I´ve been teaching since 1980. More than 35 years later, I completed my BKO (basic teaching qualification). That included preparing a personal SWOT analysis – identifying my strengths and weaknesses (in relation to teaching – it´s not a general exercise in personal reflection), and external opportunities and threats affecting my future as a teacher. To make life easier for myself, I decided to double-up, and included ´humour´ as both a strength and weakness. I like to think I can use humour effectively when teaching, to minimise the risk of boredom (for me and the students), and to break any tension or anxiety.
‘How could humour be a weakness?’, asked everyone who read the document. There are different possible answers.
First, humour is sometimes borderline offensive. Soon after I arrived in the Netherlands, I tried to convey Benedict Anderson´s concept of ´imagined community´ to a group of students. I explained that not every Dutch person needs to know every other Dutch person in order to have a sense of what it is to be Dutch. For example, sitting in a circle and calling it a party is a way of belonging to the community of Dutch people. A few people laughed loudly, many did not look amused. I hadn´t been in the country very long, and hadn´t yet realised that Dutch people don´t like foreigners making jokes about them.
Second, especially in an international group with different levels of English, not everyone will get the joke, leaving some students feeling excluded. And if they don´t get the joke, maybe they are also missing the substance of the lecture. If you have to spell out why the joke is funny, or explain why humour is a very profound way of both understanding the world and surviving these difficult times, then it loses its force. Humour is serious business. Making jokes is also a way of speaking truth to power, as we can see with the current US president. He doesn’t like being ridiculed, which is a very good reason to keep doing it.
Humour is particularly risky in an international university. It relies on word play, and knowledge of the high and low cultures of a country or region. If all my non-native English speaking colleagues are required to teach in English will their humour be lost in translation, resulting in a more boring experience for all involved?
Sally Wyatt, Professor Digital Cultures at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences