Spring 1997 - Volume I, Issue
To introduce students to the gender, culture and
class dimensions of their reception of texts, I presented four short selections
of literary humor. These forty two adult students, thirty women and twelve men,
were beginning an intensive residency program to complete their bachelor's
degrees at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. Ranging in age from their late
twenties to late forties, many were human service workers, self-supporting
divorced women and some were themselves recovering substance abusers. None were
English or literature majors. Since I didn't want name recognition to influence
their choices, I read the pieces aloud and gave them the examples without
identifying the authors. The works represented contrasting narrative
strategies, but all contained subject matter of high interest. Two were written
by male authors and two were female. Students were asked to freewrite, noting
places that struck them as funny, then rank the four in order of their
preference and indicate the reason for their choices. I then revealed the
identity and background of the writers. The exercise was intended as a teaching
strategy and not as a research study. Their responses shed light on hidden
gender and class dimensions of these texts, and pointed toward additional uses
of humor in the curriculum. Though there isn't time to put you through the
exercise, I'll try to capture the flavor of each excerpt I presented.
"Selections from The Allen Notebooks" by
Woody Allen parodies both the literary trope of a writer's notebook and a
confessional diary. Incongruous associations produce the humor: a man awakens
to find that his pet parrot has been made Secretary of Agriculture, the writer
tries committing suicide by wetting his nose and inserting it into a light
socket. He broods on thoughts of death, wonders if there will be an afterlife,
and if there is "will they be able to break a twenty (102)." By coupling unlike
such unlike phenomena, Allen elicits surprise. As one student expressed it: "He
leads me down one path and then takes a turn down another. "Should I marry W.?"
writes the diarist, "not if she won't tell me the other letters in her name.
(102)." Allen's narrator is concerned with failed love and family
relationships. He meets his brother, whom he has not seen in fifteen years, at
a funeral. "...as usual, he produced a pig bladder from his pocket and began
hitting me on the head with it (102)." The diarist wonders why this brighter,
wittier, more cultured brother is still working at McDonald's, thus reducing
his tormentor to a nobody. Filial cruelty is likewise diminished by absurdity
when he reports that his ridiculing father attended his first play, "A Cyst for
Gus," in tails and a gas mask. Since his mother's terrible accident when she
fell on some meat loaf and penetrated her spleen, the writer can no longer
believe in God. Hope, he says was not "a thing with feathers" as the poet Emily
Dickinson wrote, but his own nephew. He breaks off with W. who tells the writer
his Critique of Metaphysical Reality reminds her of Airport (103).
In Grace Paley's short story "Wants," we also
find an urban narrator, overwhelmed with life's complexities. This woman runs
into her ex-husband on the steps of a New York library where she has gone to do
her civic duty and pay a fine accumulated over eighteen years. They reminisce
about the dissolution of their marriage, which he attributes "to the fact that
you never invited the Bertrams for dinner (171)." When her mate of twenty-
seven years, tells her "you'll always want nothing," she likens his narrow
remark to "a plumber's snake...which "could work its way through the ear down
the throat, halfway to my heart (172)."
uses ironic humor to distance the narrator from the pain of the crumbled
marriage. She sees her ex's limitations clearly but she's more compassionate
than cruel. Though marriages fail, and wars go on, the Sycamore trees, planted
before her kids were born, are in the prime of their lives. Perhaps she can't
change the world, but she's not as passive as her ex suggests. Doesn't her
decision to return those books prove that she can "take some appropriate action
(173)." The humor in Paley's story comes not from wildly absurd images or
slapstick effects but from a cumulative sense of the narrator's comic vision.
Like Allen's persona, she's concerned with human weakness, but her humor
derives, not from aggression delivered linguistically, but from a recognition
of the absurdity of our social contracts, whether the rules pertain to marriage
or library fines. Nonetheless, her emotional bonds to children, the library,
and her beloved urban neighborhood remain strong in contrast to Allen's
isolated loner, confiding in his diary.
character who finds social conventions laughable is Marietta Holley's late
nineteenth century creation, Samantha, a hefty, upstate New York farm wife.
Speaking in folksy rural vernacular, like the male crackerbarrel philosophers
who preceded her, she attacks sexism and racism and rallies readers to defend
women's suffrage. Holley published more than twenty books and was as widely
read as her contemporary Mark Twain, but it took recent feminist scholars to
rediscover her (Walker & Dresner 1988). In her preface to the 1873 volume,
My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's, Samantha decides "put her shoulder blades to
the wheel and write a book on the great subject of "Wimmen's Rites." When she
announces this to her husband Josiah, he reaches for the bottle. In despair
over her project, he wakes in the middle of the night to proclaim that he won't
pay a cent of his money to hire anybody to read her book. Her silly neighbor
Betsey Bobbet, desperate to please men, lectures Samantha that it is woman's
greatest privilege and highest "speah" to soothe a man and be a poultice to the
noble, manly breast. An angry Samantha sweating from her chores, is
"Do I look like a
poultice-- why don't they get men to soothe them--evenins they don't have
anything else to do, they might jest as well be soothin' each other as to be a
hangin' round the grocery store or settin' by the fire whittlin' (Walker
The final selection, a
fable by James Thurber called, "The Bear Who Let it Alone" tells of an
alcoholic bear who "would reel home at night, kick over the
umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamp, and ram his elbows through the
windows (1955)." Determined to reform, he becomes a famous teetotaler and
temperance lecturer who gets so agitated when he speaks of the awful effects of
drink that he kicks over the umbrella stand, knocks down lamps and rams his
elbows through the windows. Drunk or sober, the bear distresses his wife and
frightens his children.
If you found the Woody Allen selection the
funniest, then you agreed with twenty four of the forty two students who
selected it as their first choice, though only one correctly identified it as
Allen's work. Most reported that they chose Allen because of "the absurdity of
the images." Ten students selected the Paley story as their first choice, eight
of whom were women who identified with the divorced protagonist.
Grace Paley's narrator has much in common with Allen's
diarist--she, too is overwhelmed by urban life, has relationship problems, and
sees the absurdity of her situation but she's more deeply connected to people
than is the Allen notebook writer. Rather than producing one-liners that
explode in little bursts, most often at others' expense, Paley's narrative
requires that you stay with it to get the whole effect. It doesn't deliver a
laugh a minute, the way Allen does. What was striking about the eight female
preferences for the Paley piece was not only their identification with her--in
one student's words: "she represents the woman as survivor of divorce and I
feel a bond with her," but her story elicited stories. Two women were prompted
to write their own anecdotes about overdue library books. Paley's text is so
much about intimacy that it invites a reciprocal bond from some readers,
expressed in the form of a complementary narrative. Though Woody Allen
explicitly wrote about struggles of faith, a man who selected Paley as his
favorite cited the spiritual connection he saw in her text: "It relates to the
cosmic joke and reminds me of the smiling Buddha. She shows a connection to the
oneness in us all."
remoteness of the cultural situation and the rural dialect, six students
selected the Holley piece as their favorite. One man wrote: "I felt her heart,
like she was talking to me. She made a picture in my mind. I could see the
expression on people's faces." A Cape Verdean woman who concluded from the
dialect that the writer was black, said: "I identified as a black woman. She's
using humor to overcome dominance."
two students selected Thurber's cautionary tale, which seems more culturally
removed, though it is more contemporary than Holley's writing. Like Samantha,
women today still struggle to be more than unpaid domestics, but mocking
abstinence is no longer funny, given recent changes in our consciousness about
alcoholism as a disease. A therapist working with recovering substance abusers,
himself a former addict wrote: "He sees the addictive layering in the human
condition, but I miss the humor in this." A woman liked the piece because it
reminded her of "being drunk and out of control."
student responses suggest that their humor preferences are constructed by a
shared culture and are more unified than their gender and class affiliations
would seem to suggest. Though I had expected Paley and Holley to garner more
first choices, Allen's neurotic persona and absurd juxtapositions appealed more
to this predominantly white, female, working class group. Traditional humor
theories might appear to account for this preference. According to Incongruity
Theories, we laugh when we are surprised, when our expectations are upset in an
unthreatening way, as Allen does with his absurd juxtapositions. Disparagement
Theory, which can be traced as far back as Plato and Aristotle, suggests that
we use ridicule as a form of revenge and a way to make ourselves look better,
as Allen's diarist does when he mocks his relatives. Freud's Release Theory
argues that humor provides an outlet for repressed sexual or aggressive
impulses--thus we can laugh with Allen, expel these dangerous feelings, and
return to an equilibrium or status quo (Gagnier 135-6).
However, the work of feminist theorists has given us a
new reading of women's humor that doesn't align neatly with any of the
traditional approaches, which ultimately all view humor as a conservative force
that allows us to "let off steam" so the social order can be maintained. Rather
than supporting dominant cultural values, women's humor has the subversive
intent of undercutting and destroying them. However, in order to get away with
such a radical critique, much women's humor, like that of racial minorities and
other oppressed groups is disguised. Feminist scholar Nancy Walker argues that
writers like Marietta Holley create a "double text;" her Samantha character
seems to endorse the stereotypes of the dominant culture, that women are
gossipy domestics, so that her work appears unthreatening. However, lurking
underneath this apparent simplicity is an indictment of the culture that
assigns women such roles (Walker, l988).
addition to using concealment strategies, women tend to be storytellers rather
than joke tellers; their humor is a sharing of experience rather than a
demonstration of their own cleverness as we saw in the Paley selection (Walker
l988). A writer like Grace Paley combines the dual strategies of ironic
distance, an ability to laugh at herself and her ex, while she maintains her
intimate connections, confirming what feminist theorists like Carol Gilligan
and Mary Belenky have argued about the importance of relational thinking to
women's ways of knowing (Gilligan 1982; Belenky et al 1986).
Then why did more of my women students favor
the Woody Allen excerpt? I would argue that while Allen may seem to reflect the
dominant culture's humor, he also subsumes the gendered aspects of women's
connected humor. His persona-- the sickly, suicidal, under appreciated writer
struggling with existential angst speaks to all who feel excluded or
misunderstood. His degree of obsession with his father, mother, brother and
nephew, and his questioning of his romantic choices might well appear in a
woman's diary. Allen speaks to those who feel disempowered, whether by virtue
of their gender, class or race. Grace Paley's humor, perhaps harder to see, is
ultimately more subversive for she imagines a world where connection and
compassion are more important than one-upsmanship and dominance. Though all of
the examples I used contain an implied critique of the power structure, Allen's
ability to mingle classic forms like slapstick and incongruous couplings with
personal concerns make him reach across gender and class categories. This also
helps explain the impact of his particular brand of humor on the mass media.
Holley, whose gendered humor was as popular as Mark Twain's, may have been the
Woody Allen of her day.
in using these literary selections was to grab students' attention, and
stimulate their thinking about themselves as readers so that they could become
more sophisticated about their reception of texts. However, the richness of
their responses led me to consider other uses for humor in the curriculum. As
powerful as it is for emotional and social expression, humor's untapped
potential may lie in its cognitive underpinnings. Cognitive theorists study
children's understanding of humor in order to assess their intellectual
development (Lewis 73). For example, pre-school children consider figures of
speech like: "You have a frog in your throat," to be hilarious because they
picture the image literally. Psycholinguists like Ellen Winner study the ways
in which children come to understand the nonliteral language involved in
metaphor and irony (Winner l988). Students who have difficulty perceiving the
irony in these humorous selections may be struggling with developmental issues
that affect their overall intellectual performance.
a recent New Yorker piece by neurologist Oliver Sacks, an autistic adult
explains her inability to process figurative language as evidence of brain
abnormality. Since an ability to perceive incongruity is central to humor,
noticing when students don't "get" it can tell us about their level of
understanding and their possible cognitive deficits. We can also learn about
their cultural expectations. Is breaking a twenty in the afterlife funny if
your religious beliefs about heaven and hell make such jokes impossible? If
your own culture is authority-based, is humor that openly and defiantly
challenges authority comic or frightening? And if you don't know that Airport
is a pulp novel or haven't heard of Emily Dickinson, would you find Allen
funny? Student responses to humor can help us better assess what they bring to
their studies, letting us know when we are assuming too much about
Humor can contribute to the
curriculum in a host of other ways as well. Here are a few I came across:
Boston University history professor Joseph Boskin suggests that we can
understand the spirit of a time and place by studying its humor. Each decade in
American history has particular jokes that reflect the period's ideas including
its stereotypes of race and gender. Understanding why jokes that poke fun at
ethnic minorities or women are no longer acceptable can help students
understand patterns of social change (Boskin 1979). Humor also offers a
wonderful vehicle for exploring cultural diversity. Bringing jokes, stories and
sayings from their own cultures to class can help students understand some of
the subtle communication differences they may take for granted. Viewing
ourselves through the eyes of an oppressed group can give us some distance on
ourselves and help us to better understand other world views. Eugene Hynes's
sociology students study the jokes Western Apaches make about Anglos, not to
learn about Apaches as much as to see how the dominant group in this country
has been seen by those without power (Hynes 1989). And because humor reduces
tension and creates a more relaxed classroom atmosphere, students are likely to
perform better. Steven Schacht and Brad Stewart present cartoons to reduce the
anxiety levels students bring to a tough subject like statistics (1990). When
it comes to test-taking, humor can also be a boon. Some teachers deliberately
add a humorous item to an exam and encourage students to be funny in their
Unfortunately, much of
the research on classroom humor has focused on the teacher as entertainer
rather than the use of humor to enhance curriculum content. A 1979 study by
Bryant and others found that 48% of the humor used by college teachers was
hostile or sexual (McGhee and Goldstein 1983). When Joan Gorham and Diane
Christophel tried to draw some conclusions about differences in male and female
teachers' use of classroom humor, they found that women who adopt the
aggressive humor often associated with male comics were not favorably perceived
by students (1990). Whether this is due to rigid expectations about proper
behavior for women or a rejection of male modes isn't clear, but teachers
should be sensitive to gender and power differentials when using humor. The
same male teacher who would never tell a racial or ethnic joke might think that
harmless teasing of female students is acceptable. A male professor I know
swore that his joking was evenly balanced amongst the males and females in his
classes. He was shocked when a group of female students confronted him for
"sexually harassing" them. If the senators at the Thomas-Hill hearing "didn't
get it", it's not surprising that a male teacher playfully commenting on female
students' hairstyles or clothing wouldn't get it either.
Researchers Zillman and Bryant distinguish between
confrontational and non-confrontational humor and warn that teachers must laugh
with, not at their students (1988). Some teachers use self-disparaging humor of
the Woody Allen variety to remove the distance between themselves and their
students. Though making yourself, the authority figure, the butt of the joke
rather than poking fun at the less powerful can pull a group together,
injecting humor into your classroom doesn't mean you must become a stand-up
comic cracking one- liners. Rather, I'm interested in creating a community of
laughter, which can break down gender, class and race barriers (Walker 114).
Such humor can encourage bonding between student and teacher, student and
student, and most important perhaps, between students and the subject matter
being studied. Using humor in this manner requires that teachers be listeners
more than performers, noting what humor or its lack tells them about their
students. Connecting humor with learning can cast the teacher as a
collaborator, searching with students for imaginative and sometimes subversive
ways of reenvisioning what we teach and what they learn.
Allen, Woody. "Selections from the Allen Notebooks,"
from Without Feathers. New York: Random House, 1972. In The Norton Reader, 5th
Edition, New York: Norton & Co.(1980) 115-118.
Belenky, M. B.
Clincy, N. Goldberger & J. Tarule. Women's Ways Of Knowing. New York: Basic
Boskin, Joseph. Humor and Social Change in Twentieth
Century America. Boston: Trustees of Public Library, 1979.
Jennings and Dorf Zillman, "Using Humor to Promote Learning in the Classroom."
Journal of Children in Contemporary Society, 20, n. 1-2,(1988) 49-78.
Curry, Jane, ed. Samantha Rastles the Woman Question. Urbana: Univeristy of
Illinois Press, 1983.
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and their Relation to
the Unconscious. New York: W.W. Norton, 1960.
"Between Women: A Cross-Class Analysis of Status and Anarchic Humor. "Last
Laughs: Perspectives on Women and Comedy, ed. Regina Barreca, New York: Gordon
& Breach Science Publishers, 1988, 135.
Gilligan, Carol. In a
Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Gorham, Joan and Diane Christophel. "The Relationship of Teachers' Use of
Humor in the classroom to Immediacy and Student Learning." Communication
Education, 39, n.1 (Jan.1990) 46-62.
Hynes, Eugene. "To see
Ourselves as Others See Us: Using Humor to Teach Sociology. Teaching Sociology,
17, n.4 (Oct. 1989) 476-79.
Holley Marietta, "Josiah Allen's Wife,"
in Walker & Dresner, 99-106.
Lewis, Paul. "Comic Effects:
Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humor in Literature." Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1989.
McGhee, Paul and Jeffrey Goldstein, eds.
Handbook of Humor Research New York: Springer-Verlag, 1983.
Nielson, Don.L.F. Humor Scholarship: A Research Bibliography.
Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Paley, Grace. "Wants," from Enormous
Changes At The Last Minute,New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. In
Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories, I. Howe & I.W. Howe,
eds.New York:Bantam Books (1982), 171-173.
Sacks, Oliver, "An
Anthropologist on Mars." The New Yorker (Dec. 27, 1993), 106-125.
Schacht Steven and Brad Stewart, "What's Funny About Statistics? A
Technique for Reducing Student Anxiety. Teaching Sociology 18, n.1, (Jan.1990),
Thurber, James. "The Bear Who Let it Alone." From Fables For
Our Time New York: Harper & Row, 1940. In Norton Reader 749.
Walker, Nancy and Zita Dresner, eds. "Redressing the Balance:American Women's
Literary Humor from Colonial Times to the 1980's." Jackson: Univ.Press of
Walker, Nancy. A Very Serious Thing: Women's Humor
and American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
Winner, Ellen. The Point of Words. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988.Return to the Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism &
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Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice Main Page
Spring 1997 Issue Main Page
Cornel West - Diversity Day Keynote Speech
Maxine Greene - Teaching as Possibility
Judith Beth Cohen - What Students Think is Funny
Carroy U. Ferguson - Learning for Urban Adults
Sheryl Boris-Schacter & Susan Merrifield - Diversity Initiative
Marjorie Jones - Education for What and for Whom
Merlin Langely - Ode to Black Men
Barbara Vacarr - Stories of the Holocaust
Sebastian Lockwood - Night Sun
Luis Lopez-Nieves - The Extremely Funny Gun Salesman
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A Professor in the Adult Learning PhD Program, Dr. Judith Beth Cohen has designed and taught educational programs for adults, and is also the author of the novel Seasons. Dr. Cohen believes in developing body-based, active learning strategies in her instruction and is passionate about integrating face-to-face intensive teaching with online lessons.
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