Lecturing and the limits of laughter Conference Paper uri icon


  • The literature on humour in teaching frequently defaults to a series of maxims about how it can be used most appropriately: ‘Never tease students', ‘Don't joke about sensitive issues', ‘Never use laughter for disciplinary purposes'. This paper outlines recent research into the boundaries of humour-use within teacher education, which itself forms one part of a large scale, broadly-based study into the use of humour within tertiary teaching. This particular part of the research involves semi-structured, in-depth interviews with university academics. 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, most academics are prepared to tease their student, and many are prepared to use laughter as a form of discipline, however their own humour orientation, academic seniority, and employment security play a large role in determining what kinds of humour will be used, and where boundaries will be set. The central conclusion here is that formal maxims of humour provide little more than vague strategic guidelines, largely failing 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