Just as with any art, there are rules of the trade if you’re trying to create a classroom that is as entertaining as it is educational. Here are some guidelines I follow to incorporate humor into my classroom.
Keep it clean (and simple).
In this day and age, it can be difficult to find funny material that would also be considered clean. But keep in mind that you don’t have to be a professional comedian -- or even "funny" -- in your everyday life to get a laugh. Sometimes it’s your mere attempt to be funny that is the most entertaining to your students, which is why I always give a disclaimer that my class is where good jokes go to die. That usually gets a laugh and sets the tone for the rest of the class.
Ask yourself if the joke is kid-friendly.
If the jokes are safe to tell your own kids, nephews, nieces, or grandchildren, then they pass the litmus test and should be fine to tell your students. In short, these types of jokes are usually so "bad" that they’re funny. (Did you hear about the guy that invented Lifesavers? They say he made a mint.)
Make puns fun.
As a chemist, I like to get reactions using puns. I once filled a whiteboard with chemistry puns like, "What do you do with a sick chemist?" and had students answer one before they left class. (The answer is you try to Helium or Curium. If you can’t, you Barium.) I know what you’re saying: "Oh Sulfur Sodium Phosphorus (SNaP)."
Avoid cultural or regional jokes.
In my first week of teaching in South Dakota, I made a joke about the contributions of the French to chemistry. It was innocent and in no way derogatory, but there happened to be one French student in my class who didn’t show up for the rest of the semester. It turned out that the joke wasn’t the reason for his subsequent absence, but that didn’t make me feel any better.
Even when you would consider something to be an innocent subject matter, you may have some unexpected results. For example, I told a "hipster joke" that went something like this: "Why don’t hipsters ever burn their mouths on pizza? They always wait for it to become cool." After my delivery, I had a class full of quizzical students staring at me. One student finally said, "Hipsters don’t like things that are cool."
Well, apparently the joke was on me. It seemed fairly innocent, but perhaps the students in the class who identified as hipsters would now view their teacher in a different light, which defeats the purpose of using humor to get students to relate to you. To avoid this, I keep my jokes simple, using mostly chemistry puns and G-rated gags. Also, I’m not quick enough to handle anything more complicated, and I’d like to keep my job.
There is one exception to the general rule of avoiding cultural or regional jokes: college and professional sports rivalries are fair game. Here’s a good one: "How do you get a [insert rival school here] graduate off your porch? Pay for the pizza." I’m a Denver Broncos fan, so we often have some good classes on Mondays after a Broncos victory. I have to remind myself that Minnesota Vikings fans have to come to class on Mondays too, but it’s fairly safe to say that you aren’t going to offend a Vikings fan. Heck, if their team doesn’t embarrass them, nothing can. Editor's note: At the time of publication, the Vikings sit alone atop the NFC North with a 5-1 record.
Choose your subject matter wisely.
This may depend somewhat on where you teach, but I choose to avoid anything political, religious, and to some extent, current events. These are topics that many students are passionate about, and they can be divisive. Overall, keep your ultimate goal in mind, which is to engage students, not necessarily to get a good laugh. Besides, a joke that is offensive could lead to a student holding a grudge against you -- or worse, it could cost you your job. If you keep engagement as your end goal and jokes as one of many tools in your kit, you’ll connect to your students in a powerful way, entertaining them as they learn.
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