• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


First-Year-Writing Experiment: Jokes

Because I teach the same course over and over, sometimes I just have to experiment.

January 11, 2015

Because I teach a steady diet of the same course (first-year writing), I find myself compelled to experiment semester to semester.

Some of the experiments are small because the room to experiment is limited. We are increasingly constrained by top-down assessment, and while my beliefs about the purpose of first-year-writing – to help student writers become confident contributors to the academic conversation – are in line with the overall goals of the department and the college, knowing there is a detailed rubric waiting for my students’ writing at the end of the line requires some deference to that criteria, even as I believe that process is far more important than product when it comes to teaching writing[1].

But I always have the freedom to switch up the readings associated with the specific assignment sequence. For me, this is a necessity to stay fresh, to keep myself on my toes.

This coming semester, however, I’m trying a bolder experiment. For one week, I am going to ask my first-year-writing students to write jokes.

More specifically, working in small groups, they will be tasked to write five jokes suitable for delivery by a “late-night” comedian performing during the week of the unit.

My theory underpinning the utility of this experiment is multi-fold.

1. Effective writing requires an attendance to the audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge, and there’s no better test of this than whether or not a joke elicits laughter.

2. The precision with which we express our ideas matters as much as the ideas themselves, that is, the amount of polish necessary to make a joke as effective as possible is an excellent lesson for all writing[2]. It is Twain’s “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” in action.

3. Collaboration often makes ideas better, and for the types of jokes I’m asking them to write – timely, topical – it is absolutely necessary[3]. As this unit is going to immediately precede the researched essay which also relies on collaboration and feedback from others, I see the joke writing exercise as good preparation for this as well.

4. Writing is a process where the piece of writing starts as something that is likely objectively terrible (or non-existent), but through a series of steps turns into something that “works,” and there is no shortcut to this process. Writing is not a gift or talent, but a skill nurtured through attention and practice.

While I do not expect that amateurs will write jokes as accomplished as professional comedy writers, we will wind up with things that are recognizably jokes, grown from initial material that are definitively not jokes.

5. For a week, in order to write topical jokes, they will need to stay on top of topical events, never a bad thing.

Because I am using the unit to emphasize process, rather than product, I will be grading the teams not on the quality of their jokes, but the process itself. How I will do this is still subject to some thinking, but at the end of the unit, they will submit a portfolio of work product that reflects the journey to the final jokes. A significant portion of class will be set aside to allow them to collaborate as well, so I can witness the group dynamic and collaboration[4]. Some kind of reflection writing on the students’ parts will likely also be incorporated.

I am both excited and nervous to try this experiment. It could be a tremendous success, both in and of itself, and in preparing students for a successful researched essay process.

But if we mix the wrong compounds together, we may just blow up the lab[5].

But even in that – hopefully unlikely – scenario, I bet the explosion will be noteworthy, and definitely worth writing about.


[1] My preferred method of assessment would interview students in semesters subsequent to the one in which they took first-year writing and ask those students their level of confidence in their abilities to navigate the demands of the assignments. Essentially, I want to know if students have retained an approach that allows them to solve the problems associated with any writing occasion. If they have that process, I believe the quality of the writing will inevitably improve with practice.

[2] I’ll be showing them this video of Jerry Seinfeld describing the exacting nature of his own joke writing process as an example.

[3] This fascinating interview with Stephen Colbert about the process involved in producing an episode of the Colbert Report will come in handy here.

[4] In order to prepare them for this I’ll be doing a little instruction on effective collaboration and a team building exercise.

[5] I tried incorporating Tumblr into a fiction writing course a few semesters ago, and while the result was more fizzle than explosion, it quickly became clear that my hopes were not going to be realized. In hindsight, the error was in thinking that emphasizing product would necessarily improve process, and that just wasn't the case.


There's a number of excellent Twitter joke tellers. I'm not one of them.



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