“Our brains are engaged full time in real-time (risky) heuristic search, generating presumptions about what will be experienced next in every domain. This time-pressured, unsupervised generation process has necessarily lenient standards and introduces content-not all of which can be properly checked for truth-into our mental spaces. If left unexamined, the inevitable errors in these vestibules of consciousness would ultimately continue on to contaminate our world knowledge store. So there has to be a policy of double-checking these candidate beliefs and surmisings, and the discovery and resolution of these at breakneck speed is maintained by a powerful reward system-the feeling of humor; mirth-that must support this activity in competition with all the other things you could be thinking about.”
— Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams., Jr.

This fascinating treatise on humor began as Matthew M. Hurley’s dissertation, completed in 2006. It offers both a history of humor theory and an attempt (impressive, to my mind) at quantifying both the “whys” and “hows” of humor. No mere joke book, this instead is an exploration of not only why and how we laugh but where the phenomenon of humor comes from, how it manifests, and the way it exists in social contexts. I included this text on a whim after hearing it discussed, and I find that it is somewhat compatible with my thinking–certainly it has something to say about pleasure and inclusion–but overall I am not certain I can directly adapt much of it for pedagogical use.

That said, I will attempt to give reasonable answers to my questions, though I do not foresee this text remaining one of specific academic interest for me–owing entirely to the direction of my interests, not at all to the excellent quality of the work itself.

Questions and Answers

1. Considering Adichie’s description of being unable to perceive herself as included in a particular community until she had seen herself welcome there, how can we use Johnson’s pleasure-oriented “renegade rhetoric” to create a more inclusive academic community that encourages students to be active, engaged participants rather than feel academics are a toil inflicted upon them?

This question is not particularly compatible with the text. I note that the text indicates that humor can be used to strengthen and define communities and that humor may have some valuable neuropsychological effects, but this is only an indirect parallel to Johnson’s thinking.

2. In the text, identify a specific community that is discussed. What role does inclusion in and engagement with that community play in forming an identity (both as an individual and as part of said community) that serves to facilitate the goals of liberation and critical consciousness as put forth by Paulo Freire and bell hooks?

The text does not discuss liberation as such, though it makes a number of interesting references to inclusion in a community, such as its assertion that “The humor of a situation is dependent upon knowledge that you may or may not have” (Kindle loc. 454). Knowledge, here, becomes key to inclusion. The knowledge must also work in a particular way with the context of the joke, or it won’t work: “This draws attention to another important feature of humor: It is not just dependent on background knowledge; the way that background knowledge is exploited is critical. This is why explaining a joke drains it of its humor. It is typically the case that telling a joke in the wrong order ruins it” (Kindle loc. 469).

In many cases, this depends on things going without being said–certainly a common trait within communities–to the end that “Dennett (1987, p. 76) notes that many jokes are enthymematic. That is, they depend on leaving one or more ‘premises’ tacit or unexpressed. In a successful telling of the joke, the enthymematic expression provokes the audience to ‘fill in’ an implication or assumption, or even a series of assumptions, without which no humor can be detected” (Kindle locs. 474-475).

Indeed, the illusion of universal appeal may only in the end indicate the limits of our understanding of universality: “One can only laugh about what one can think about in a particular order and way. The folk notion that humor is ‘universal’ is actually an artifact of a misunderstanding of statistical samples: since most of the people we encounter in contexts where humor might arise do share a massive amount of common knowledge with us, the idea that everybody would see the humor in anything that was “really funny” naturally arises and seems to receive confirmation” (Kindle locs. 486-489).

3. How can seeking to orient toward pleasure and satisfaction as pedagogical modes be designed to specifically address the concepts of varied learning styles, multiple intelligences, and the highly varied backgrounds (personal, cultural, academic) of students?

Hurley, Dennett, and  Adams note that “Saying, informatively, what humor is proves to be as difficult as saying what redness is. We all know these things well from our own private experience, but something prevents us from engaging in any further analysis of those experiences. It may seem that we are even unable to tell if our own mirth or our subjective experience of red is similar to others'” (Kindle loc. 359). Thus, humor may be as individual as any other form of intelligence or learning style, and every personal context for any given humor may be to some degree unique to an individual. This certainly resonates with the idea of needing to make room for such varied individual aptitudes and perspectives in order to be more fully inclusive.

4. What can we learn about learning, both as students and teachers, by studying the ostensibly enjoyment-oriented concept and practice of “play”? What connects pleasure and play–enjoyment and engagement–to learning, cognition, and individual development?

I am hesitant to attempt to draw this connection, as the text does not make specific claims about learning. However, the text does assert that the capacity for humor is an inevitable aspect of human-like intelligence. Therefore, it may not be an entirely wild leap to speculate that the capacity for humor–as a form of pleasure–is key to human cognition, which offers at least some perspective on the phenomenology of learning. The text also notes the inevitable limitation of how well any one mind can understand another, due to the differences between them: “While the intentional stance allows us to conceive of things that others believe, we must realize that such conceptions are simulative, not completely faithful representations of the contents of another mind. We do our best to represent the thoughts of our fellow humans, but without access to their experiential histories we can only approximate their beliefs based on our own historical knowledge and a number of heuristics” (Kindle locs. 1887-1889).

5. In considering the concept of “inclusion,” how can a focus on student pleasure and engagement in academic pursuits serve to address fundamental questions of complex exclusion and divided identities? Consider this discussion in terms of a borderland, such as discussed by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera. Students’ language is a kind of homeland for them, a place they have long occupied; what divisions and exclusions are we asking them to navigate (within and without) by asking them to learn to write and use language “correctly” without including their own pre-existing language—their own territory, as it were—into the process?

There is little broad discussion of language in the text, but the authors do attempt to document the varied effects of different functions and manifestations of humor across linguistic and cultural borders. They note, “An informal survey of linguists and native speakers of a number of languages shows that, although far from universal, it is quite common for there to be a term for funny-ha-ha that carries a second sense that means something along the lines of unusual, strange, unexpected, illogical, or senseless” (Kindle locs. 418-424).

The same is observed of gender, in particular the problem that social circumstances tend to place greater value on males as the sources of humor and women as the recipients: “In his studies of conversational laughter, female listeners laughed far more often than did male listeners, regardless of the gender of the speaker, and male speakers were met with far more laughter than female speakers by either gender of listener” (Kindle locs. 501-502). Here, at least, we see a borderland created by unequal social constructions of gender.

I cannot entirely reconcile these observations with my question(s), but these are the connections I observed.


Hurley, Matthew M., Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams, Jr. Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind. London: MIT, 2011. Kindle edition.