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Thinking Critically About Our Comic Relief

A joke is rarely "just a joke," but there are still many positive ways to be funny in the classroom.

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April 4, 2019
 
 

Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This is a post about humor – April Fools day was just this past Monday, after all. It's also a post about diversity, and one I've been mulling over for some time.

Have you ever been at a presentation where the presenter made a joke to lighten the mood? I have, several times. A classmate was discussing the methods section of a paper that used fruit flies, and she included a picture of some flying fruit. Very punny. Similarly, a couple weeks before I had the idea for this post (so months ago by now), I was at an engineering presentation and suddenly there were pictures of scantily clad models. I don't remember why. I don't remember what the talk was about. I remember being uncomfortable. I'm sure it was meant to be just a joke.

A lot of things that aren't exactly appropriate get passed off as “just a joke.” Showing who's part of a group and who's not is a function of humor. So yes, it's a joke, but is it ever “just” a joke?

Or have you ever wanted to lighten the mood as a teacher or presenter? I have. Humor can support audience engagement and lift our spirits. Sometimes a moment of laughter can provide a break in a content-heavy talk or ensure a key point sticks in peoples heads, and sometimes we'd like to show our audience (our whole audience) that we're all in this together. However, I don't use scantily clad pictures as my comic relief. I don't make my audience the butt of the joke, not the women in the audience, nor the people with whatever conditions I'm discussing in reference to my research. If I'm alienating my audience (or people who should be in my audience, but I'm not thinking about for reasons like institutional X-ism, whatever X may be in this case) with my jokes, I'm just not that good at comic relief.

With that said, I still like humor. I still like my jokes. What might I use?

Cat pictures. Yes, really. Not everyone likes cats, but cat pictures are a common meme at this point, and most will at least appreciate the memetic value when one shows up unexpectedly. For my psychology class last spring, I did a systematic review of work on P300 spellers (one method of controlling computers with brain signals for communication purposes) that included participants with disabilities. For people who are familiar with augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), P300 spellers are a sort of switch system: options are presented to users, who then select the option they want with a switch. It's just that the switch is an electrical signal from their brain based on an “unusual attended event.” Usually that means sticking the letters of the alphabet in rows and columns and then visually flashing the letters in rows and columns, but we do try other ways of creating an “unusual attended event” for the computer to read the switch signal from. One study used cat sounds. So I put a cat picture on the slide about auditory systems. People laughed, creating levity in a dense presentation.

I can use “Joking but not really” comments about known gaps or edges in the literature. In the same presentation, I said: "There are actual good reasons we usually start testing new ideas to improve these P300 spellers with participants without disabilities. The burden of research participation is one of them. But if the idea is to have people with neurological disabilities use your system based on recording neurological activity, you don't get to say it works until it works for people with those disabilities. Their disabilities kind of … directly affect the signals you're classifying."

This is an accurate description of why brain computer interface research tends to start with participants without disabilities, and then test successful refinements with participants with disabilities. It also got laughter and helped them remember this key point.

In a class presentation about AAC for speaking autistic adults, I wanted to explain how I’d chosen the topic. A systematic review of AAC research for autistic adolescents and adults found four participants over the age of 18. Telling people this indicates a massive gap in the literature I’d like to address is truthful. Telling people I've squeezed into a single dorm room for the night with more autistic adults who use AAC than they found in their systematic review is also truthful, but that version of the explanation makes people laugh.

I'm not certain what kind of humor to call this, but it works. People remember my explanations. Making things both memorable and understandable is part of presenting well. It's part of being a good teacher. Poking fun at your own subject (not your students, and definitely not your marginalized students or colleagues) can lighten the atmosphere and make things memorable. Just make sure it's not at the expense of your audience. In addition to the risk of telling listeners they aren't really part of your audience, but only window dressing, it's not good pedagogy. Keep in mind: I don't remember the content of the presentation with the pictures of models. I do remember the fruit flies.

(How) do you use humor in your teaching and presentations? What jokes do you appreciate as an audience member? What jokes alienate you?

[Image by Flickr user Working Word and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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