Humor in the library classroom or ‘why are we so serious all of the time?’

I just recently came across Mashable’s video about the deep web (embedded below). While not holding your gut as tears roll down your face funny, it is humorous. In my institution we do have videos that discuss the deep web (we use the term hidden web) and to be honest they aren’t funny. They are straightforward and well constructed but not funny. Mashable’s video started me thinking about how academic librarians construct our instruction whether online or in person. To be honest, most of us are serious most of the time. I often wonder why that is.

I’ve been told throughout my life that I am funny but not in a stand up comedian type of funny, in a dry witty way. (I could go into a tangent here about how this is an insult to comedians but I won’t digress.)  I should note here that I don’t consider myself funny. Anyway, in the classroom, any shred of humor I may have with my friends and colleagues goes out the window. I am not sure what it is but I have this mental barrier when it comes to humor related to instruction whether it is in the classroom or through digital learning objects (and frankly, if I am honest with myself, all of my public speaking). I marvel at people who seem to be able to be funny with ease in front of large groups and in the classroom. Is it off the cuff or do they really prepare and practice to be funny?

The best summation of humor I found came ironically from an encyclopedia; certainly not a format one would associate with humor.

Humor is a ubiquitous, pervasive, universal phenomenon potentially present in all situations in which people interact. It is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon involving cognitive, emotional, behavioral, physiological, and social aspects that have a significant effect on individuals, social relations, and even social systems. 1

This definition made me realize that I perhaps make humor bigger then it needs to be. I perceive it as elusive so therefore it will always be elusive. Various research into humor as an effective teaching tool indicates that it helps relax the environment, creates a stronger connection between student and teacher, and can enhance critical thinking.2 However, it has also been found that certain types of humor are better then others such as funny stories/comments, professional humor, and jokes and in the students’ perception the most appropriate.3

In my quest to know more, I am not surprised that over the years, academic librarians have talked about ways to be funny in the classroom. While many students are reluctant to admit it, they do find the overall research process stressful and challenging. In the most recent report on student research behaviors Alison Head specifically examined college freshman. One of the key findings in her research was that

[n]early three-fourths of the sample (74%) said they struggled with selecting keywords and formulating efficient search queries. Over half (57%) felt stymied by the thicket of irrelevant results their online searches usually returned.4

If there is every a time to cut tension it is at a time when students are really struggling. During my short investigation into use of humor in the classroom, I’ve tested the waters a little bit. While I didn’t spend any significant time planning a “comedy routine,” I did keep myself open to opportunities to insert humor. Interestingly, I found the most opportune times to be when exploring selection and use of search terms. Just being aware of current pop culture provides a plethora of humor opportunities.


1. Westwood, Robert. “Humor.” In International Encyclopedia of Organization Studies, edited by Stewart R. Clegg and James R. Bailey, 621-24. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2008. doi:

2. Chabeli, M. “Humor: a pedagogical tool to promote learning.” Curationis 31, no. 3 (2008): 51-59.

3. Torok, Sarah E., Robert F. McMorris, and Lin Wen-Chi. “Is humor an appreciated teaching tool? Perceptions of professors’ teaching styles and use of humor.” College Teaching 52, no. 1 (2004): 14-20.

4. Head, Alison J. Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College. Research Report. Project Information Literacy, December 4, 2013.


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