Can comedy be used in teaching?


The hottest bit of summer is a good time to be thinking about the big-picture elements of teaching. If every lecturer developed one fun teaching session, it would go a long way in diversifying university teaching. If every lecturer did one of them each summer and kept adding them to their favourite courses, we’d revolutionise university teaching within a decade.

Can comedy be used in teaching? Of course it can. Pretty much anything that mixes up classes and grabs the attention of students is usually a good thing. In a world where most academics continue to deliver traditional lectures, it’s pretty easy to stand out as an “interesting” lecturer by doing something unusual. I know a number of lecturers who routinely use popular culture references to illustrate their work, or get students to play games to simulate real-world exchanges.

But here’s one method of mixing things up: the Comedy in the Classroom project by a lecturer at East Anglia University.

The structured use of comedy is, of course, a few steps further than games and spoken references, because it changes the point of the class from study to entertainment. I have no doubt that being entertained in a class enables students to learn better than if they are completely bored, but in my experience, excessive entertainment might also prompt them to mostly remember the entertainment. (I once tried to teach the concept of social norms by walking on chairs and breaking a few other obvious lecture-room rules. Several months later I was told the walking on chairs was indeed memorable, but they had no recollection of how it had linked to the syllabus. Fail.)

Blurring the line between study and entertainment is not necessarily bad. However, I do believe that blurring the lines between serious and silly things does tend to confuse those who aren’t quite sure what’s serious and what’s silly. In the same way that social media mixes real news with intentionally fake news, I’m not sure that highly entertained students always see the nuanced points beyond the comedy. I’ve also seen student feedback, particularly from older students, who say excessive comedy is frustrating, because they’re there to be instructed, not entertained.

I also have reservations about this description of the technique given here, and the example used therein:

The essence of it is to boil down an abstract concept into a character. For instance, ‘rational choice theory’ could be a white-coated scientist representing cold logic, weighing up costs and benefits, and promoting free market efficiency. In contrast, ‘social psychology’ is a real people person, keen to know what makes people tick, quite gossipy, keeping up with the latest trends and always on social media!

The economist in me cringes at the stereotyping going on here. It’s clear an economist wasn’t involved in developing the economic character. It’s entirely true that personifying arguments into entertaining skits helps: one classic of the genre in Economics is a series of Keynes/Hayek rap battles (my favourite one here.)

But as economists know, rational choice theory is far from the convenient label of “cold logic”. When a young man from a poor neighbourhood decides not to join a lucrative gang because he loves his mother and wants to make her proud later in life, economic theory entirely recognises this as a rational choice. Would students spot such nuances to the argument while laughing at the personas involved? Is there space in this format for the lecturer to come out of character and manage the possible conversations that might take place? Or do you need a second tutor in the room to do this? On the video linked above, there seem to be five academics involved in one lecture – nice, but mostly completely unrealistic.

I also fear that the personalisation technique, unless done with great care, also lends itself to strawmen or ad hominem arguments on authors. In my own teaching, I find there is a very fine line between creating a story that helps remember an argument and creating a story that detracts from the credibility of the argument. For example, when a 17th-century author argued for trade liberalisation, is it relevant that he was also a director of the East India Company, which stood to benefit hugely from trade liberalisation? I tend to share the backstory, because I think it helps students remember. However, it also elicits comments of “well he would argue that, wouldn’t he” – and when some students then dismiss the argument on these grounds, I’ve sometimes wished I had taught the argument on its intellectual merits only. Essentially, the point of comedy is that you don’t take it seriously, and I quite like the idea of taking my subject and its nuances – and my students! – seriously.

This echoes the question asked on the video: “Will you still respect us in the morning?” If this is a method to improve student-staff relations, my question is what on earth was wrong with those relations in the first place! Lecturers who are confident enough to don silly glasses are surely confident enough to present their material in a way that engages students. The students interviewed on the video were complimentary, with appreciation of the time spent preparing, and a touch of embarrassment. Some lecturers can get away with this. Others cannot. Student respect is a fickle thing, and as we know from research on student feedback, perceptions matter.

Perhaps the best use of the comedy technique, in my book, might be to recap something that’s already been covered in a more traditional way. It could be good for that key concept you covered at the start of the course and that half the class keeps getting a bit wrong. Like anything, it seems like a good idea when used in moderation – and what would be better than learning from the experiences of colleagues.

Image credit: Times Higher Education.

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