Setting limits to laughter : university teaching and the boundaries of humour Conference Paper uri icon


  • This paper forms one part of a broadly-based study into the use of humour within tertiary teaching. One theme to emerge from semi-structured, in-depth interviews with university academics concerns the setting of boundaries to the appropriate use of humour within lectures and tutorials. Following the ‘benign violations’ theory of humour—wherein, to be funny, a situation/statement must be some kind of a social violation, that violation must be regarded as relatively benign, and the two ideas must be held simultaneously—this paper suggests that the willingness of academics to use particular types of humour in their teaching revolves around the complexities of determining the margins of the benign. These margins are shaped in part by pedagogic limitations, but also by professional delimitations. In terms of limitations, the boundaries of humour are set by the academic environment of the university, by the characteristics of different cohorts of students, and by what those students are prepare to laugh at. In terms of delimitations—where humour choice is moderated, not by the possibility of immediate laughter, but rather by the consequences of that choice—academic seniority and security play a large role in determining what kinds of humour will be used, and where boundaries are to be set. The central conclusion here is that formal maxims of humour use—‘Never tease students’, ‘Don’t joke about potentially sensitive issues’—fail to account for the complexity of teaching relationships, for the differences between student cohorts, and for the talents and standing of particular teachers.

publication date

  • 2014