Advising and Humor

by | August 24, 2008

Alan Alda (or was it Hawkeye Pierce) once said, “When people are laughing, they’re generally not killing each other”. You don’t make it through the dissertation process without a sense of humor and research supports this premise. The article, “The Influence of Graduate Advisor Use of Interpersonal Humor on Graduate Students” published in the Journal of the National Academic Advising Association (Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 2008, pp. 34-72) is a quantitative investigation of the influence of advisor use of interpersonal humor and graduate students.

The Journal article cited a study that listed employment of humor in the course room as the third most desired trait of college professors from a learner’s perspective. That same study linked humor to effective interpersonal communication (p. 54). In addition, another study noted by the researchers suggested that humor most relevant to the content of the class elicited the highest learner satisfaction (p. 55). In additional supporting information, researchers found that learners who regarded their advisors positively tended to progress more rapidly through the dissertation process than did learners who regarded their advisors negatively. Moreover, graduate students who had favorable advisors in graduate school produced more post graduate work than did learners without advisors in graduate schools (p. 58). The findings of the investigation reveal a positive relationship between a learner’s perceptions of his or her advisor’s use of humor (jokes, riddles, puns, funny stories, humorous comments) and the learner’s perception of the advisor’s nonverbal immediacy, social support, mentoring, and the relationship satisfaction reported by the learner (p. 55).

Although, the study did not include online advisors and online learners, and the researchers did not distinguish between faculty advisors and non-faculty advisors, I believe that the results still have relevance for online advisors (both faculty and non-faculty) because online learner populations also need to be put at ease, to remain interested and attentive, to understand and remember a point, and everything else that the use of humor does to help learners learn (p. 56).

Of course, nonverbal immediacy is a challenge for online advisors: eye contact, gestures, facial expression are difficult to gauge online. I suspect that the learner’s perceptions of the advisor’s voice (vocal variety, tone, volume); content and context of message; and listening skills become more relevant than nonverbal immediacy when determining the learner’s perception of an online advisor’s sense of humor. However, the perception of social support (supportive-unsupportive, responsive-unresponsive, helpful-unhelpful, etc.), mentoring, and relationship satisfaction remain relevant.

I would like to explore the use of humor in online advising. Do learners positive perceptions of online advisors speed up graduation rates or influence post graduate work? Is a sense of humor a desired trait for an online advisor?

2 Responses to "Advising and Humor"

  1. Sheryl Hess says:

    Humor can be used as a tool for breaking the ice and making a point. When used effectively it can enhance the rhythm of a conversation by connecting topics.

    I learned the power of humor many years ago when in the midst of a tense situation, laughter exploded. The tension was broken and an attitude adjustment could occur … that simple shift made a resolution possible.

    I’m not saying that we need to yuck it up all the time; there are moments when humor is the most appropriate expression and those moments need to be celebrated.

  2. Lori Schroeder says:

    Humor in face-to-face settings is a tricky thing–some people may not get it , or it could be misinterpreted, or it could flop or backfire. Use of humor in online communication may be even trickier.

    Yet humor is important. It can sustain us and help us cope during challenging times. For me, though, I usually contacted my advisor during times of stress and confusion about the university bureacracy or challenge with technology. A sense of urgency typically surrounded my seeking advisor help, and I would not have welcomed levity. During those times, I needed help—not humor. Laughing at something funny was the last thing I needed or wanted–especially communicated via email. Don’t get me wrong–the first faculty development conference I ever organized at my home institution focused on humor. I titled the conference, “Taking Humor Seriously.”

    Having a relationship, knowing the advisee, too, would help foster an environment that may be conducive to humor. An advisor who knows his or her advisees would be in a better positon to judge if an advisee would be open to humor or just interested in getting the question answered or problem rectified.