I never dreamed of being a college professor.
Does anybody? When my third-grade teacher asked us about our dream job, Molly said, “Astronaut.” Evan, “An actor.” Perry: “Obtain a terminal degree and lecture on legal morasses.”
Whether you teach third grade or nuclear physics, every student wants a good laugh. As teacher accountability objectives collide with shorter attention spans, laughter is the secret ingredient to keep everyone on task.
Humor can even be found in the most stressful situations. For example, I tell students that I can’t offer legal advice. But that didn’t stop Steve from calling me after class in a panic: “The judge gave me 10 days for speeding; they’re taking me away!”
So that night, I drove to the DeKalb County jail, where the innkeeper ushered me into a tiny, drab room facing glass. Steve appeared on the other side, looking weary and wearing an ugly, orange jumpsuit.
I never practiced criminal law, so I just put my hand up to the glass and spread my fingers apart because I saw that done on TV. Steve finally smiled and put his hand up to mine. He told me what happened, but all I could do was stare at our mitts and think: “Hey, this TV hand thing really works!”
While Steve’s situation was no laughing matter, I use that story on the first day of class to set the tone for the semester: Understanding the law is serious business and we will laugh and learn a lot together.
To me, humor in the classroom mixes audience participation with storytelling about the quirky world around us. The teacher and students form an improv troupe, working on the day’s subject. Here are my rules of classroom engagement:
Exaggerate to illustrate. Paint an implausible mental picture to reinforce a topic. When we study “self-defense,” a limping crazy man wields a lumberman’s ax and approaches a student track star limbering up for a run. If the crazy man is 200 feet away, does the student have a duty to retreat, or can she pick up and use a submachine gun conveniently left on a park bench?
Expect the unexpected. When a student cellphone rings, the classroom rule is that I get to answer it. And when my phone rang once, the students got to answer it.
I calmed nervous students before a test once by handing my whiteboard marker to a student, dashing away and telling her to wing it at my head (missed me, wide right).
My wife once bought me a pair of Sketchers that I wore to class with some doubts. I sought student opinions by jumping on the computer console table and placing a sole on the document camera, which projected an Imax theater-size image. The original 360-degree tour.
Now you might be thinking that your school won’t permit you to be a jailhouse lawyer, encourage students to fling objects at teachers or leap on expensive technology.
That’s not the point. The most important rule is to always be yourself in the classroom. The world around us is a gold mine of material.
Consider this recent headline, “Man pleads guilty to DUI in motorized recliner.” If the law is funny, so is any subject and, thus, an opportunity to humor up classrooms.
Postscript. I referred Steve to a criminal defense lawyer, but my student still spent three days in jail for speeding.
It would’ve been zero time in jail if he’d had an attorney at the outset, which shows that maybe nothing is funny about the law after all.
Perry Binder, J.D., is a legal studies professor at Georgia State University and the author of “Unlocking Your Rubber Room: 44 Off-the-Wall Lessons to Lighten and Transform Everyday Life.” He blogs at http://yourrubberroom.blog spot.com.
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