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Communication Education
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Appropriate and Inappropriate Uses of


Humor by Teachers
Melissa Bekelja Wanzer , Ann Bainbridge Frymier , Ann M.
Wojtaszczyk & Tony Smith
Published online: 03 Feb 2007.

To cite this article: Melissa Bekelja Wanzer , Ann Bainbridge Frymier , Ann M. Wojtaszczyk & Tony
Smith (2006) Appropriate and Inappropriate Uses of Humor by Teachers, Communication Education,
55:2, 178-196, DOI: 10.1080/03634520600566132

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03634520600566132

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Communication Education
Vol. 55, No. 2, April 2006, pp. 178 /196

Appropriate and Inappropriate Uses of


Humor by Teachers
Melissa Bekelja Wanzer, Ann Bainbridge Frymier,
Ann M. Wojtaszczyk & Tony Smith
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The use of humor in teaching has been linked to learning in several studies, although the
research has been equivocal. The various types of humor used by teachers have also been
investigated but not in terms of what students view as appropriate and inappropriate
uses of humor. Participants in this study were asked to generate examples of appropriate
and inappropriate uses of humor by teachers. Responses were unitized and content
analyzed, resulting in the identification of four appropriate humor categories and four
inappropriate humor categories. Each category is defined, and the implications of using
different types of humor in the classroom are discussed.

Keywords: Humor; Teacher behavior; Communication competence; Teacher humor;


Appropriate teacher behavior

Instructional communication researchers seek to understand how communication


functions in learning environments. Many of their efforts focus on how to become a
more effective teacher. In the last 25 years, these researchers have identified a number
of teacher communication behaviors that enhance teaching effectiveness, including
immediacy (Andersen, 1979; Christophel, 1990; Frymier, 1994; Richmond, Gorham,
& McCroskey, 1987), communication skills (Frymier & Houser, 2000), compliance-
gaining (Plax & Kearney, 1992), and clarity (Chesebro, 2002; Chesebro & McCroskey,
1998; Powell & Harville, 1990). Hurt, Scott, and McCroskeys (1978) assertion that to
be an effective teacher one must be a competent communicator is an underlying
assumption in much of the research on teacher communication behavior. Therefore,

Melissa Bekelja Wanzer (EdD, West Virginia University, 1995) is an Associate Professor in the Department of
Communication Studies at Canisius College, Buffalo, NY. Ann Bainbridge Frymier (EdD, West Virginia
University, 1992) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Miami University, Oxford,
OH. Ann M. Wojtaszczyk is an undergraduate student majoring in biochemistry at Canisius College. Tony Smith
(MA, Miami University, 2003) is an instructor in the Department of Speech at St. Petersburg College, Seminole,
FL. Ann Bainbridge Frymier can be contacted at frymieab@muohio.edu

ISSN 0363-4523 (print)/ISSN 1479-5795 (online) # 2006 National Communication Association


DOI: 10.1080/03634520600566132
Appropriate and Inappropriate Humor 179

one approach to understanding effective teaching is through the lens of commu-


nication competence.
Spitzberg and Cupach (1984) define communication competence as the extent to
which objectives functionally related to communication are fulfilled through
cooperative interaction appropriate to the interpersonal context (p. 100). They
conceptualize communication competence as being a function of both effectiveness
and appropriateness. Being appropriate generally means meeting the expectations
and norms for a particular situation (Spitzberg & Cupach, 1984); therefore, what is
appropriate in one situation may be inappropriate in another. Effectiveness is equated
with achieving goals or satisfying needs (Spitzberg & Cupach, 1984). One has little
difficulty thinking of situations where a person is effective at accomplishing their
communication goals but does so inappropriately. One example of inappropriateness
is found when someone wins an argument by insulting and belittling ones
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interaction partner. Conversely, one can behave appropriately, but not accomplish
their goals. When a person achieves their goals effectively and appropriately, they are
considered competent. Consistent with Spitzberg and Cupachs approach to
communication competence, Daly and Vangelisti (2003) describe skillful teachers
as those who facilitate comprehension and recall among learners and facilitate
positive regard for the teacher and the subject.
Spitzberg and Cupachs (1984) approach to communication competence may
provide a useful theoretical framework for examining instructional communication.
The facilitation of cognitive learning easily equates with effectiveness since most
teachers have the explicit goal of facilitating learning. Appropriateness equates with
affective learning since appropriateness often leads to approval, which in turn garners
positive feelings. Additionally, an aspect of appropriateness is meeting social norms.
When we violate norms, we are likely to be perceived as behaving inappropriately
(Levine et al. 2000). Such a framework would assume that competent teachers are
effective (achieve learning goals) and appropriate (meet social norms and facilitate
positive affect).
Humor is a communication behavior we recognize from personal experience that
can be used competently or incompetently. The use of humor in teaching has been
frequently investigated (Aylor & Opplinger, 2003; Bryant, Comisky, Crane, &
Zillmann, 1980; Bryant, Comisky, & Zillmann, 1979; Bryant & Zillmann, 1988;
Conkell, Imwold, & Ratliffe, 1999; Davies & Apter, 1980; Downs, Javidi, & Nussbaum,
1988; Frymier & Wanzer, 1999; Frymier & Weser, 2001; Gorham & Christophel, 1990;
Kaplan & Pascoe, 1977; Sadowski & Gulgoz, 1994; Wanzer, 2002; Wanzer & Frymier,
1999a, 1999b; White, 2001). This research represents several different perspectives
and approaches along with the study of different types of humor, making it difficult
to draw conclusions. Some of this research has linked instructors use of humor to
student learning outcomes (Davies & Apter, 1980; Hauck & Thomas, 1972; Kaplan &
Pascoe, 1977; Wanzer & Frymier, 1999a; Ziv, 1988), which provides some evidence of
humor as a potentially effective communication strategy in the classroom. The
appropriateness of humor has not been directly investigated in any of the studies.
However, use of humor in the classroom has been linked to improved perceptions of
180 M. B. Wanzer et al.

the teacher (Scott, 1976), enhanced quality of the student teacher relationship
/

(Welker, 1977), higher teaching evaluations (Bryant et al., 1980), and affective
learning (Wanzer & Frymier, 1999a), which provides some evidence that humor can
be used appropriately in the classroom.
An issue complicating the study of humor is the vast array of humor types. Humor
can be represented as jokes, puns, riddles, sarcasm, physical antics, nonverbal
behaviors, cartoons, and one-liners. Additionally, the topic of the humor can target
virtually anything, resulting in a number of possible humor types that a teacher could
use in the classroom. Several studies have identified the types of humor most
frequently used by instructors (Bryant et al., 1979; Downs et al., 1988; Gorham &
Christophel, 1990); however, these studies have been descriptive and not evaluative.
Drawing on Levine et al.s (2000) norm violation perspective, we would expect humor
that violates norms to be perceived as inappropriate by students. Consistent with
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Levine et al., McPherson, Kearney, and Plax (2003) found that appropriately
expressed anger was positively associated with students affect. Therefore, it seems
likely that some forms of humor will violate classroom norms and be perceived as
inappropriate, while other forms of humor will be perceived as appropriate. Previous
research has primarily focused either on describing the range of humor types or on
examining specific types of humor, and not on the appropriateness of humor in
teaching.
Bryant et al. (1979) developed one of the first typologies of humor used by college
teachers. Students were asked to first audiotape and then analyze their instructors
messages to decipher the typical types of humor teachers used throughout their
lectures. Based on these data, college teachers used humorous messages 3.34 times
during a 50-minute class period. Using an inductive method, Bryant et al. identified
six types of teacher humor: jokes, riddles, puns, funny stories, funny comments, and
other/miscellaneous. They further clarified the type of humor used by coding
instances as sexual or nonsexual, hostile or nonhostile, and related or unrelated to
course material. Bryant et al. (1979) concluded that nearly half of the humor used by
teachers conveyed hostile or sexual messages.
In an effort to understand humor as a form of immediacy behavior, Gorham and
Christophel (1990) examined the types of humor used by teachers. In their study,
students were asked to keep a log of the actual humor behaviors their instructors
exhibited over five consecutive class meetings. Specifically, students were instructed to
record things this teacher did or said today which shows he/she has a sense of
humor (Gorham & Christophel, 1990, p. 51). In order to develop their classification
system of teacher humor, Gorham and Christophel used grounded theory constant
comparison procedures. Once the data were transcribed and unitized, humorous
instances were categorized and cross-coded. This process resulted in the identification
of 13 categories of humorous behavior.
To understand the relationship between humor and immediacy, Gorham and
Christophel examined the correlations between immediacy and the number of
humorous incidents reported by students. More specifically, they examined the Uses
humor in class item on the verbal immediacy scale in relation to frequency of humor
Appropriate and Inappropriate Humor 181

types. Not surprisingly, they found that the total number of humorous incidents was
positively associated with the uses humor item, although the number of self-
deprecating and brief tendentious (biased) comments directed at individual students
was negatively associated (r   .23 and r  .17, respectively) with the uses humor
/ / / /

item. Either students failed to perceive such humor types as funny or they regarded
the comments as inappropriate for classroom use. Additionally, the use of self-
deprecating humor and tendentious comments was negatively associated with
student reports of their own learning.
Gorham and Christophels (1990) results provide some indirect evidence that some
forms of humor are perceived as inappropriate for the classroom. Neuliep (1991) was
the first to explicitly examine the appropriateness of humor in the classroom. Using
Gorham and Christophels (1990) humor categories, teachers were asked to indicate
the appropriateness of each type. High school teachers rated most of the humor types
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as at least slightly appropriate for the classroom but rated two types as marginally
inappropriate: The teacher tells a personal anecdote or story not related to the
subject/topic, and The teacher tells a general anecdote or story not related to the
subject/topic. These same teachers reported that the use of tendentious humor was
somewhat appropriate. However, it should be noted that in translating Gorham and
Christophels categories of humor into a measure, the word tendentious was dropped,
making those categories more positive in nature. Even though Neulieps (1991)
research confirmed the Gorham and Christophel (1990) humor typology and
provided some preliminary information on the types of humorous messages high
school instructors view as appropriate for classroom use, only teacher and not
student perceptions were investigated. Consistent with Spitzberg and Cupachs (1984)
approach to competence, perceptions of effectiveness and appropriateness are
contextual and, therefore, must involve the perceptions of all interactants.
In a recent investigation, Torok, McMorris, and Lin (2004) examined college
students and teachers perceptions of Bryant et al.s (1979) types of classroom humor.
Three instructors and 124 college students reported their perceptions of Bryants
types of classroom humor. The researchers began their investigation assuming that
seven types of humor (funny stories, funny comments, jokes, professional humor,
pun, cartoon, and riddles) would be considered generally positive in the college
classroom, and they found support for this assumption. They also speculated that
four types of instructor humor (i.e., sarcasm, sexual humor, ethnic humor, and
aggressive/hostile humor) would be perceived negatively by students. Although Torok
et al. did not frame their study within a communication competence perspective,
their procedures clearly indicate a focus on the perceived appropriateness of the
different humor types. Sexual humor, ethnic humor, and aggressive humor were
found to be used less frequently and, not surprisingly, were not recommended for the
classroom. Sarcasm, initially identified by the researchers as negative humor, was the
fifth most frequently used type of instructor humor. Also, sarcasm was perceived as
relatively appropriate and even recommended for use in the classroom. Given the
small sample size employed and the inexhaustive list of humor behaviors specified,
the findings of the Torok et al. study are somewhat limited.
182 M. B. Wanzer et al.

Gorham and Christophel used the construct of immediacy to evaluate the different
types of humor, where Neuliep examined the appropriateness of humor in the
classroom from the teachers perspective. Torok et al. found students had a fairly
positive perception of sarcasm, which had been initially defined as negative. Taken
together, these studies indicate that not all humor is appropriate for the classroom,
leading us to conclude that a more thorough examination of appropriateness is
needed to understand competent communication in the classroom. In this study, we
examine the students views of both the appropriate and inappropriate use of humor
in the classroom. Such research extends previous investigations, and, by identifying
examples of both appropriate and inappropriate instructor humor, we can begin to
understand competent use of humor in the classroom. With a better understanding
of the types of humor students perceive as appropriate and inappropriate, the
foundation will be laid for future research examining the effects of both types of
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humor in the classroom. For the present investigation, the following research
questions were addressed:
RQ1: What types of teacher humor do students consider appropriate for the
classroom?
RQ2: What types of teacher humor do students consider inappropriate for the
classroom?

Method
Participants
Participants for this study were 284 undergraduate students enrolled in one of two
introductory communication courses at a mid-sized Midwestern university. The
sample consisted of 96 men and 188 women, with an average age of 19 years. The
majority of the sample was European American (75.47%), followed by 2.64% African
Americans, with the remainder of the sample consisting of Asian Americans, Native
Americans, Latin Americans, and other.

Procedure
Participants were provided with two open-ended questions asking them to describe
examples of teachers use of humor in the classroom that they had actually observed.
The first question read,
Teachers sometimes use humor in the classroom while teaching. By humor we
mean anything that the teacher and/or students find funny or amusing. Please list
several examples of appropriate and suitable humor that you have observed teachers
using while in the classroom. By appropriate, we mean that the humor was not
offensive and/or was fitting for the class.
The second question was identical to the first, except that students were asked to list
several inappropriate and unsuitable examples of humor they had observed
teachers using, and inappropriate was defined as humor [that] was offensive and/or
Appropriate and Inappropriate Humor 183

was not fitting for the class. Participants were given as much time as they desired to
list as many examples as they could. Participants were then debriefed and thanked for
their time and effort.
The first phase of analyzing the data involved unitizing the students responses. The
first coder (coder one) was responsible for unitizing the data and reading through all
responses to make sure each student-generated example of teacher humor included a
singular phrase, sentence, or paragraph which described a conceptually distinct
humor behavior or unit. Student responses that included multiple humorous
behaviors were separated into units. Thus, students who indicated that the teacher
pokes fun at other students and swears in class offered multiple examples of
teacher humor and, thus, were separated into two distinct and different units. The
unitizing procedure resulted in 774 distinct examples of appropriate humor and 541
examples of inappropriate humor used by teachers, totaling 1,315 units. Some
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examples were not categorized because they were too vague, did not make sense, or
were irrelevant. Therefore, 28 inappropriate units (5%) and another 62 units (8%) of
appropriate humor were determined to be unusable. Examples of discarded humor
units included playing music and simply being silly, neither of which was specific
enough to be categorized in a meaningful way.
In the second coding phase, a second coder (coder two) utilized analytic induction
techniques (see Baxter & Wilmot, 1984; Dolin & Booth-Butterfield, 1993; Vangelisti,
Daly, & Rudnick, 1991) to develop categories for student-generated examples of
appropriate and inappropriate teacher humor. This procedure involved placing the
humor units on index cards and then sorting the cards into conceptually similar
categories. Appropriate humor units were placed into one of four categories: related
humor, humor unrelated to course material, self-disparaging humor, and
unintentional humor. Next, inappropriate humor units were placed into
one of four categories: disparaging humor: targeting students, disparaging humor:
targeting others, offensive humor, and self-disparaging humor. After examining
the wide range of responses included within many of the appropriate and
inappropriate categories, the same coder began the process of identifying sub-
categories for many of the four appropriate and inappropriate categories. A range of
subcategories (5 11) was identified for most of the four appropriate and four
/

inappropriate categories. The appropriate humor category labeled related humor


had 11 subcategories, humor unrelated to the course material had nine
subcategories and self-disparaging humor had five subcategories. For the
inappropriate categories labeled offensive humor and disparaging humor:
targeting others, there were eight subcategories for each. For the category labeled
disparaging humor: targeting students, there were ten different subcategories.
Once the second coder placed all appropriate and inappropriate humor units into
their respective categories and subcategories, 25% of the units were randomly selected
from the four appropriate and inappropriate humor categories to be cross coded by
coder one. Coding reliability was assessed using kappa as a measure of agreement,
with kappa values greater than .75 indicating excellent agreement beyond chance.
184 M. B. Wanzer et al.

Results of kappa for the inappropriate humor categories (N  133) were .96, and for
/

the appropriate humor categories (N  178) .87.


/

Results
The first research question asked what types of teacher humor students considered
appropriate for the classroom. Students generated 712 examples of appropriate
teacher humor that were placed into four different categories labeled: related
humor, humor unrelated to course material, self-disparaging humor, and
unintentional humor. The related humor category included humor strategies
or behaviors linked to course material. The second category, unrelated humor,
consisted of humor strategies, behaviors or acts not associated with the course
material. The self-disparaging category included examples of humor directed at
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oneself. The final category, labeled unintentional humor, consisted of examples of


teacher humor that were clearly spontaneous and unplanned (e.g., teacher tripped),
but that students found humorous.
Almost half (47%) of the student-generated examples of appropriate humor
involved teacher humor linked to the course material. This related humor category
included 11 subcategories: nonspecified related humor, media/external aids,
jokes, examples, stories, critical/cynical humor, college life stereotypes,
teasing students, teacher performance, role play, and creative language. The
four most frequently employed types of related humor were media/external
objects (19%), jokes (14%), examples (14%), and stories (13%). These four
subcategories comprised 60% of the related humor category.
The second category, unrelated humor, comprised 44% of the student-generated
examples of appropriate teacher humor. For the unrelated humor category, there
were nine subcategories of unrelated humor instructors employed in the classroom:
stories, jokes, critical/cynical humor, teasing students, college life stereo-
types, teacher performance, creative language use, current events/political, and
media/external objects. Eight out of the nine subcategories of unrelated humor
overlapped with those identified in the related humor category. Hence, when
professors employ humor strategies appropriately, they are often using humor that is
either related or unrelated to the subject matter and is frequently similar in type. The
five most frequently identified types of unrelated humor students recognized were
stories (20%), jokes (17%), critical/cynical humor (14%), teasing students
(14%), and college life stereotypes (14%). These five subcategories accounted for
79% of the overall sample of unrelated humor.
The third category, labeled self-disparaging humor, made up 9% of the
appropriate humor examples. Self-disparaging humor subcategories consisted of
the following: personal characteristics, unspecified self-disparaging comments,
embarrassing stories, poking fun of mistakes made, and making fun of abilities.
Interestingly, 80% of the self-disparaging examples fell into the personal character-
istics (33%), nonspecified comments (27%), and embarrassing stories (20%)
subcategories.
Appropriate and Inappropriate Humor 185

The fourth and final category, labeled unintentional humor, was the least
frequently used with only three units representing approximately 0.5% of the
appropriate humor examples. This category concerned appropriate humor in which
an instructor was a stand up comedian, unintentionally, along with unintentional
puns or slip of the tongue situations. Table 1 provides descriptions of each
appropriate humor category and their respective subcategories. Table 2 includes the
number of responses obtained for each category and subcategory.
The second research question asked what types of teacher humor students found to
be inappropriate for the classroom. Students generated 513 examples of inappropri-
ate humor behavior that were placed into four categories: disparaging humor:
targeting students, disparaging humor: targeting others, offensive humor, and
self-disparaging humor. The disparaging humor: targeting students category
focused on either students as a group or individual students. Instructors disparaged
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students both as a group and individually based on qualities or characteristics such as


intelligence, gender, and appearance. Examples placed in the disparaging humor:
targeting others category included responses that disparaged other nonstudent
groups of people based on sex, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Examples
included in the offensive humor category were viewed as distasteful or unpleasant
and included, among other types, humor that was sexual, morbid, vulgar, or
inappropriate. Finally, examples in the self-disparaging category of inappropriate
humor were humor attempts targeted at the instructor.
Just under half (42%) of the inappropriate humor examples fell into the disparaging
humor: targeting students category. This category of inappropriate humor behaviors
was clearly the most frequently recognized. Eighty-three percent of these responses
involved targeting a specific student based on a variety of reasons. When the professor
disparaged a specific student, responses fell into one of the following subcategories:
unspecified reason, intelligence, students personal life/opinions, appearance,
sex, or religion. The three most frequently cited reasons for targeting a specific
student were intelligence (26%), unspecified teasing, (24%) and students
personal life/opinions (17%). Similarly, when the professor disparaged students as a
group (17% of the responses), responses were placed in the following subcategories:
unspecified, intelligence, gender, organizational affiliation, or appearance.
Just as when the teacher disparaged a single student, the subcategory that had the largest
frequency was intelligence, where 60% of the group disparaging examples fell.
The second category, disparaging humor: targeting others, comprised 27% of the
examples of inappropriate humor. Humor in this category was also clearly
disparaging in nature but was targeted at nonstudent populations. For example,
instructors either used general stereotypes (5% of the category) or targeted specific
groups of individuals based on the following characteristics or affiliations: gender,
race/ethnicity, university related, religion, sexual orientation, appearance,
or political affiliation. More often than not, when professors used humor attempts
targeted at groups, they focused on gender (34%), race/ethnicity (31%), or university
affiliations (11%). These three subcategories represented 76% of all of the
disparaging humor: targeting others category.
186 M. B. Wanzer et al.

Table 1 Categories and Subcategories of Appropriate Teacher Humor


I. Related Humor. This category included any humor used by the professor that related to the
material or enhanced learning in the classroom.
Humor Related to Material Without a Specified Tactic */Students indicated that the teacher
employed humor related to course material but did not describe a specific tactic. For example, One
of my teachers uses humor related to class topics.
Using Media or External Objects to Enhance Learning */Humor attempts that were related to the
course material and used props or different types of media to enhance learning. For example, He
regularly dressed up in costume for theme of class, Playing with a slinky to demonstrate a physics
experiment, Used a related cartoon, or Showed movies of research that were funny because they
were outdated.
Jokes */Teacher used jokes that related to the course material. For example, Whats someone who
likes to go out a lot? Answer: Fungi.
Examples *T / eacher used humorous examples to illustrate course concepts. For example, Math

teachers have used names in word problems that were humorous.


Stories */Teacher used humorous stories to illustrate course concepts or reinforce learning. For
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example, Using a funny story about their kids, past college experiences, other family members and
relating it to class discussion.
Critical/Cynical */Teacher was critical or cynical about course material in an effort to be humorous.
For example, A teacher using sarcasm to get a point across, or teacher making fun of the book.
College Life Stereotypes */Teacher used humor attempts related to the course material and targeting
stereotypical college behaviors. For example, Teacher uses stereotypical behavior, e.g., partying, not
studying, as examples, Ask us what types of beer we prefer when they need examples to show the
demand of things, or Using slang that students use when they are discussing topics.
Directed Towards Student/Teasing */Teacher employed humor attempts related to the material and,
at the same time directed towards students. For example, Using a student in a demonstration that
was humorous and harmless.
Teacher Performance */Teacher used humor attempts related to class material that involved some
type of animated performance. For example, A marketing professor runs around the classroom
and gets really excited about topics, My teacher made a rap about math, or Doing the voice of
Columbus while talking about voyages to America.
Role Playing/Activities */Teacher used humor attempts related to course material that involved
student role play or activities. For example, Staged events in class that were funny but made a
point, or We did a skit about what we were learning.
Creative Language Usage */Teacher used humor attempts related to the course material that
involved creative language or word play. For example, Teachers come up with funny mnemonic
devices to help us remember important material, or Talks of bacteria as little beasties or little
guys.
II. Humor Unrelated to Class Material. This category included any humor used by the professor
that did not relate to learning or classroom enhancement.
Stories */ Teacher humor attempts that involved stories that were not related to the class material.
For example, Sometimes teachers will go off on tangents and just tell stories for the heck of it.
Jokes */Teacher humor attempts that involved jokes that were not related to the course material.
For example, He said that they are celebrating 15 years of not killing one another, also known as an
anniversary.
Critical/Cynical */Teacher humor attempts that involved critical or cynical humor that was not
related to the course material. For example, Poking fun at ignorant behaviors, negative ways of
thinking, or other professors, or General sarcasm.
Directed Towards Student/Teasing */Teacher humor attempts that were not related to the course
material and involved teasing or making fun of a student. For example, My teacher teased a girl in
my class about a guy she has seen her with.
College Life Stereotypes */Teacher used humor attempts that were not related to the course material
and targeted stereotypical college behaviors. For example, They have made funny comments on the
typical college student (procrastinators, clothing, weekend habits, etc.)
Appropriate and Inappropriate Humor 187
Table 1 (Continued )

Teacher Performance */Teacher used humor attempts that were not related to class material and
involved some type of animated performance. For example, Making faces at the class, or Jumped
up on desk and started acting like a monkey.
Creative Language Usag e */Teachers used humor attempts that were not related to the course
material and involved creative language or word play. For example, Teachers using puns, or Plays
on words which are humorous.
Current Events/Political */Teachers used humor attempts that were not related to the course
material and involved current events or politics. For example, He brings in current issues in the
world and finds humor out of them.
Using Media or External Objects */Humor attempts that were not related to the course material and
involved the use of props or different types of media to enhance learning. For example, Showing
pictures of funny things, or He likes to play random assortments of music before class.
III. Self-Disparaging Humor. This type of humor involves jokes, stories or comments in which an
instructor criticizes, pokes fun of or belittles himself/herself.
Make Fun of Himself/Herself (nonspecific) */Humor attempts targeting the teacher in a general
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way. For example, A teacher making fun of himself.


Make Fun of Personal Characteristics */Humor attempts targeting personal characteristics of the
teacher. For example, When a teacher joked about his eyesight and clumsiness.
Tell Embarrassing Stories */Teacher shares embarrassing stories in an attempt to be funny. For
example, Teacher telling life stories that may have been embarrassing for them, or put them in a
awkward situation.
Make Fun of Mistakes Made in Class */In an attempt to be funny the teacher makes fun of a mistake
he/she made. For example, Poking fun at themselves for a mistake they have made in class.
Make Fun of Abilities */In an attempt to be funny the teacher might make fun of his/her abilities.
For example, Teachers often refer to themselves as stupid.
IV. Unintentional or Unplanned Humor. The teacher did not intend to be funny, but the students
found his/her behavior to be humorous. Examples: Unintentional puns and slips of the tongue.

The offensive humor category comprised 30% of the examples of inappropriate


humor attempts. There were a number of different types or subcategories of offensive
humor, namely, humor identified as sexual comments and jokes, vulgar verbal and
nonverbal expressions, associated with drinking, nonspecific inappropriate jokes
or comments, personal in nature, related to drugs or illegal activities, morbid,
or sarcastic. The top three most frequently identified types of offensive humor were
sexual comments and jokes (35%), vulgar verbal and nonverbal expressions
(27%), and humor associated with drinking (13%). Seventy-five percent of the
responses in this category were sexual or vulgar, or dealt with drinking alcohol.
The final category of inappropriate humor, self-disparaging humor, represented
only 1% of the examples obtained. Examples consisted of instances when the
professor belittled or otherwise made fun of themself. Table 3 provides descriptions
of each inappropriate humor category and subcategories. Table 4 includes the
number of responses obtained for each category and subcategory.

Discussion
A primary goal of this research was to begin to understand the competent use of
humor as a teaching strategy, by first examining and differentiating appropriate and
188 M. B. Wanzer et al.

Table 2 Appropriate Humor Frequencies


Category No. of responses Percentage of category

Related Humor
Humor Related to Material (tactic not specific) 24 7
Using Media or External Objects to Enhance Learning 65 19
Jokes 48 14
Examples 46 14
Stories 43 13
Critical/Cynical 24 7
College Life Stereotypes 21 6
Directed Towards Student/Teasing 19 6
Teacher Performance 17 5
Role Playing/Activities 15 4
Creative Language Usage 14 4
Total 336 47
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Humor Unrelated to Class Material


Stories 63 20
Jokes 53 17
Critical/Cynical 44 14
Directed Towards Student/Teasing 44 14
College Life Stereotypes 44 14
Teacher Performance 32 10
Creative Language Use 15 5
Current Events/Political 11 3
Using Media/External Objects 10 3
Total 316 44
Self-Disparaging Humor
Make Fun of Himself/Herself (nonspecific) 18 27
Make Fun of Personal Characteristics 22 33
Tell Embarrassing Stories 13 20
Make Fun of Mistakes Made In Class 8 12
Make Fun of Abilities 5 8
Total 66 9
Unintentional or Unplanned Humor 3 0.5
Unintentional Humor
Grand total 712

inappropriate humor in the classroom. On a very basic level, our thesis was
confirmed in that students had no trouble identifying both appropriate and
inappropriate examples of humor used by teachers. The humor categories identified
in this study also overlapped considerably with previous research (Bryant, Comisky,
& Zillmann, 1979; Gorham & Christophel, 1990), providing evidence of validity for
these humor types. For example, Gorham and Christophels category of brief
tendentious (self-deprecating) comments directed at self (p. 52) is similar to the
self-disparaging humor categories generated in the present study. Also, Gorham
and Christophel identified categories of related and unrelated humor similar to the
present study. Bryant et al. also noted humor as related or unrelated to course content
and identified humor that was disparaging to teachers, students, or others, as was
found in the present study. This overlap provides internal validity for these humor
Appropriate and Inappropriate Humor 189

Table 3 Categories and Subcategories of Inappropriate Teacher Humor


I. Offensive Humor. Humor in this category included any types of humor that were clearly
identified as offensive in nature and not necessarily targeted at a specific person or persons.
Sexual Jokes/Comments */Teacher tells sexual jokes or makes sexual comments in an attempt to be
humorous. For example, I had a health class in which the teacher would make graphic jokes about
sex.
Vulgar Verbal and Nonverbal Expressions */Teacher uses vulgar verbal or nonverbal expressions. For
example, Swearing, Flipping the bird to students in class, or Carrying or wearing something
that is derogatory.
Drinking */ In an attempt to be funny, the teacher will make references to drinking or alcohol. For
example, When a teacher talks about getting drunk, or I find it offensive when professors always
use examples pertaining to alcohol.
Inappropriate Jokes */Teacher tells inappropriate jokes in class. For example, Teachers crack jokes
that do not relate to the lesson, or My English teacher told a few inappropriate jokes.
Personal Life */In an attempt to be funny, the teacher tells stories about his/her personal life. For
example, Teacher always told stories about herself, son, and dog in the middle of lectures. It was
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basically a waste of time.


Drugs/Illegal Activities */Teacher humor attempts that involved discussion of drugs or illegal
activities. For example, Talking about inappropriate things such as pornography and drugs.
Morbid Humor */Teacher humor attempts that involve discussions about death or another related
morbid topic. For example, In a law class, professor tells cases of when people died or got hurt in a
humorous manner.
Sarcasm */ Teacher humor attempts that involve sarcasm. For example, When we asked him how
to do a problem he would say something such as with a pencil.
II. Disparaging Humor Student Target . Humor in this category is clearly disparaging in nature and
targets students as a group or individual students.
Students (as a group)
Nonspecific Response */Teacher humor attempts that targeted students in a nonspecific way. For
example, Jokes that spoke about all students in general and made fun of them.
Based on Intelligence */Teacher humor attempts that targeted students intelligence. For example,
Teacher referred to a group of students as the living brain dead.
Based on Gender */Teacher humor attempts that targeted students based on gender. For example,
One teacher actually advised girls to take home education instead of physical education.
Based on Appearance */Teacher humor attempts that targeted students appearance. For example, A
professor making reference to the number of students that wear clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch.
One Student (singled out)
Nonspecific Response *T / eacher humor attempts that targeted a single student in a nonspecific way.

For example, Anytime when a teacher puts another student down in front of others just to get a
laugh from the class.
Based on Intelligence */Teacher humor attempts that target a specific students intelligence. For
example, Calling someone stupid in a humorous way, or Making fun of a students answer, even
though the student was serious about it.
Based on Students Personal Life/Opinions/Interests */Teacher humor attempts that target a specific
students personal life, opinions or interests. For example, A comment made to demean someone
who has expressed their opinion, or Making fun of a students personal life.
Based on Appearance */Teacher humor attempts that involved targeting a specific students
appearance. For example, A particular teacher would personally attack people by making fun of
their clothes or the way they looked.
Based on Gender */Teacher humor attempts that involved targeting a specific student based on
gender. For example, Teacher made a very sexual comment in class towards a female and then
laughed.
Based on Religion */Teacher humor attempts that targeted a specific student based on religion. For
example, The student was of Indian decent and a practicing Hindu. The teacher mocked her by
saying, Go worship your cow.
190 M. B. Wanzer et al.
Table 3 (Continued )

III. Disparaging Humor: Other Target. Humor attempts in this category are clearly disparaging
in nature, and are targeted at individuals or groups other than students.
Using stereotypes in general */Teacher humor attempts that involved use of stereotypes in a general
way. For example, Excessive use of stereotypes in jokes.
Targeting Gender Groups */Teacher humor attempts that involved targeting males or females. For
example, Our teacher sometimes stereotypes certain sexes and makes jokes about them.
Targeting Ethnic or Racial Groups */Teacher humor attempts that involved targeting particular
racial or ethnic groups. For example, I have a teacher that regularly makes fun of different ethnic/
cultural groups, or A teacher would make generalizations about a race, and make fun of that race
in class.
Target is University Related */Teacher humor attempts that involved targeting university staff. For
example, Making fun of other teachers, or Making fun of certain organizations at the school.
Targeting Religious Groups */Teacher humor attempts that involved targeting certain religions
groups. For example, Several professors have made references to religion, especially Christianity, in
belittling terms.
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Targeting persons of a given sexual orientation */Teacher humor attempts that involved targeting
people based on sexual orientation. For example, Making fun of sexual orientation, or Jokes
referring to gays.
Targeting persons of a given appearance */Teacher humor attempts that involved targeting people
based on their appearance. For example, Telling blonde jokes.
Political motivation */Teacher humor attempts that involved targeting people based on their
political affiliations. For example, Humor which is politically motivated, therefore projecting their
views upon you.
IV. Self-Disparaging Humor. This type of humor involves a professor criticizing, poking fun of or
belittling himself/herself. Example: Professor says, I am such an idiot! to the class or performs a
similar self-disparaging.

types, allowing us to more confidently describe how teachers use humor in the
classroom. However, the typology presented here is much more detailed and more
clearly illustrates the distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate humor
types than previous typologies. This research offers a more complete and detailed
picture of both positive and negative classroom humor behaviors and can be used to
guide instructors who want to use humor appropriately and effectively.
Eight major categories, four appropriate and four inappropriate, of teacher humor
were identified with corresponding subcategories. The major categories identified the
general direction of the humor (e.g., related, unrelated, offensive, and disparaging),
while the subcategories described the specific form the humor took within that
category (e.g., jokes, stories, and role-playing). Almost all of the appropriate humor
examples fell into the broad categories of related and unrelated humor, with self-
disparaging and unplanned humor representing less than 10% of the sample of
appropriate responses. The most frequently recognized type of related humor was
media/external objects comprising 19% of the sample of related humor. Instructors
varied greatly in the types of external aids/media they brought into the class. A
number of instructors reportedly brought in related cartoons, movie excerpts, or
newspaper articles, while others went so far as to dress in costumes to fit the subject
matter discussed in the class. Another subcategory of related humor was instructor
performances that included examples such as math rap songs, or doing voices of
Appropriate and Inappropriate Humor 191

Table 4 Inappropriate Humor Frequencies


Category No. of responses Percentage of category

Offensive Humor
Sexual Jokes/Comments 54 35
Vulgar Verbal and Nonverbal Expressions 42 27
Drinking 21 13
Inappropriate Jokes 12 8
Personal Life 9 6
Drugs/Illegal Activities 8 5
Morbid Humor 8 5
Sarcasm 2 1
Total 156 30
Disparaging Humor: Student Target
Students as a group (17% of the category)
Nonspecific Response 11 5
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Based on Intelligence 21 10
Based on Gender 2 1
Based on Appearance 1 1
One student singled out (83% of the category)
Nonspecific Response 51 24
Based on Intelligence 55 26
Based on Students Personal Life/Opinions/Interests 37 17
Based on Appearance 20 9
Based on Gender 12 6
Based on Religion 2 1
Total 212 42
Disparaging Humor: Other Target
Using Stereotypes in General 7 5
Targeting Gender Groups 47 34
Targeting Racial/Ethnic Groups 42 30
Target is University Related (e.g., teachers) 16 12
Targeting Religious Groups 9 7
Targeting Sexual Orientation 7 5
Targeting Appearance 6 4
Political Motivation 4 3
Total 138 27
Self-Disparaging Humor
Self-Disparaging humor 7 1
Grand Total 513

famous people. These thespian-types of instructors seemed more comfortable taking


risks and employing more dramatic or active types of humor in the class. We might
expect these instructors to be higher in humor orientation than most (Booth-
Butterfield & Booth-Butterfield, 1991; Wanzer, Booth-Butterfield, & Booth-Butter-
field, 1995).
Almost one half of the examples of inappropriate humor could be found in the
disparaging students category and included disparaging students as individuals and
as groups. Groups of students were disparaged based on their intelligence, gender, or
appearance. Similarly, students singled out by an instructor were disparaged on the
basis of their intelligence, personal opinions, appearance, gender, or religion. Because
192 M. B. Wanzer et al.

the use of such humor often attacks students self concept, we might describe it as a
form of verbal aggression (Infante, Riddle, Horvath, & Tumlin, 1992). These verbally
aggressive attempts at humor can include character attacks, competence attacks,
criticisms of physical appearance, and teasing. Interestingly, while verbally aggressive
teachers might explain away their behavior by saying they are only being funny
(Infante et al., 1992), students may not similarly agree.
The second most frequently identified type of inappropriate teacher humor was
labeled offensive humor and included a variety of subcategories. Students were
most likely to identify humor that was sexual, vulgar, and related to drinking alcohol
as offensive. Students also indicated, to a lesser extent, that humor about ones
personal life, drugs, and death was offensive. Some of the instances of humor
included in this category could also be identified as forms of verbal aggression. For
example, one instructor reportedly gave his students the finger, a nonverbal
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emblem recognized by Infante and colleagues (1992) as a type of verbally aggressive


behavior. Examples included in this category comprised one-third of the sample of
inappropriate teacher humor.
The third most frequently recognized type of inappropriate humor was labeled
disparaging others and included humor attempts targeting nonstudent groups of
people. Others were targeted based on gender, race, university affiliations, religion,
sexual orientation, appearance, or political affiliations. Again, these types of humor
might be considered inappropriate because they are perceived as verbally aggressive.
To competently use humor as a teaching strategy, the humor must help achieve the
teaching goal (effectiveness) and do so without offending students (appropriateness).
Humor related to course content has been consistently found in research (Bryant
et al., 1979; Gorham & Christophel, 1990) and most likely helps students learn the
content by gaining their attention and making the content memorable. However,
teachers have other goals as well, such as creating a positive teacher student /

relationship, generating a positive classroom climate, or reducing student anxiety.


Humor that is unrelated to the content or self-disparaging may be particularly
effective at achieving these types of goals.
With regard to appropriateness, most of the humor examples identified as
inappropriate were disparaging to students, others, or self (teacher), forming three of
the four inappropriate humor categories. Therefore, insulting individual students, or
others with whom they identify, is frequently viewed as inappropriate. This result is
consistent with Spitzberg and Cupachs (1984) conceptualization of appropriateness.
To review, appropriateness is related to social rules, norms, and expectations. Social
norms in most contexts direct us to be complimentary or to at least withhold
disparaging remarks about the person with whom we are speaking. To disparage a
person, or their associates, mostly likely violates social norms and expectations.
Disparaging remarks can also be described as verbally aggressive, a highly destructive
form of communication that often involves attacking the self-concept or self-worth of
others and inflicting psychological pain (Infante & Wigley, 1986; Infante et al., 1992).
A verbal attack from an authority figure (instructor) in a public context (classroom)
violates classroom norms and expectations, making such behavior inappropriate by
Appropriate and Inappropriate Humor 193

most standards. Individuals who are verbally aggressive often lack the necessary skills
to communicate more competently (Infante & Wigley, 1986). Spitzberg and Cupach
(1984) consider communication skills to be one of three necessary components for
competence (motivation and knowledge being the other two). Therefore, to use
humor competently, the humor needs to help the instructor accomplish a goal, and
the humor should not be used to attack students or those with whom they are
affiliated.
This study offers some valuable information for instructors who want to enhance
their humor competence. Based on this study, instructors should avoid using humor
targeting a particular student or group of students and joking about a students
intelligence, personal life/interests, appearance, gender, or religion. Additionally,
instructors should refrain from using humor targeting students in-groups or using
sexual or vulgar types of humor. Instructors who use humor while teaching should
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closely examine their humor in relation to the categories identified in this research to
assess their level of appropriateness. Instructors should keep in mind that 47% of the
appropriate examples were related to course content. Students viewed this type of
humor as appropriate because it helped them to relate to the material and recall
information. Such humor also served to make the class interesting and improve the
classroom climate. Previous research (Davies & Apter, 1980; Ziv, 1979) has
recognized the attention-gaining effect of humor that helps students retention.
Students appear to appreciate humor used in this manner.

Future Research
One of the more intriguing findings in this study is the overlap between appropriate
and inappropriate categories of humor. For example, humor targeted at students was
identified as both appropriate and inappropriate. When identified as appropriate,
students described the humor as teasing (subcategory 8 under related humor and
subcategories 4 and 5 under unrelated), but when identified as inappropriate,
students described the humor more negatively, as is reflected in the first three
inappropriate categories. For 44% of the appropriate humor examples, students
indicated the humor was not related to course content and included jokes, stories,
and sarcasm, along with other forms of humor. Although these examples were
described differently than the examples in the inappropriate categories, there is
clearly overlap, particularly with regard to sarcasm, personal stories, and jokes. These
data do not allow us to analyze the true similarities and differences between these
examples. Did students consider these humor forms as appropriate because of the
content of the humorous behavior, the instructors skill at delivering the humor, or
the nature of the existing student teacher relationship? Moreover, to what extent is
/

each humor type effective at achieving classroom goals? Are students more likely to
interpret humor as appropriate if it helps them achieve their goals (e.g., to learn or to
feel comfortable)? Finally, because previous research on humor orientation illustrates
a positive association between humor orientation and communication competence
(Wanzer et al., 1995), might we expect humor orientation to influence teachers
194 M. B. Wanzer et al.

reliance on more appropriate or inappropriate humor behaviors? These questions are


clearly beyond the scope of the current research but provide the basis for future
research on humor in the classroom.

Study Limitations
While this study extends previous research and provides us with a more in-depth
understanding of the use of humor in the classroom, it is not without limitations. A
weakness of these data is the reliance on students recall of instructors uses of humor.
How accurately students were able to recall teacher behavior is unknown. The nature
of this methodology may have resulted in students recalling the most extreme and
memorable examples and failing to recall the more mundane instances. However, the
overlap in categories between the present typology and Gorham and Christophels
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indicates this was not a significant problem. Another limitation of this study was that
some students did not specify the type of humor employed. With follow-up
interviews or prompts, we might have obtained greater specificity. The nonspecific
response subcategories in the disparaging humor category are more likely a function
of the student responses than the teacher humor behaviors.
The present study extends our knowledge of teachers use of humor in the
classroom and identifies specific humor behaviors that students perceive as
appropriate and inappropriate. Spitzberg and Cupachs (1984) theory of commu-
nication competence successfully served as a framework for understanding humor.
This theoretical approach has the potential to help instructional scholars to
understand a variety instructional communication variables and instructional
communication competence more generally.

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Received June 10, 2005


Accepted October 27, 2005