Humour helps push learning in many ways. It allows us to see through the clutter and get to the essence of things.

We were listening to a research presentation about a rather obscure topic; one that I knew little about. The audience was mixed but interested, willing to put in some effort to listen and learn. The speaker took the podium with a smile and began in the classic manner — with an outline of what she was going to talk about. Mid-way through the presentation she took a light-hearted detour, with a joke that reinterpreted the topic in a way that brought in some laughter yet also allowed the non-experts to understand it more easily.

Classrooms by and large tend to be rather grim places. There are of course individual teachers and also entire institutions that try to create an atmosphere that is less heavy and where it’s possible to smile — maybe even laugh — during a class. So as we progress through our careers as students we end up taking everything — including ourselves — a bit too seriously. I’m not at all suggesting that learning is a laughing matter. On the contrary, it is serious business, and we need to treat it with the respect it deserves. But this does not mean the process of learning has to be joyless or without humour. While we may not have control over how much laughter there is in our classrooms, we can exercise some degree of influence over the way we handle things — whether it is a presentation or a group discussion or any other form of interaction.

I’ve spoken earlier in this column about how important it is to use the opportunities we have to make presentations or engage in discussions in a college setting. We need to take these opportunities seriously — in the sense; we need to put in the work to do a good job. Where then does the humour come in?

As with the speaker described above, it helps to build rapport with the audience and create a bit of empathy. In this case, the young woman used humour to laugh at herself and released some of the tension she felt. And when the audience laughed with her, it also gave her the impetus and the energy to keep going. Throwing in some intelligent humour, something that is related to the topic in some way, not only provides a welcome break in a serious talk, it can also throw open a different perspective on the issue.

In discussions, too, humour can help liven what could otherwise be a dull — sometimes rehearsed exchange of ideas.

Using humour appropriately requires one to pay close attention to what is being said; it has to relate to the topic of discussion being discussed, and bring in something unexpected. Sometimes humour can be used to bring in people who are left out of the discussion, a way of nudging them gently into the group. It’s important, however, to distinguish between good-natured laughter and sarcasm or ridicule, and it’s important that the entire group recognises this difference too.

Otherwise it can be counterproductive, and alienate the shy group members even further. Of course, if everyone shared a sense of humour, they probably would not take offense! Clearly, having the ability to laugh at oneself, at the situation, and see things from an absurd angle is something we all need to cultivate — it goes beyond the ability to tell a joke, and certainly includes the ability to appreciate one, without taking things personally.

It is about developing what is often called “perspective,” recognising that a situation or a set of facts can be read in different ways, and sometimes, we need to refer to the big picture, and see things from a distance.

Much of this depends on the environment that a teacher creates in the classroom. How do students then intervene in a space where laughter and smiles are not allowed to enter? Of course, you can bring humour into the limited situations you do have control over — such as your own presentations or discussions. More importantly, you can retain humour in the way you look at things.

A sense of humour can help push learning in many ways. It allows us to see through the clutter and get to the essence of things. If you think about it, a joke is funny usually because it connects really unlikely things, in a way that seems absurd. But if you look closely, these connections have a truth to them, sometimes leading to an “aha!” moment that hours of staring at theory did not succeed in doing.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is the editor of Teacher Plus. Website: www.teacherplus.org. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com