Panda walks into a bar?

Panda walks into a bar?

by Sandra McKenzie -
Number of replies: 15

and orders the biggest, most expensive lunch on the menu. When his meal arrives, he wolves it down, pulls out a pistol and plugs the waiter, then nonchalantly heads for the door without paying the bill. The bartender shouts out, ?hey, you can?t just eat our food, kill our waiter, and then leave as though nothing happened!? Panda turns to him and says, ?Sure I can. Look it up!?

Anyone who has grazed a best-seller list in the past couple of years knows what comes next: According to the bartender?s dictionary, the panda, a marsupial, ?eats shoots, and leaves?. Author and grammatical curmudgeon Lynn Truss has parlayed that punchline from a lame old joke into a lucrative publishing industry, thanks to an eager and growing market for books that take a light touch to illuminating grammatical issues.

Ah humour! Where would we be without it? Everybody loves a slapstick pratfall, a clever joke, an apt pun, or a witty rejoinder. We all remember the teacher who finally got through to us by making us laugh. Humour is a global trait of human beings.

Alas, while humour is international, jokes are culture-specific, and they don?t often translate well. Here?s an example: Three guys go deer hunting with bows and arrows. They spot a big buck and take aim. One shoots and his arrow flies off three meters to the right. The second shoots and his arrow flies off three meters to the left. The third, a statistician, jumps up and down yelling, "We got him! We got him!" If you?re a statistician, you might be rolling on the floor over this one. Personally, I don?t think this one is a real knee-slapper!

If you?ve ever tried to explain a joke to someone who just doesn?t get it, or had to apologize because your attempt at humour offended somebody, you know that nothing, but nothing, is as unfunny as a joke that has fizzled. Maybe somebody misread the body language that should have cued the laughter. Or mistook a pun as a literal representation of your meaning. Or there?s a cultural sensitivity that you were unaware of before unleashing a witticism that, in retrospect, was wildly inappropriate.

The easy solution is to just avoid any hint of levity. Let the facts speak for themselves, however dryly. Yet without humour, we?d all fade to grey. And some of us ? the lucky ones, I?d say ? are natural comedians who can no more resist being funny than they can resist breathing.

As a lover of bad jokes and an unrepentant maker of worse puns, I?m always up for a good laugh. But as an editor of online courses, I advise course developers to be very careful about using humour in the virtual classroom. Not infrequently, and always reluctantly, I find myself editing out material that is intended to raise a chuckle, a giggle, or a guffaw. (To avoid embarrassing anyone who might be following this seminar, I?ll refrain from giving specific examples from my current workplace).
The problem is, when you?re writing for a distributed audience, you can?t rely on the cues that would normally tell your audience that you?re being facetious. There is no body language to observe. No nuance of voice or gesture that would take the sting out of a pointed remark. And you have no way of knowing if your readers have a grasp of language sophisticated enough to discern the wordplay that lies behind a joke. The problem can be particularly acute if your audience includes ESL students.

So how do you do it? How do you incorporate humour in your presentations, whether online or face-to-face, in view of the many constraints of culture, language, and political sensibilities that we all must deal with?

For the purposes of this discussion, I?d also like to make a distinction between humour and wit, while dealing with both. I?d define humour as a more or less gentle recognition of life?s idiocies, inconsistencies, and idiosyncrasies , while wit, it seems to me, is something much more pointed and specific. But if my definitions are too restrictive, feel free to ignore them. In any case, I?d love to hear what anyone has to say on the subject!
In reply to Sandra McKenzie

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Elizabeth Lowe -

Hi, I kept writing in response to this topic. I wrote three pages - which seemed an enormous amount of room for me to occupy in a discussion (the art of humility). I have attached a document with my thoughts and possible applications.

In reply to Elizabeth Lowe

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Sandra McKenzie -
Elizabeth, thank you for your thoughtful response (and the Ogden Nash poem, which I have just liberated to use in my profile).

I think incorporporating a note in your introduction that humour is interspersed throughout the content, or discussing the use of jokes in the Netiquette section is an excellent idea. I know I've been told that I should use emoticons to indicate a less-than-serious comment, but I have asethetic objections to that. To me, an emoticon is a form of "dumbing down" that robs the humour of spontaneity, in my view, the very soul of wit. (In fact, I've just noticed that this board includes a suggestion that we use emoticons in our responses.)

I'm also glad you raised the issue of poltical correctness, which could be a whole seminar topic unto itself. Too often, I find, accusing someone who is offended by a joke or comment of being "pc" is a shorthand excuse for being crude or insensitive - deflecting a legitimate criticism by placing blame on the person who is offended. And yet, there is some truth tucked in there - there are the Nicely-Nicely's out there who would kill any attempt at laughter because laughter does, indeed, have a dark side -jokes frequently do hinge on someone else's ignorance, or a character flaw, or a physical attribute.

Some time ago, I ran across an "inclusive" version of Bob Dylan's classic, "Blowin' in the Wind": "... how many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult." Now, not only does this version suck all the life blood out of this song, it can't even begin to be truly inclusive unless we can also find ways to incorporate everybody the line doesn't include - for example, conjoined twins who must, of necessity, walk down the road together; the incarcerated or hospitalized who can't walk down any roads at all; the parapelegic who is physically unable to walk down that road, and the innumerate who simply can't count how many roads they must walk down... And so on.

But I digress. Your larger point that most cultures have long traditions of storytelling that usually incorporate humour is a good one. And I suppose we can consider an academic discipline to be a culture - so there are algorithm jokes that mathematicians share, anthropological anecdotes that only another anthropologist could truly appreciate, and so on.

This response is already too long. So, thanks again for your response. It's given me much to think about!
In reply to Sandra McKenzie

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Corrie Bergeron -

Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert, has reduced humor to a formula:

The core of humor is what I call the 2-of-6 rule. In order for something to be funny, you need at least two of the following elements:

Cute (as in kids and animals)
Recognizable (You?ve been there)

I invented this rule, but you can check for yourself that whenever something is funny it follows the rule. And when something isn?t, it doesn?t.

One of the reasons comics are such a popular form of humor is that they often get the cute part automatically. Calvin and Hobbes is widely considered the best comic ever, but the few times it featured the parents doing the main action, it fell flat. Whenever it combined Calvin and Hobbes (both exceedingly cute), with some witty dialog (clever), a dangerous wagon ride (cruel), Calvin acting like a typical kid (recognizable), and thinking about adult philosophy (bizarre) it fired on 5-of-6 humor elements, which is virtually unheard of.

He's right.  Think about funny cartoons or comedy routines; that's what they do.  Think of the classic bits - W.C. Fields was familiar and naughty (a bit tipsy, and trying to chat up a pretty girl), the kid was cute, and "Go away, kid, ya bother me" is a clever but cruel line.  Slapstick combines cruelty (and sometimes cleverness) with both the familiar and the bizarre.  Chaplin's Little Tramp character added an element of cuteness to the formula. 

"Who's on First?" is familar, bizarre, clever, and cruel.  Bill Cosby's "Noah" takes a clever twist at a very familiar story, punctuated by cruelty ("How long can you tread water?  Haw haw haw.") and a bit of naughtiness ("And I'm there pushing the elephant up the ramp and BWAAAANGH.  Have you SEEN what's in the bottom of that boat?  I'm not cleaning it up!")  Monty Python... The formula works.

What makes humor not work, it seems then, is when what is suspposed to be familiar or cute is not, when clever or bizarre is merely incomprehensible, when naughty and cruel cross the line to offensive. 

Comedy audiences usually self-select for those factors.  Students generally don't.

In reply to Corrie Bergeron

Humour and when it's appreciated

by Sylvia Currie -
Corrie's conclusion about comedy audiences self-selecting, and therefore expecting humour makes such perfect sense. Elizabeth, in thinking about the use of humour in online courses, separates the prepared content from the course discussions.

It takes some time to develop relationships with students and understand what kinds or risks you can take. My guess is that any student who is struggling, frustrated, confused, is not going to appreciate humour.

I remember one occasion when I was seeking clarification and a moderator responded "Ummm...did you check the link I posted earlier..."  I'm sure by "ummm" she was just being informal, but to me it felt like she was saying "DUH, isn't it obvious"! This isn't exactly an example of humour, but it demonstrates how context is so important. I woudn't have given it a second thought if I hadn't already been frustrated.

So when is humour appreciated? Is it necessary to follow the student?s lead when it comes to establishing a safe level of familiarity and informality? How do you test the ground?

In reply to Sandra McKenzie

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Al Fukushima -

Hello all

The world is concerned about "political correctness" in our dialogue which begs the question what is humour, wit and to whom.  In a technological framework, I agree the lack of body language makes humour or wit a guess.  Guesses should not happen especially when the course content is of serious nature.  I consider education a serious nature.  So how does one show that the intructor or the participants have a "human" side to them.  Usually one gets to know their audience before attempting humour etc.


In reply to Al Fukushima

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Elizabeth Wallace -

Sandra, I'm hoping you'll share that pc version of the Bob Dylan classic. I can imagine, but want to see how far off to the right it goes.

I'm also struck with your comment about viewing emoticons as having a "dumbing down" effect. I view them differently. I began using "smileys" in the last century when I was a pioneer in using dos, pre-Windows,and our online communication was achieved using an orange cursor and text on a flickering greyish screen. With no images at all, smileys were the only visual cues available to us.

Even now, when our screens are mulit-coloured and pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words, I use emoticons to help explain my quirky view of life. Without those cues, I suspect that many would take my words at face value and I'd be in all kinds of trouble.

I agree with Al that knowing the people with whom you're communicating is one strategy for avoiding misunderstanding. But on the other hand, a great way of getting to know new contacts is to just let your humour hang out there. Those who "get it" will be instant friends!

In reply to Elizabeth Wallace

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Sandra McKenzie -
Liz, I'm sorry but I only know the one line from the song. Guess we'll just have to make up our own lyrics.

Emoticons - my reaction to them is rooted in my own obstinancy, and in my own tendency towards deadpan humour. I've always thought that signalling a joke, or otherwise notating something that is supposed to be funny or light-hearted was a sure-fire way to kill a laugh. I do recognize that the Internet is a whole 'nuther animal, one in which an audience is invisible, and largley unknowable, (which is why we're having this discussion in the first place), but old habits and biases die hard.

Corrie, I love Scott Adams' formula for humour. I recently ran across another, from, of all places, Pravda. The formula, derived by a US physicist named Igor Krishtafovich, is as follows: HE = PI x C/T + BM. HE - humour effectiveness; PI - personal involvement; C - complexity of the joke; T - time spent solving the joke; BM - background mood.

According to Krishtafovich, "A sense of humor is a strong male quality. It is a sign of good intellect. Evolution stakes precisely on the intellect since a smart fellow as more chances of survival. That is why a sense of humor can be a much bigger sign of masculinity than the pumped-up muscles." Hmmm... Robin Williams vs Arnold Schwartzenegger...

I recognize Corrie's point about audiences for humour self-selecting, nevertheless, humour isn't confined to the comic pages, or to the comedy clubs. Also, Al's comment that guesswork should have no place in a serious, educational environment. I'm not sure that I agree that humour should be compartmentalized that way, that it should be restricted to "safe" environments and familiar audiences.

Maybe the question should be, "Does humour have a role to play in education?" If so, what is that role?
In reply to Sandra McKenzie

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Corrie Bergeron -

"Does humour have a role to play in education?" If so, what is that role?

ABSOLUTELY, Sandra!  I wish I could cite the source (MN-ISPI meeting in the late 90's is the closest I can get), but education and humor are very, very similar.

A joke works like this:  1, 2, 3, 5. 

1,2,3 is the setup; 5 is the punch line.  The hearer fills in 4, and *that's* what makes it funny**.  ("Confucius say, he who raff rast had to have yoke esprained." ++)

Learning is much the same.  We provide some background info and ask a question.  The learner supplies the answer, and POW the light bulb goes off over their heads.

Sylvia, there's just no good way to indicate wryly-raised eyebrows in an ASCII emoticon to convey that "ummmm..." isn't meant as "DUH! You IDJIT!!"  The closest might be something that adds a side-twisted mouth: 


Even that might easily be missed or misconstrued, especially given different platforms, browers, and fonts.

*The take-away IMHO is to cut other people a lot of slack and assume the best of intentions on the part of others unless demonstrated otherwise.  


Works offline, too.



++ If anyone is seriously offended by this stereotype of typical Asian conflation of the sound of R and L (given that many Asian languages have a consonant that is between R and L), please let me know via private email.  FWIW, I found out about the R-L issue from a native Japanese-speaker who fully understood why native English-speakers found the conflation funny.  He didn't seem to be bothered by it.  Of course, he spoke more than one language... *

**Again, I wish I could credit the source:  "Humor is like a frog.  When you take it apart to see how it works, it stops working." *

In reply to Sandra McKenzie

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Les Hanson -

An issue that I frequently grapple with is deciding how much humour is appropriate.  I teach business communication to adults, a subject that frequently involves the teaching of grammar--an area that students find only slightly less interesting than toenail fungus. 

In an effort to make things less boring, I've put a lot of my lessons on the Internet in an interactive format.  I do find that humour is sometimes useful in relieving some of the tedium.  I use many of the strategies mentioned above: risque examples (at least as diry as I can get away with), strange stories of other people's stupidity (adapted from the Darwin awards), and other such things that may keep some students awake during a really dreary lesson.

However, I do notice that some students read the material only for the content and lose sight of the grammatical focus.  Using humour in any lesson, online or otherwise, carries the potential danger of having the students lose sight of the forest for the trees.

In reply to Les Hanson

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Elizabeth Wallace -
Interactivity is such a good idea, Les.  Would you be willing to send a link to some of your "lessons" so we can see exactly how risque you've been ??? I'd like to talk with others about the benefits of this approach, and the forest/trees issue.
In reply to Elizabeth Wallace

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Les Hanson -

Here is a link to my website. The first ppt presentation on there (sentence problems) has a story inspired by something I read about in The Darwin Awards website. The interactive exercises were created using software called Hot Potatoes, available from the University of Victoria. Feel free to take anything you like from here.

Les Hanson

Red River College

In reply to Les Hanson

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Elizabeth Lowe -

Hi, Les (and others),

I think it would be interesting to conduct an experiment. Do students perform better after learning with novel or humorous sentences? Do they perform better with standard sentences? Do novel or humourous sentences interfere with or accentuate learning?

A professor at Johns Hopkins, Ron Berk, researches the use of humor in assessments. Also, I recently read an anecdotal article indicating that two professors at Ohio University have found that using humor in online discussions increases student participation. I have not yet found the actual research article, however.

I am including a link to humor scholarship in education. It was last updated in 2001:

I am also attaching a two page document which approaches appropriate contexts for humor.


In reply to Elizabeth Lowe

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Sharon Porterfield -

Such a good topic and I'm done my M.Ed. research! Mind you, there's always the PhD...

I've been reading this thread with some interest. Are most of you instructors? I'm an instructional designer and have been wondering how humor could be used from my perspective. I never meet the students and in some cases, the SME with whom I work is not the person who teaches the course. Are the courses I develop "doomed" to be flat and humorless because I don't interact with the audience for whom I'm writing?  Also, given the variety of student experiences/backgrounds/lifestyles - how can I ensure the humor is appreciated and/or understood?  This situation was illustrated to me recently when friends from South Africa were watching the show "Corner Gas" and did not see the humor in it at all. My friend looked at me and said, "It must be a Saskatchewan thing".

As a designer, how can I incorporate humor into the content and help ensure the students receiving the course won't also think, "It must be a Saskatchewan thing"?

In reply to Sharon Porterfield

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Mike Johnson -

I am an instructional designer, also.  I think you have to be careful about including humor in a course that someone else will teach.  Some of the SME's I work with are very humorless people.  Not only is there the risk that the students won't get the humor but the instructors also may not get it.

When working with the few SME's I've gotten to know who do have a sense of humor I have built in some humor.  For example, we do some video introductions and overviews of the content.  I am able to add in humorous props and images in post production to accompany what the instructor is explaining.  They're very reluctant to post course material on the open web so it's all kept locked up in Bb or I would share some links.

The ID has to take into account the sense of humor and teaching style of the instructor.

In reply to Mike Johnson

Re: Panda walks into a bar?

by Sandra McKenzie -
Is it possible to inject humour in this situation? I can see a real quandary developing, when the ID tries to add some levity to a course authored by one person and taught by another. Humour is, first of all, subjective. Where the ID sees a joke, the SME draws a blank and the instructor and students are just puzzled, humour is counterproductive.

And yet, and yet... humour (and I'm not necessarily talking about Big Yuk humour - sometimes just a gentle reminder that the world does not need to take itself quite so seriously!) does go such a long way in making life easier, it would be a shame to not use it.

Are there sometimes opportunities for using interactive humour - say, in mnemonics, turning an acronym into an absurd phrase, then challenging students to come up with their own silly versions? Or using puns (not so good if teaching ESL students).

Or as has been suggested, maybe emoticons come into their own here. Are theselittle smiley-faces universally recognized? Would a student in, say, Sao Paulo, recognize an a wink-and-nudge emoticon used by somebody in San Diego?

Would there be any benefit in having a conference that was dedicated to the lighter side of a subject? It seems to me that one indication that a student "gets" something is when he or she can crack a joke about it.

(Of course, as ID, you would have long since signed off on the project, so you wouldn't necessarily see the results of any effort to lighten things up, hence would have no benchmark to measure its success. More's the pity!)