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Humor in Online Teaching. Risks and rewards of using humor in distance learning—and why some professors wrestle with online levity

Humor in Online Teaching. Risks and rewards of using humor in distance learning—and why some professors wrestle with online levity

by George Stanley Reeley & Christal Curtis
November 21, 2017


There is a common phrase penned by Margaret Wolf Hungerford; beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This phrase was published in the book Molly Bawn in 1878. It means what is appealing to some may be unattractive to others. This can also apply to humor in online teaching. What makes one laugh can make another cringe or have no emotional response at all. The art of making a person laugh is just that--an art. The definition shifts a bit when speaking of humor in the world of distance learning. The use of humor can be difficult when not used appropriately or inappropriately. It can be misinterpreted by students and administrators which forces college professors to minimize their own personality style in student interactions which thwarts building a rapport. In the asynchronous learning environment we will discuss what humor is appropriate, what is not, and how humor can be applied to build better relationships that ultimately foster an effective and enjoyable learning environment. This article explores the use of humor in online teaching and distance learning, the risks of humor in distance learning, infusing personality into the educational topic and the benefits.

It’s No Laughing Matter

Nowadays, in our world of political correctness, the online professor faces greater risks than ever before—and in this article, whether or not to be funny. Okay, funny is a relative term; however, studies show that using levity as a teaching technique within a more relaxed learning environment can be a double edged sword for the online instructor. Most online schools ask that professors add their personal spin into the classroom to help students feel they are dealing with a human on the other side of the screen and not a robot. However, we as online professors cannot observe a student’s body language, nor can we sense if we’ve crossed the line in an attempt to create a virtual classroom with a bit of fun added in. Indeed, this writer has faced—and passed over countless opportunities to make a joke, but chose not to risk potentially offending the student or the class. For example, let's say a student’s name reads like a cough drop, a candy bar, a holiday, or even a controversial political figure, but to make light of these apparent coincidences could cause the student to feel targeted, to shut down, or drop out of class.

While humor can be a vehicle to diffuse stress and quell preconceived notions students may hold toward their professor, studies show that political correctness is widespread within academia and perhaps should simply be avoided. Humor in the online learning environment might seem an obvious choice to build closer ties with students, yet online professors particularly must be extremely cautious of how, when, and what type of humor to use that can build relationships between themselves and their students, not destroy them.

Consequently, online professors often struggle or shy away from using humor in the asynchronous learning environment because using it can be highly personal, and through the technology we are unable to detect an immediate positive reaction to what we believe to be mutually humorous. Some educators consider their role or their topic as too serious to engage in humor, or view humor as merely a possible disruption (Garner, 2006). Infusing a personality style into distance learning means identifying one’s personal style. There are two parts to our personalities that are in constant interaction: culture (which comes from upbringing and teachings about beliefs, acting and saying) and temperament (which comes from biology, genes, hormones and neurotransmitters). There also four biological systems – dopamine/norepinephrine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen/oxytocin--each linked to a particular collection of personality traits (Beard, 2017). While researching information for this article, relevant parameters emerged used by Match.com, which is an on-line dating service. For instance, people who are expressive in the estrogen/oxytocin system are intuitive, imaginative, trusting, empathetic, and contextual long-term thinkers. They are sensitive to people’s feelings too, and typically have good verbal and social skills (Beard, 2017). Those traits or skills sound like descriptors of a good instructor. To learn more about personality styles the cornerstone of many different assessments is the Myers-Briggs scale. It explores personality traits that align with behaviors that are beneficial in and outside of the work place. There are 16 in all and each identify which style and what type of humor each trait exhibits. Nonetheless, humor helps bring people together through shared frames of reference which are often framed through the jokes told. Humor raises motivation, lengthens attention span, and helps create a fun relaxed classroom community (Lems, 2011). So, what’s the big deal?

Humor Risks

If one had searched the Internet, on July 17, 2017 via the Google search engine and typed the phrase teachers who have been fired because of Facebook versus teachers who have been fired because of telling a joke; the contrast in hits was apparent. One million eight hundred thousand for Facebook, and for telling a joke there were thirty six million five hundred thousand. Clearly there is a risk in telling a joke. Administrators monitor this type of activity because the reputation of the school is at risk and in today’s law suite climate risk of losing revenue and accreditation cannot be minimized. Protected classes in employment law such as those in the Federal Law Title VII (race, color, sex, age, religion, national origin, citizenship, or a disability); and under some state law recognized protected classes are marital status, sexual orientation, tobacco/alcohol use, HIV/AIDS, arrest/criminal conviction, weight, personal appearance are boundaries for humor (Walsh, 2010).

In 2012, a substitute teacher in Los Angeles was openly discussing a hatred for Jews at a rally and was caught on YouTube. The teacher was fired though not in the classroom (Ruttimann, 2012). In contrast, a professor in New York (showing a documentary about the Colorado movie shootings) was suspended for forty five days after telling a joke about the hair color of the suspect in the Colorado movie shootings (Press, 2012). In short, so-called humor can be risky whether in an on-ground classroom or online.

Appropriate or Not Appropriate

When to use humor is a challenge, and in the current climate of political correctness what kind of humor causes trepidation in educators. For humor to be effective in the academic setting, it has to be specific, targeted and appropriate to the subject matter (Garner, 2006). The inappropriate use of humor is when the humor is directed at a person, or their specific actions. There is a delicate line that distinguishes comfort and discomfort when humor is used in regard to personal, intimate or stigmatized issues. Humor can alienate and push people away from the discussion if the humor is viewed as being out of place, inappropriate or unnecessary (Cooper, 2013). Feeling depressed? Read on for a few tips on using humor appropriately that just might work.

Humor Tips in the Asynchronous Learning Environment

  • Make it specific and relevant to the class topic
  • Be upbeat in your communication; Use positive and encouraging word choice
  • Take a personality assessment to identify personal humorous attributes
  • Use witty or catchy phrases in the subject line of emails to students
  • Use a pun or word play to increase engagement
  • Get a joke book about the topic such as 777 Great clean jokes by J. Hahn
  • Establish a joke of the day or week
  • Be transparent with students about things that are funny about the class based on past experience
  • Keep a file of successful humorous puns, word play, jokes or stories based on concluded classes
  • Contact students to determine successful vehicles chosen throughout coursework


In the asynchronous learning environment humor can be appropriately used, and is meant to build better relationships and ultimately foster an effective learning environment. This article explored the use of humor in distance learning, how and when to use it, the risks of humor in distance learning, infusing personality into the educational topic and the benefits. Instructors, professors and administrators should make humor a topic for discussion in academic circles. By doing so, it will be better for students and allow professors to maximize their own personality style in student interactions to building a rapport—and perhaps coax a few chuckles.


Beard, A. (2017). "IF YOU UNSTERSTAND HOW THE BRAIN WORKS, YOU CAN REACH ANYONE". Harvard Business Review, 60-62

Cooper, S. &. (2013). Just jokes! Icebreakers, inniendo, teasing and talking: The role of hunour in HIV/Aids peer education among univesity students. African Journal of AIDS Research, 229-238.

Garner, R. (2006). HUMOR IN PEDAGOGY; HOW HA-HA CAN LEAD TO AHA! College Teaching, 177=180.

Lems, K. (2011). Pun Works Helps English Learners Get the Joke. Reading Teacher, 65-72.

Press, T. A. (2012, September 13). NY prof won't be fired over Colo shootings joke. New York Times.

Ruttimann, L. (2012). Zionist Jews Need to Be Run Out of the Country. Conference Board Review, 70-71.

Walsh, D. (2010). Employement Law for Human Resource Practice. Mason: Cengage Learning.