If by any chance you are reading this outside the UK: "humour" has a "u" in it, in proper English!
Humour is an important spice to use in teaching—but like any spice, you don't want too much of it. Many teachers, like myself, will have found their jokes being solemnly repeated back to them in assignments and particularly in exams. There is something about the culture of dependence characteristic of the classroom group which diminishes the ability to discriminate between the serious and the humorous.
Nevertheless, gentle humour—never at the expense of anybody, except perhaps yourself (and then only occasionally and in an atmosphere of trust)—leavens the session wonderfully, and can rouse students from mid-lecture torpor. If it fails to do so, they are too far gone to be learning anything, either, so you might as well give up on that session.
Rules of Thumb
- The best kind of humour is not the discrete joke, but humour integrated into the main substance of the material, so that it is not merely a contribution to the maintenance needs of the group, but aids memory and understanding.
- Even when it is integrated, humour is an optional extra, and so there is no excuse for any kind of humour which is potentially offensive to anyone, whether represented within the group or not. See the pages on equal opportunities.
- If your jokes always fall flat in ordinary social conversation, they probably will in class. You may for some bizarre reason wish to acquire a reputation as a groan-monger rather than laughter-monger, but otherwise leave it to others.
- If you can't remember whether you have told this joke to this class before—don't tell it. If you have told it before, it also sends the message to the class that they are not that memorable to you, and therefore diminishes their importance, which is likely to inhibit that fragile frame of mind in which they can really learn.
- Keep humorous interludes short, but
identifiable. Classes are not places for one-liners: comedy requires a particular frame of
mind, which is different from that for learning. Students need to be able to frame an
utterance as a joke—or else they'll take it down in their notes (and possibly resent
the wasted effort when the punch-line arrives).
- The exception is the humorous anecdote which nevertheless makes a teaching point.
- Natural banter between the students and yourself is the best kind of humour in the
- It signals an appropriate, comfortable relationship—as long as you are comfortable with it, and you don't feel that they are “taking the mickey”.
- Take your cue from the students: banter which you initiate can be experienced as a put-down and an abuse of your power.
- Beware of inter-student joking behaviour which is at the expense of a member of the group. It may be wise to be careful about sanctioning against it too heavily (unless it is clearly abusive), because there may also be an agenda about "winding you up", but make your disapproval clear, and do not collude with it, however seductive it may be. Ask yourself why they need to do this in this class—it could tell you something about the group.
A word of apology: there are few things more depressing/pompous/boring/pretentious than being serious about humour!