UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 10 | Nov.
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
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
“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
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
“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
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.