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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 10 | Nov. 4, 2004

Exercising the Funny Bone while Educating the Mind

UBC Grad Examines Comedic Encounters in the Classroom

By Erica Smishek

It all started with a cartoon. Three hours and many laughs later, Elaine Decker had successfully defended her PhD, provoked and entertained her examiners, and given humour a serious theoretical twist.

Decker, who receives her PhD in education from UBC at this month’s Fall Congregation, spent two years exploring humour’s potential place in education. Drawing on 20th century German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer, who developed a theory of understanding and interpretation, Decker studied how humour helps us make meaning in our personal, pedagogical, professional and institutional lives.

She believes it’s possible to make sense with a sense of humour and says more teachers should add comedy to their repertoire.

“Learning is about taking risks. It should not be boring,” says Decker during an interview that includes references to Chris Rock, Bart Simpson, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Decker’s enthusiasm, grace and wit are apparent as she discusses her research and shares her thoughts on improving teaching and making the world a better place.

“Learning equals joy, and lack of certainty equals opportunity. Humour is a safe place to play with ambiguity, which can be frightening, and to appreciate that ambiguity.

“Humour’s downfall is that it’s not taken seriously.”

Learning, however, is taken seriously. Given the public nature of the teaching profession, Decker says teachers are under the microscope to say and do the appropriate thing inside -- and outside -- the classroom. With limited resources and a lot of stress, they are measured on the academic performance of their students, leaving them little room for exploration or alternative approaches.

Through her research and her own teaching practices, Decker wants to push the envelope. While she does not suggest turning the whole education system on its proverbial ear, she says humour can enhance the learning experience and ultimately help students contribute to society.

“If teachers are curious and humble and have a comic spirit, it can’t help but create a model for students to look at the world and say ‘hmmm, isn’t that interesting,’” Decker explains.

“The role of the teacher is to create opportunities for learning, to eliminate interferences or obstacles, to stay in that space and allow the students to move and to question,” she says. “The whole thing about humour is it keeps you so humble.”

A former elementary school teacher, Decker has worked in professional development for the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, taught at community colleges and in UBC’s teacher education program, and was the director of continuing professional education at UBC’s Faculty of Education for nine years.

Since March, she has been the associate dean of academic studies at BCIT, where she teaches Humour Studies: Learning with and about Humour, a liberal arts credit course offered in the evening to a mix of full-time undergraduates as well as working professionals. Decker developed and taught the course to three cohorts of professional teachers during her PhD studies.

“With the teachers, they like the warm, comfortable nature of humour for creating community in the classroom and for building the imagination,” Decker says. “But they were very concerned when we tried to use humour to look at issues like racism and sexism. They felt it was inappropriate in a classroom.”

It’s a bit of an easier sell for her BCIT students, many of whom are interested in how they can apply humour in their own lives and workplaces.

“A big focus of the class is opening your mind,” says Barb Holuboff, a clinical nurse educator of acute medicine and an intensive care unit nurse currently enrolled in the course. “Humour is in the everyday and you need to get out of your narrow focus and see what funny things are going on around you.”

Using comic material (physical comedy, ethnic comedy, word games, insults, etc.), Holuboff and her classmates explore connections between humor and problem-solving, creativity, imagination, playfulness, logic, language, and personal and interpersonal well-being. They also consider how humour does -- or does not -- qualify as a philosophy.

“I try to find the simple, elegant moment,” Decker says. “I plan an activity where students will say in the middle of it, ‘oh!’ When the room explodes with voices, I know I have them.”

In one activity, students work in groups and are asked to retell a familiar nursery rhyme like Little Bo Peep in the voice of a non-nursery character such as George W. Bush, Scarlett O’Hara or the Dalai Lama, whose name they have chosen at random.

Decker says the exercise requires background knowledge about the nursery rhyme and the concept of voice, invokes prejudices about the character, and usually surprises students when they realize both how much they know about these characters and from what sources. In addition, students must negotiate with others in their groups and work outside their individual identities to assume the persona of the randomly chosen other.

All these elements are fused into a new telling of the traditional story, usually with great comic effect. Both presenters and audience members laugh in recognition of an experienced reality not previously considered but obviously real in its own way.

Holuboff, a firm believer in the healing power of humour, now takes her class work home and into other facets of her life. She shares comic observations from her humour journal with her husband and kids, and practices her comic routine -- an upcoming class assignment -- on her patients and co-workers.

“Life and death is serious business. But without humour, it just isn’t worth living,” Holuboff says. “Humour during stressful situations such as a resuscitation is often believed to be inappropriate. But it is actually an incredible tension diffuser. In ICU, it is much easier to use humour than gloom and doom.”

UBC education professor David Coulter, who supervised Decker during her graduate studies, says the impact of her research goes well beyond her humour studies course.

“Elaine has a lot to contribute to teaching and learning and how we look at the world,” he explains.

“More and more, we’ve become focused on education as a product instead of a way of contributing to people leading good lives. We’ve narrowed education to achievement and test scores.

“There is an important place for humour in education, but we haven’t always acknowledged it,” Coulter says. “Part of being educated is being humble about what we know. Humour helps loosen our grip on certainty.”

For more information on Fall Congregation, visit www.graduation.ubc.ca.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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