Humor has important place in academia

Academia is often portrayed as stodgy, proper and most profoundly unfunny. But many Oregon State University professors and researchers would disagree. Humor not only plays a role in classroom banter, it helps relieve stress and it also has health benefits, increases collegiality, and in some cases, is actually a scholarly subject itself.

Linus Pauling, Nobel prize winner who used to teach at OSU, was a big fan of humor. (archival image courtesy of OSU archives)

Linus Pauling, Nobel prize winner who used to teach at OSU, was a big fan of humor. (archival image courtesy of OSU archives)

“We have a lot of humor in the English department,” said Kerry Ahearn, associate professor and chair. “We’re all children of Mark Twain and Tina Fey here – Mrs. Twain notwithstanding.”

Teaching an appreciation of the humor in literature, he says, is a difficult task.

“I think comedy is like good silver – if you handle it much, it starts to tarnish,” he said. “In general, scholarship to my mind usually kills humor. I risked this many times, as when I’ve taught Twain and even Faulkner – who can be screamingly funny. I’ve killed Twain for decades. Twain, who saw pork-barrel politics and wrote, ‘Let’s say I’m an idiot. Let’s say I’m a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’”

Ahearn said comedy is something to be prized.

“I tell students, ‘If you find great comedy, send it to me.’ Because writing humor is so hard – you can’t be a pretender. Hundreds have written tragedies. Comedy is infinitely more rare.”

Tracy Daugherty, distinguished professor of English, recently published “Hiding Man,” a biography of author Donald Barthelme, whom Daugherty says was “very much a humorist.”

“The most important thing about comedy is timing,” Daugherty says. “One thing I did was analyze the rhythm of Barthelme’s sentences. For humor, a sentence can’t be too long, or you lose the joke. If it’s too short, a reader doesn’t have time for the joke to register… Humor is Barthelme’s mode of seriousness – a way of slipping in very important ideas.”

Daugherty finds that teaching students about humor isn’t always easy.

“So much depends on context. If you’re teaching literature, reading works from several decades ago can be problematic: students may not get the humor when they don’t understand the context. For instance, I was teaching ‘Libra’ by DeLillo. In a passage about newspaper coverage of the JFK assassination, he showed how so many articles were about what Jackie was wearing. I wanted students to catch the absurdity. But one student came up to me after class and asked ‘Is that really how Kennedy died – he was shot?’”

Even when the topic of a course isn’t humor-related, throwing in a few jokes sometimes helps a professor relate to students.
“Humor is critical to my outreach and education work towards healthy aging,” said Sharon Johnson, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science in the College of Health and Human Sciences.

Her courses, presentations, monthly cable TV show and weekly online and print column depend on humor to get the information across. And in addition, she helps people understand the dynamics of humor.

“I am always looking for a light-hearted approach. When people laugh, they start breathing better. And when they breathe better, they are cognitively more receptive to the information I’m giving.”

Johnson also has a full presentation titled “Laughter – the Healing Power.” In it, she analyzes and demonstrates types of humor: parody, satire, slapstick, nonsense, black, dry, puns and sarcasm. She presents various theories on what makes us laugh, and why.

“I get invitations to speak to organizations of community-dwelling older adults. When I list my possible topics, they usually want the one about laughter – especially lately in these economic times.”

Jon Lewis of English focuses on film and cultural studies, including comedy in film. In fact, his dissertation was on comedy in film. He said it’s hard to talk about what’s funny in an analytic way.

“The minute you start to investigate, it kind of destroys it,” he said. So instead, he places comedy within a historical framework.
“For instance, in silent film the humor is completely crude,” he said. “There’s Chaplain selling hotdogs from a cart on the street: the comedy is sexual, physical, plays on stereotypes – when America was even more puritanical than now. Comedy is always an attack on propriety.”

Today’s humor has its own rude edge.

“Looking at humor in film now – there’s the whole gross-out thing, like in ‘Something About Mary,’ and ‘Dumb and Dumber.’ We live in such a rude culture that those films really had to go far. There’s the popularity of the Jackass films for teens – guys who are sort of stunt men do outrageous, physically unbelievable gags – like someone going into a porta-potty that gets knocked over and dragged down the hill. It’s hysterical in a way.”

Many comedies released during the Depression were about the rich and ridiculous.

“They show that even if you have money, you aren’t necessarily happy – which is a message the rest of us like to hear.” Lewis said. “Comeuppance for the rich and powerful, and someone like Chaplain coming out on top.”

Lewis and other OSU faculty said that teaching someone how to be funny is perhaps the hardest part of addressing humor in the classroom.

Charlotte Headrick, associate chair of Speech Communication who teachers and directs in the Theatre Arts program, likes to quote the actor Edmund Kean to her students: “Dying is easy; comedy is difficult.”

OSU’s Theatre Arts Program meets the challenge of humor head-on. Headrick exuberantly lists its choices of productions of comedy, past, present and future.

“Where do I begin?,” she says. “We devoted one entire season to A World of Comedy in 1999-2000, producing an Irish, an American, a Russian and a French comedy.”

In comedy, as in life, timing can be everything.

“We try to teach students to hold for laughs,” Headrick said. “That means when the audience reacts to humor, the actor should not keep talking, so people don’t miss the next line. The actor should stay in character, wait, and come back with energy.”
In his scholarship, Marion O. Rossi, associate professor, director and acting coach in the University Theatre and director of JumpstART in the department of art, said comedy actually addresses a basic need.

“Comedy is simply the artistic version of the basic human need for humor. Humor is not just about laughter,” he said. “It’s about coping with pain and desire and loss and difference – and the joyous release we feel when we laugh at life’s vicissitudes rather than succumb to them. The connection between humor and pain is so visceral that sometimes we laugh so hard we cry and, more often, we laugh even as we weep.”

Though no OSU scientist is currently measuring, weighing or charting laughter, humor is alive in laboratories and in the field. The Linus Pauling Institute’s researchers and staff are serious, of course, in their focus on micronutrients in promoting health and preventing and treating disease. Yet they are inspired by not only the scientific genius of Linus Pauling, but also his sense of humor.

“He was a funny person,” recalled Steve Lawson, administrative officer, who worked directly with Pauling. “In his famous lectures about vitamin C and health, he would often begin by holding up a vial containing 13 grams of C, saying ‘This is how much C a goat’s body synthesizes each day.’ Then he’d hold up a vial that looked almost empty, saying ‘This is how much the Food and Nutrition Board says we need. I think that a goat knows more about nutrition than does the Board!’”

The LPI crew is known for incorporating humor into their days. “Mainly impromptu– most of it not memorable!,” Lawson said.

“Much of it is irony. And in the stress of trying to get grant applications out by the deadlines, you’ll hear black humor about losing funding.”

Adrian Gombart, also of LPI and an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics, considers humor essential for scientists.

“Research can be long and hard, and a lot of it doesn’t go the way you want,” he says. “With all the technical hurdles, and hypothesis-changing, maybe only 10 percent of what we do gets published. So a good sense of humor and an optimistic attitude really go a long way toward success.”

He studies the effects of vitamin D, which some researchers are looking at regarding brain function and moods – but Gombart’s focus is on the immune system.

“I do make sure I have plenty of D,” he says. “And I try to surround myself with people who have a good sense of humor. Far Side cartoons are popular in labs. Someone put on our door this anonymous quote: ‘It may look like we aren’t doing anything, but at the cellular level we are really quite busy.’”

~ Jana Zvibleman

One Response to “Humor has important place in academia”

  1. Special Collections says:

    More examples of Pauling’s sense of humor are conveyed in this blog post on LP’s leisure activities: http://paulingblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/07/pauling-at-leisure/