The Society for Research into Higher Education

Serious Joking

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by Richard Davies

Q: What happens when you pour root beer into a square glass?

Comedy has long offered the possibility of insights into the serious. For many of us, cutting our student teeth in the ‘80s, both stand-up and satire reflected a staple form of political critique. Their exponents became heroic figures and it was perhaps inevitable that the secular sermon model of lecture was replace by its stand-up routine variant. Alongside this, ignoring the dystopian visions in The Name of the Rose, academics developed their theoretical analysis of jokes and joke telling (see McGraw and Warner, 2014) and of the value for higher education (see Powell and Andresen, 1985).

The effortlessness of the comedy routine disguises (as it must) the intellectual work required for its creation. It was this intellectual work and the need to try out jokes, part of the life of professional comics, that initially inspired this project: an inspiration fed by work on using haiku and serious games in education. The project is not about humour; the best way to destroy a joke is to set it as part of a course. (We’ve all heard the example of the teachers who ruin a good day out by giving pupils a worksheet). The project has two elements. The first is to test out the development of subject specific jokes; that is jokes that require subject specific knowledge both for their development and their understanding. The second is to explore the potential for student learning and assessment. By which, we mean can we start to characterise and evaluate the intellectual work required to construct subject specific jokes – can variants of a joke reflect level 4, 5 or 6 criteria?

Our starting point, and (spoiler alert for those hoping to see results) we are just starting on this, is to identify a framework for understanding the construction of a good joke. We have drawn on McGraw’s theory of joke structure, namely the ‘benign-violation’ model (McGraw and Warren, 2010). Following critiques of early theories of humour (superiority, relief, and incongruity theories), the benign-violation thesis argues that jokes emerge from the intersection of the violation of some rule or convention in safe contexts and circumstances. Thus, the violation is recognised as rule breaking and yet at the same time is benign to those involved; there is little risk to the individuals directly involved. For example, being tickled in public is a contravention of the usual rules of public behaviour. It is a violation, but in the right circumstances it can be humorous, that is when it is not deemed violent or inappropriate. The context and circumstances (including the relationship between the tickler and the ticklee) make the encounter benign (playful, even perhaps pleasurable).  Thus, the project articulated four principles for the construction and delivery of serious jokes:

  • That the joke should require some detailed knowledge of an academic subject
  • That it should violate some norm, rule or principle (often linguistic) commonly held in that subject area
  • That it should be expressed, if possible, in subject specific terminology
  • That its construction and the context in which it can be told would normally perceived as benign by those involved.

Initial conversations with colleagues and students indicated that that the idea had potential, and that trials with students gave us insights into:

  1. the possibility to come up with a relatively humorous subject specific joke
  2. the intellectual demands this could make on hearers
  3. the subject knowledge required in the process of writing a subject specific joke
  4. how the process of writing required precision, editing and a range of communication skills, similar to constructing a haiku.

So what are the next steps? In 2019 we will develop work with academic staff to see how far the idea can be developed. Specifically, we will be looking in more detail at the kind of intellectual work required to design a good, subject specific joke and how that can be assessed. Later in the year we hope to start designing student activities and assessments that draw on the construction of subject specific jokes. In the meantime, we are starting to collect subject specific jokes that might be useful exemplars. Feel free to add a subject specific joke, and any explanation it requires, to the serious joking forum:

A: It becomes just beer

SRHE member Richard Davies is Higher Education Research and Development lead in the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the University of the Central Lancashire. His research is primarily in philosophical approaches to higher educational policy and practice; at the moment, he is working on what we mean by upbringing and, in particular, what it means to be (and to act as) a mature, educated adult. He tweets as @RichardTaff, and occasionally blogs at (as well as being found on Academia, ResearchGate, Facebook and Linkedin).

McGraw, P and Warner, J (2014) The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny New York: Simon & Schuster

McGraw, P and Warren, C (2010) ‘Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny’ Psychological Science, 21(8): 1141–1149

Powell, JP and Andresen, LW (1985) ‘Humour and teaching in higher education’ Studies in Higher Education 10(1): 79-90

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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