what are the biggest problems you see in academic careers today, whether on the administrative, staff, or teaching sides?

LW: I don't meet a lot of educators who know how to speak student-ese. We try so hard to elevate ourselves with exclusive language and expectations that we don't hear what students are telling us. Students are acutely aware of what works and what doesn't in their learning, and we have to be able to hear the underlying messages of their boredom, frustration or disenchantment. Students usually mention my sense of humor in evaluations. I don't think they think I'm funny as much as they appreciate that I laugh at their jokes and ask questions about the targets of their humor. Humor is an open door that you can choose to step through with the words, “Tell me more.”

MSS: Can you think of a time when humor helped solve a thorny problem at your institution?

LW: I'm not sure about solving, but I think humor can play a significant role in promoting healthy conflict. Individuals who can laugh at themselves seem more open to honest feedback and change. If you're looking at yourself critically, hearing feedback from others doesn't seem so difficult.

Conflict avoidance and fear of failure are current trends I see among higher education professionals. Conversely, differences and risks are the hallmarks of innovation. There's a reason people laugh when they come up with a brilliant idea. A group doesn't even have to talk when the members share a creative solution. Eye contact and laughter are the language.

My colleague Mark Salisbury from Augustana College teaches improv workshops to educators to help them open up to the potential of each situation presented to them instead of indoctrinating them with protocol or rules – except the rules of improv, which are to accept what others give you and build on that potential.

MSS: Conversely, have you observed humor causing hot water in academia?

LW: Every year a handful of colleges make national news for their April Fool's campus newspaper editions.... The shock of cruelty is confused with humor. I'm an idealist who started my satirical site with a dream that humor could help higher education look at itself. Satire should be education: If you do it right, your target will look in the mirror and join you in your idealism. 

During a grueling semester, natural gifts of humor may be put on the back burner. Nevertheless, levity can be gently reactivated to promote wellness and improve workplace morale. A kinder campus of your own does not necessitate passing out fake noses and whoopie cushions, but even in serious situations there may be a way to lighten the load. As we approach the shortest and sometimes darkest days of the year, consider cultivating your inner spark of humor.


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