Many teachers have changed career to become comedians, such as Greg Davies, Romesh Ranganathan and Shazia Mirza. But should this flow in the other direction, with elements of comedy entering the university or school classroom, for the benefit of teachers and students alike?
This hot topic was debated by experts and the audience on 9 May at ‘The Comedy and the Classroom: You Must Be Joking?’, a panel event organised by Brunel University London’s Centre for Comedy Studies Research and its Department of Education – and attended by Mirza, an award-winning international stand-up comedian, actress and writer who used to be a secondary school teacher.
Panel member Martin Billingham is currently researching whether comedy training improves teachers’ ability to perform. “We can enable student teachers in their initial teacher education through stand-up comedy to be more confident at speaking in front of a group of people,” he said, “and some of the skills and tips and tricks that stand-up comedians use,” such as the use of rhythm and unexpected reveals.
These tips could include how to recover on stage if a joke falls flat, argued Kingston University London’s Dr Hannah Ballou, whose live art practice mixes neo-burlesque and stand-up with audience participation: “Some stand-ups are pretty good at recovering a laugh.” Such a skill in a teacher would enable them to have ‘powerful communication strategies’ to help them get a room on their side, securing attention and respect.
If particular humour doesn’t work for international students, then showing why it’s funny can help build bridges between the gag’s ‘in group’ and ‘out group’, Dr Ballou added. “Explaining the joke that you had to have grown up and watched TV in this country to get – that can be part of the process of building that shared cultural understanding.”
The use of theatrical methods and audience participation can help students critically engage with a subject. “We can use humour or comedy to create safe spaces,” said Lee Campbell, an artist and lecturer at the University of Arts London, adding that “humour can create moments where ‘ha-ha’ turns to ‘a-ha’.” And Brunel Business School lecturer Fintan Clear explained how laughing with students at how recruiters could ridicule poor CVs resulted in a significant improvement in the students’ understanding.
Left to right: Shazia Mirza, Fintan Clear, Lee Campbell, Dr Anne Chappell (panel chair), Martin Billingham, Dr Hannah Ballou
The panellists agreed that humour can help students get over difficult points, too. For Dr Ballou, creating a space where failure is productive is probably the most important thing about how she teaches student comedy, and Billingham believes that humour is useful in skills-oriented classes where students need a playful way to handle false-start mistakes.
But how should we make sure students remember the learning points, not just the jokes? “The answer is good storytelling,” said Billingham. “Humour can highlight difficult points as much as it can distract. It depends whose hands it’s in.”
Centre for Comedy Studies Research (CCSR) Director, Dr Sharon Lockyer, said, ‘this was a fantastic event providing some really creative ways in which comedy can facilitate student engagement, and highlighting some of the potential risks and challenges involved!’.
Take part in a comedy research study
The event, part of this year’s Learning and Teaching Symposium at Brunel, was chaired by Dr Anne Chappell, who – together with colleagues Drs Sharon Lockyer and Simon Weaver – is conducting a study into adults’ experiences of comedy in classroom settings.
“This is new research on what types of funny experiences people have had in classroom settings, from a range of perspectives, and how such experiences impact on people,” said Dr Chappell, Divisional Lead in Brunel’s Department of Education.
“We’re looking to gather stories from as many people as possible, so whether you’ve got something to contribute or you know someone who’d love to, please complete our online questionnaire to take part.”
The Centre for Comedy Studies Research, based at Brunel University London, is an international research centre devoted to the academic study of comedy. Read more about the Centre’s research into the production, content, reception and wider socio-political implications of comedy.