You Don't Know What You've Got till It's Gone: Using a Sense of Humor to Rebuild Community in the Classroom

Last night, my classroom was broken into, and all of the dictionaries were stolen. I’m lost for words.

Forgive me. Incorporating corny and predictable humor replete with puns is a critical component of my repartee. Having raised three children to adulthood, I have fine-tuned the age-old art of “dad humor” through hours of dedicated practice.

I am a self-professed dad humorist, not just in my personal life but also in my community college social sciences classroom. Effective deployment is spontaneous and natural. Much as if I were performing in an open-mic comedy night, I draw my material from the audience and the topic at hand.

The rhythm of my spiel has suffered greatly during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, I rarely reflected on my teaching style and why it is effective. Teaching during the pandemic has helped me understand that incorporating humor and fun in the classroom is not just filler. I use humor to bring my students to a common place, if only for an hour or two.

In fall 2020, my community college held in-person classes with limited numbers of students, with everyone wearing masks and social distancing. Virtual meeting platforms supported students who self-selected to stay home. After just a few weeks, the college switched to an all-virtual model, which continued through the spring 2021 semester. This fall, my college has implemented a combination of online learning and face-to-face instruction with everyone wearing masks.

Not that I am comparing myself to Jerry Seinfeld, but imagine Jerry (we humorists are on a first-name basis) standing in front of a live audience of people wearing masks. Not only would he not see their smiles, but their laughter would also be muffled. In this scenario,we now have “The Masked Audience” rather than “The Masked Singer.” Let’s take this a step further and place Jerry in front of an online audience—the members of which, by the way, choose not to make themselves visible. Of course, the members of this audience also mute their mics, further diminishing the reactions that Jerry counts on to connect with his audience. This virtual audience prefers using emojis to reacting verbally. Thumbs-up and applause emojis are not exactly the type of feedback Jerry and I thrive on.

Typical student reactions to a well-placed pun often include the three “Gs”: groans, guffaws, and subtle grins. Masks muffle and block the feedback that I crave—not necessarily loud laughter but evidence that I’ve made a connection with my students and reached them on a personal level. I miss their smiles. And although I have taken a stab at continuing my dad humor during my Zoom classes, the fact that most students prefer to be off camera has taken a big bite out of my spontaneity and efforts to build connections and community. My teaching feedback loop is severely hampered, and with only one person able to speak at a time, a group reaction is impossible.

Education can survive without dad humor, but I fear that my students will become accustomed to an educational experience that lacks joy and fun. Anecdotally, my teaching colleagues and I have noticed that when students are learning virtually, they act much more as receivers of knowledge than active participants in the learning process. Although grades and evaluations during all-virtual learning indicated that our students grasped the material and could work independently, the experience was not the same. None of the intangibles of the college experience—such as having informal discussions after class—were taking place.

From time immemorial, humans have gathered together for camaraderie, storytelling, smiles, and laughter. We learn about our world and build relationships through humor. These relationships are particularly important for community college students, who typically come to campus for classes and then leave the college community behind as they go to work or handle other off-campus responsibilities. The classroom is often our only chance to provide them with the “college experience”—a social as well as an educational experience.

During all-virtual instruction, these connections suffered, and we experienced teaching in a way that many of us never imagined. Joni Mitchell said it best in her 1970 tune “Big Yellow Taxi”: “Don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” We were taken out of our comfort zones. A barrier existed between my students and me. Initially, we were stumbling around in the dark, but both the students and I searched for ways to improve the process. I encouraged students to activate their video feed, at least for the opening part of the session, but never required anyone to participate in a manner that made them uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the platform and delivery method are inherently uncomfortable and lack the organic growth of community that develops in the traditional classroom environment. I felt this loss during all-virtual learning, and I sense that many of my students did, too.

As we return to at least some in-person learning this fall, educators can value and appreciate what we had prior to the pandemic. We can remember how it felt when we lost our full emotional connection to our students and then make every effort to be fully present, approachable, compassionate, and attentive to those we serve. Educators should be cognizant that our students have experienced hardships and challenges during the pandemic. Perhaps rather than acting as though everything is normal, we should spend some time in class sharing and reflecting on our pandemic experiences. How has the isolation affected us? How has the pandemic disrupted our learning and academic progress? How has it changed our worldviews and outlooks? What can we learn from these experiences that might lead us toward a better world and individual lives? Did we recognize and appreciate what we had once it was gone?

Though things will not feel exactly as they did before the pandemic, I feel confident that my humor can begin to flourish again and help rebuild the sense of fun and community of my classroom. However, I feel that I must take responsibility for making that happen. I set the mood. I set the attitude. I create an environment in which everyone feels safe sharing and there is no such thing as a bad question. I am the leader, the facilitator, and, of course, the director of fun in learning.

So . . . did you know that every year, hundreds of students go off to mime school, never to be heard from again? 


S. Joseph Woodall is a professor of social sciences at Davidson-Davie Community College in North Carolina, a licensed mental health counselor, and a certified clinical sociologist.

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