Joking your way to the top

Lecturers are having to make students laugh, as well as teach them, says Don Harding
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There was, of course, a time when lecturing in universities was all about excellence. However, without the general public really being aware of the change, lecturers have been forced, in the age of student feedback, to seek a different, and perhaps more elusive objective: popularity.

The thought that the objectionable student at the back of the class who has been asking awkward and discourteous questions throughout the lectures is going to be able to sit down at the end of the course and write abusive and insulting remarks on your efforts, tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully, particularly if there is a chance of such comments being read out at a meeting of the departmental teaching committee. Some classic comments can be recalled by most university staff, and students can be characteristically blunt and rude. Two of my recent favourites were a comment that "Professor X is a complete prat; he serves no useful purpose on this planet" and the comment about a female colleague that "the whole class thinks there is something the matter with her".

The result of these changes is that, in staff development seminars in universities up and down the land, frantic efforts are being made to produce suggestions as to how lecturers can become more popular. In particular, the debate is on as to how it is possible to get over that dreadful point, some 35 minutes into a 50-minute lecture, where 90 per cent of the class are asleep and even the swot in the front of the class, who has been looking at his watch for 10 minutes, starts to bang it on the desk, convinced that it has stopped.

Not surprisingly, the debate has tended to settle around the use of humour, which many of us lecturers consider to be seriously important. Research has apparently found that some three months after graduating, students have forgotten 80 per cent of what they learned in their course. In my case it was 99 per cent, with the residual 1 per cent simply consisting of the funny bits.

One of the funniest lecturers I ever had was a professor of chemistry who had the dreadful task of teaching us organic (or maybe inorganic) chemistry at 9am on a Saturday morning, in a pongy old building that we all hated. In the middle of his lectures, he always told a major joke, and it is these jokes that form my main recollection of three years of degree study. In one lecture, he came into the class wearing a white lab coat with a piece of rubber tubing and a hammer hanging out of his pocket. He was carrying a flask, which he subsequently explained contained "dry ice". In the middle of the lecture, he dipped the rubber tubing into the dry ice, it became solid and brittle, and he laid it on the desk and shattered it violently with the hammer. He then proceeded to do the same with his thumb. Most of us sat there somewhat stunned, with a distinctly nauseous feeling in the pits of our stomachs; it was reported that in the previous lecture, when he had done this, one student had fainted.

The key to humour in lectures, of course, is to relate it to the subject matter in hand. In one of my fields of interest, measuring river flow using chest-high rubber waders offers promise, combining, as it does, a material of fetishist interest with the possibility (at least in the imagination) that unpopular students (including the swot) are washed off downstream and lost for ever. I must admit, however, that my favourite line of humour is abuse of colleagues, which I find students particularly enjoy when the staff member is unpopular. A simple comment that a young- looking colleague is "only 14" goes down surprisingly well, as does the old joke that an older colleague has been 83 for 16 years. This last joke is a bit unkind, but it's never stopped me using it.

However, revenge against the difficult student must feature in any catalogue of options. If you are a warden of a hall of residence, some interesting possibilities open up. I think all wardens operate on the basic principle of wardening, which is: never, under any circumstances, give the students what they want. Thus, if the troublesome student wishes to leave hall, keep him to his contract and put that Iron Maiden fan from the top floor, who plays his music all night, in the room alongside. If he wants to stay, then get him out with some trumped up disciplinary charge, particularly when all the private sector accommodation is full and there is a real prospect of his spending a few nights on the beach.

Times change, and it is rumoured that soon there will be a personal popularity scoring assessment system for university lecturers, set up to run alongside the teaching and research assessments for departments. The possibility of popularity retraining for those with low scores suggests that all lecturers will be taking this matter seriously in futuren

The writer lectures in the School of Agricultural Sciences and is warden of St Mary's Hall at the University of Wales, Bangor.