Humor as a high form of seriousness: Playing with possibility.
“Serious things cannot be understood without laughable things” – Plato’s Laws Books VII (10th paragraph from bottom)
Each of our classrooms harbor near infinite versions of the future. As we build relationships with and guide our students, that future takes on a more and more concrete tangibility. Every effort we make, one way or another, affects our students’ abilities to hone their skill set so they can change the world that we’re ALL inching toward. The more our students explore/play with meaning, the more they adopt and adapt skills they carry forward. It’s a fair assumption that the more “out of the box” thinkers we help develop today the better our collective tomorrow will be.
Permanent questions like “What is Justice?”, “Who am I and what is my purpose?”, and “What are morals/ethics and which should I follow?” (and so many more) are the toughest, but most important questions to find answers to. They do not, however, have readily available answers. Since our kids will be walking into a future full of doubt and shifting sands of Truth…we need to prepare them for this future as completely as possible. But, how do you prepare for a task that has no answers?
Such a serious topic…I know. Questions without answers that will challenge our kids and our culture like no other time in history.
There is a saving grace hidden in all this seriousness, though! Questions without readily available answers, under the right circumstances, allow for the observer to “play with meaning” as Plato once alluded to in his writings. When a child who has grown up with dogs sees a horse for the first time, they might label the horse a “Big Dog”. Our minds try to make sense out of seemingly random/discrepant facts or sensory inputs. When confronted with something new we try to put it into a previously existing mental category. This requires “play” since there is no correct or immediate answer.
I’m not suggesting that humor become the only vehicle for your classroom. What I am suggesting, though, is that “high humor” can be an enjoyable way for your students to challenge themselves. There is a process and a product to humor…and that’s what we’re going to explore.
There are mental and physical health benefit as well! A humorous environment helps build people’s emotional intelligence, advertising cognitive and physical ability (makes you likeable or attractive), promotes social bonding, may help boost your health, and allows you to sharpen your wits in a fun way.
How humor can be intellectually challenging
Humor can be powerful because it acts as a virtual shortcut to the Truth of the matter. Being a short cut, it must also be an abstraction. So comedy is Truth in its evaporated form. We can still see how it participates with Truth, but see that it isn’t the complete Truth.
As Plato and Aristotle stated a couple thousand years ago, both comedy and tragedy (the humorous and the serious) utilize two or more competing frames of reference. Those two frames of reference or paradigms refuse to give in to each other. As we try to reconcile them our mind stresses and we have to make sense of a fluid situation. This forces our mind to align things that may not mix very well. Think of a mental version of trying to put together two strong magnet’s positive poles. We get close to victory, but never fully win.
When there are two elements within a context, as stated above, we try to reconcile them. Look at the image below:
There are two competing frames of reference: the “health drink” and the mom playing with her kids (advertising NyQuil). Put them together and you get comedy because neither frame of reference gives in to the other. The most obvious possibility (that mom is evacuating into a glass for you to drink) is the most solid conclusion we come to based on sensory input…but, upon reflection, is also the answer that’s furthest from the likely truth! When we unite our senses we get one answer, but when we divide what we’re seeing into its components we know the senses are wrong. The mind necessarily swings between possibilities.
So there are now three elements, the two serious ads and the mind’s attempt to create a unity out of two things that resist that unity.
Tragedy/seriousness also participate in this movements, so to speak, using two frames of references in an attempt to create a unity. The difference between a tragic scenario and a humorous one is….a threat! Tragic circumstances add a perceived threat to this equation as seen below.
We all know dinosaurs are extinct. None of us expects to be chased by an impossibility. In the video above, a tragic/serious response was elicited. The two frames of references were 1) a normal day 2) an absurd situation. The “victims” participated in a tragic reaction because they consolidated the two frames of reference with the adhesive of a threat. We laughed because we consolidated the two frames of reference as a complete non threat.
“High humor”, as I’m calling it, requires students to understand the serious aspect of a topic (ancient Roman history) and twist that seriousness into a funny version of itself (a meme for example).
The meme to the left is funny because, again, the two competing frames of reference refuse to give in to each other. Julius Caesar WAS stabbed in the back by his friend (tragic…in a sense). He’s also listening to you complain about your friend “stabbing” you in the back at work or in a relationship. Both interpretations exist at the exact same time which keeps the mind from settling on one interpretation. We move from one definition of “stabbing in the back” and then back to the other and back again, like a comedy pendulum that never stops. Add the fact that, at least for us, this is within a non threatening context…and voila…high humor.
If we have a fresh “wound” where a friend has betrayed us recently, then this stops being funny because we settle on Caesar’s serious paradigm.
Further, a modicum of knowledge of history and maybe Shakespearean drama are needed to really “get” this High Humor joke. In other words, an educated mind appreciates this more than an uneducated mind. If the observer has no idea about Julius Caesar then this image not only becomes “not funny”, but absurd (ie. does not have meaning).
The Classroom Humor Checklist (for my friends that like checklists):
- Competing frame of reference #1 (your classroom unit, topic, learning objective)
- Competing frame of reference #2 (the paradigm that extends or challenges #1)
- Nonthreatening situation to the audience (it’s ok if characters are threatened within the meme/video/essay as long as that threat does not extend to the audience…more on this in a second)
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive definition/system of humor since the topic can be highly subjective, but it is thorough enough and fairly formulaic that it can be adapted into most classroom situations.
In The Classroom
Combining nearly any tech tool, your “serious” content area, a humorous “twist” on the topic in a nonthreatening manner can elicit excitement in your students as they learn. When I refer to the “twist” this can be a funny twist or another serious twist that is irreconcilable with the first frame of reference. Remember, the humor comes in when two points of views are valid and refuse to give in to each other as your mind moves between them (and there is no perceived threat).
Here are a few ideas:
Not creative? Here’s a random activity generator. Even if you don’t like the options you can adapt it to for your classroom needs. The formula is “Do x as y.” Example, explain a chemical equation as a love story. So, you could type & print several activities and place them in a container and then type & print several topics pertinent to your current unit. Have students randomly pick one topic and one activity or have them offer their own! I’ve done it with high school seniors and they LOVED it!
Social Studies – History Tweets
English ELA – Memes Galore! From Mrs. Orman’s Classroom Blog
Math Memes – Lots of Math & Science Memes and Puns Here
Play “reductio ad absurdum” – Reduce a given topic to its most fundamental element (The HR diagram is a chart that plots characteristics of stars based on size and brightness)…so stars are some degree of hot and bright. Then (and this is my addition) add a twist. Anthropomorphize the stars (give them human characteristics based on the reduction). So have stars tell “yo momma jokes” that remain true to the HR diagram. Have planets “house shopping” for home stars based on the HR diagram. Etc.
“You think, I do” multiple examples (think of using this with complex characters, historical figures, community leaders, math misconceptions). Imagine a “You think, I do” with Native Americans or Presidents or (switch it up) what foreigners thought about the U.S. during the civil war! Here’s the website to use and more examples.
“Thinks he means, he actually means” is another possible way to convey comedy in the classroom. The formula here is a statement and then, again, two frames of reference. Replace the quote above with Hitler saying “Of course I won’t invade Poland” and then a “What the Allies think he means” and “What he actually means”.
Some e-cards - Make funny captions to fake e-cards (careful with this one…leans towards adult)
First, humor being poked at someone or some group in particular can be horribly damaging. Because humor, in this sense, becomes a weapon it is a threat to the subject. While I disagreed with my college professors that sarcasm shouldn’t be used in the classroom, I can see what they feared.
Subjectifying a student or group dehumanizes them and strips them of their “value”. Further, they are treated in the same manner you might treat an inanimate object or animal. We take what is the highest in us (our humanity) and we subtract it from a person or group. Comedy used in this manner becomes tragedy because of the threat component I mentioned above.
Second, you need courage for comedy. When you are placing two competing frames of reference close together they must resist each other to force the mind to struggle. If your two frames are too related…there is no contrast and, thus, no comedy (a bear in the woods is what we expect, whereas a bear riding a laser Lincoln is not expected).
Bear Bear Riding Lincoln Chainsaw Polar Bear
Place the frames of reference too far apart that they don’t relate to each other and there is no comedy because the context is lost as in the example below…
* I will continue to add resources to this blog as time permits…