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I am a PhD student from central Europe and I am teaching an introductory class on programming at my university.

I know that in the U.S., humour or a joke is often used at the beginning of a presentation. My first 2-3 sentences are right to the point, but I would like to include also a small joke or humour at the beginning.

But what would be a good joke in this situation? A friend of mine suggested to start with "welcome to bird watching 101", just some ridiculous wrong title, or starting with a fun fact about myself.

Any suggestions on how to start with humour?

Background info: last semester my class received a nice award as among the top 5 classes of my rather big university. To some part it was due to the tips I got at stackexchange.com :-) But I would like to constantly improve my teaching.

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Any suggestions on how to start with humour? — Be actually funny (great help, eh?), avoid all possibly sensitive topic. Alternative advice: if you have to think about it, don’t do it… you can’t plan wit! –  F'x Nov 20 '12 at 16:10
I think professional comedians would disagree with "you can't plan wit" –  Suresh Nov 20 '12 at 17:31
Any joke that not especially tailored to your course, character and background will surely be old and overused by now. You really have to go with something subject-specific, or teacher-specific. Try to build your own character in front of the blackboard - in the end teaching is speaking in front of an audience, so it is not too different from acting. –  Federico Poloni Nov 20 '12 at 19:46
@Suresh yeah, but they are professionals… my point was: unless your delivery is very good, don't use a rehearsed joke –  F'x Nov 20 '12 at 20:48
Don't tell this one: Q: Why do programmers think trees have roots at the top and leaves at the bottom? A: They've never been outside. –  JeffE Nov 21 '12 at 1:49
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4 Answers

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I use humor extensively in class. I do not try to get off topic though. I think it is important that the students see the teacher as 'serious.' I do believe that a teacher can use humor but still be serious.

I don't think I ever start a class with a joke. I'm much more likely to start quite directly, giving an overview and stating the importance of the course.

Remember to target your choices to your audience. For example, if your audience is 18-21 then relating something to dating is always usually fun for them. For example, if you're discussing for-loops, then you might want to talk about what happens when trying to get someone to go on a date with you.

For counter = 1 to 100 (or if you are a girl, perhaps just 1 to 3)
    if prospect(counter).AcceptsDate then
        exit for

Keeping on topic is important but there is no reason why you can't keep it fun.

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By the way, I'd be careful about dating humor, since not everyone will agree on what's funny and dating can be a sensitive subject. However, it can be a great way to get a young audience's attention. –  Anonymous Mathematician Nov 22 '12 at 17:07
I know I'm late to the party, but on behalf of people who probably shouldn't think that joke is funny, I think it's pretty funny. :-) –  David Z Nov 27 '12 at 1:55
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Think about what's the purpose of starting with humor: a useful rule in teaching is that you need to pick up students where they are now. You have to engage them by attaching to something that is already on their mind or that they already know about, and then you can gently lead them towards what you want to teach. Also, if you manage to create emotions in students during a lecture, they are more likely to remember also the academic content.

So humor in a class can serve two ways: To link the content of your lecture to students' everyday lives, and to engage them emotionally. To achieve this, you should pick jokes that in fact link everyday things to the content of your lecture. For example, in a class on research methods I once taught, I started each lecture with a strip of PhD comics that fitted to the topic of the lecture. Also earthling's answer has a nice example how to relate students' everyday live to a programming topic.

Also, if you can't come up with a suitable joke, don't worry: there are a lot of other ways to achieve the same purpose. For example, you could link to a recent story in the news, local events on campus, or in fact anything that most students are aware of and that you can somehow link to the content of your class. For example, already some years ago, Mercedes had problems with cars falling over in zigzag driving tests. That would make a nice start for a lecture about vehicle dynamics: "Today we are going to learn how to avoid this..."

Concerning the emotions, humor creates fun, which is a good emotion to help remember things. Think of other emotions, and how you could create them in a class.

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And there are many strips of xkcd.com you can directly link to some algorithms or IT issues, e.g. Hamiltonian path, Traveling Salesman Problem, Array Indices and so on... –  Piotr Migdal Nov 21 '12 at 22:28
I did what @Piotr did quite often in my intro physics sections, namely start the class by showing an XKCD comic (relevant to the day's topic, when I could find one) while students were walking in. Most of them didn't get it :-( –  David Z Nov 27 '12 at 1:57
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I'm not particularly funny, so I don't try to push jokes that I know are not going to come across as witty or well done, and instead will just make an awkward situation.

Instead, I just tell stories that try to relate a disengaged audience with the topic I have at hand.

For example, if you are going to talk about -for- loops, you might try and start talking about the necessity of having a guy doing the same work over and over, but with the capability of counting up or down.

If you are introducing pointers (man I hate pointers), you might try giving a real life example of how a pointer would work in a city for example.

I've learned that if you try and be funny the results can be bad, but these short stories will allow your students to have a better idea of why the topic is relevant.

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(to an extent, this echoing one of the advice by silvado)

What I always liked on those better ones of my teacher and what I found myself doing as well (though not preparing for it really) was to cast examples connecting the discussed matter to real world and then twist it in a humorous way. This definitely doesn't mean opening with a joke. I do not find it necessary to capturing the audience with a joke already at the beginning. I need their focus and attention later on, when the discourse becomes rather dense. I am sure in any field it is possible to come up with examples for discussed matter which relate by a metaphor, or in a hyperbole to everyday situations in family, among friends, or in recent news.

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