Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Humor in the Writing Center

Kurt Vonnegut: A guy who knew how to make people laugh.

Recently, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the place of humor in Writing Center consultations. I think of myself as a pretty funny guy, and I try to bring that humor into my consultation sessions. It is something that I do naturally (humor was highly valued in my family), but I have also seen many other consultants laughing with writers. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that laughter is one telltale sign of a strong session.

Although my experience mainly includes Writing Center work, I believe that humor also plays an important role in instructor-student conferences as well. The best conferences I have had with professors included a lot of laughter.

Humor, when used successfully, has the ability to smooth over human interactions often fraught with anxiety. Students come into the Writing Center nervous about their work, frustrated with the assignment/class/world, scared about what their self-perceived inability to write might mean for their future careers--the list goes on. The consultant must struggle past these initial barriers in order to aid the student with her writing.

And that's where humor comes into play. Humor allows a way in for the consultant. It alleviates the fear the student might be harboring as well as alleviating the anxiety the consultant might be feeling from working with an anxious writer. This allows the consultant to figure out which of the writer's many anxieties are about her writing and which are about issues outside of her control.

When I think back on my own sessions, I see that humor serves another function. Laughing and telling jokes early in a session builds a certain amount of trust and camaraderie. It signals to the writer "We're in this together." That trust becomes very important later on in the session when the consultant begins to critique the student's writing. The camaraderie built early on, through humor, forms the basis of trust necessary for a fruitful conversation about how the student might improve her writing. Humor, fundamentally, is about trust, and trust is integral to a successful consultation.

Of course, humor sometimes goes horrifically awry. During my undergraduate days, I waited tables at the Old Spaghetti Factory. One evening, a man mentioned that he and his family were from Minneapolis. I immediately put on my best Fargo impression and said, "Oh, 'Soters, eh? Thanks for comin' down the road, there." No laughs. No smiles. Just stares colder than a Duluth winter. I felt my tip melting away; I don't think I said another word to the table.

There is a danger to using humor; the joke might go horrifically awry. However, I believe the potential benefit justifies the danger. If I were a student, walking into a Writing Center full of laughter would set my heart at ease.

I am interested in hearing about what other people think about using humor in peer-to-peer or instructor-to-student consultations. What works? What doesn't? Any good stories?


  1. Great job on this, Sean. Your writing is always superb. But this image...oh this image, I love it. I feel like I can smell his breath and feel his funny. Good choice, ST.

  2. I can't not make jokes. Can't stop. Won't stop. (Roc-A-Fella Records).

    Unfortunately, my normal style of leans toward either the obscene or the just plain mean-hearted. I come from the tradition if the school yard dozens--and jokes about genitals.

    Which is why, in WC sessions (and, since you bring up the example of service industry, when I was waiting tables, tending bar and shot-girling) I use a lot of self-depreciating humor. On the one hand, this tends to keep me away from making statements related to what R Kelly might do to a tutee's discovery draft (hint, it rhymes with "miss on")--and as lagniappe, I think it's a good way to let clients see that struggling in writing is not a sign of failure, per se. Instead, it's often part of a successful writing process.

  3. Oh, also, I don't know if it counts as a "joke," but the funniest moment I've had in the WC involved explaining to an international student the difference between "arose" (the word she was looking for) and "arouse" (the word she'd used).