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Laughter: a Transdisciplinary Approach (IL024)

"Our excuse for attacking the problem in our turn must lie in the fact that we shall not aim at imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition. We regard it, above all, as a living thing. However trivial it may be, we shall treat it with the respect due to life. We shall confine ourselves to watching it grow and expand. Passing by imperceptible gradations from one form to another, it will be seen to achieve the strangest metamorphoses. We shall disdain nothing we have seen."
- Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic


Laughter is one of the most frequent and important manifestations of emotion and affect in social interaction, yet it tends to be ignored in the growing field of the study of emotion. What makes us laugh? What happens when we laugh? Why do we laugh? Indeed, what is laughter? All these questions and more will be the subject of this module. We will examine the phenomenon of laughter from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives including neuroscience, philosophy, film and television, and literary studies. Students will be expected to bring examples of what makes them laugh to sessions, and complete a reflective journal on the experience of the module.

Structure (2017-18)

The module leader will attend all of each session, to integrate and stimulate the interdisciplinary learning. The teaching and learning approach will embody an interdisciplinary emphasis, using IATL’s Open-space Learning pedagogies balanced by methods, including reflection and discussion, with which students are more likely to be familiar.

The core design is that each week a subject specialist will deliver 60 minutes of discipline- grounded material; this section is followed by a further 60 minutes in which the students and module leader will develop the learning in an interdisciplinary style, including using the week’s set text/film.

Students will also be required, as part of a formative assessment process, to bring to the seminar each week a short analysis (300 words) of either a cultural artifact related to laughter (sound or video clip, blog, etc), or a piece of scholarly work, or any other disciplinary item that engages with the idea of laughter.

The module will consist of a variety of disciplinary sessions combined with practical workshops, all of which will be facilitated by Nicholas Monk and/or Carolin Debray. Indicative sessions are as follows:

Week 1, January 8th. Introduction, Nicholas Monk, Carolin Debray: interdisciplinary workshop on laughter. Building a theory of laughter.

Week 2, January 15th. Introduction, Nicholas Monk, Carolin Debray: student-led session. What makes you laugh? Why? How do we analyse this in the light of what we discovered in Week 1?

Week 3, January 22nd. Psychology, Thomas Evans: the session will feature an introduction to a prominent perspective within psychology that can be used to explain humour and laughter. The psychometric approach, considers how we can measure (and thus conceptualize) different types of humour, and the way in which humour styles holistically function within applied areas.

Week 4., January 29th. Linguistics, Carolin Debray: In this session we will explore where and how laughter occurs in everyday interactions between two or more people, such as workplace conversations, classrooms or family dinners. We also trace the different functions voluntary laughter can fulfil, especially in regards to the relationships between the people involved.

Week 5, February 5th. Psychology, Thomas Evans: another prominent perspective in Psychology is discourse analysis, which we will use to discuss how we can use humour to construct an identity, and how this links to what the speaker is trying to achieve - laughter. This perspective will be illustrated through analysis of real-life verbal and written humour.

Week 6, February 12th. Reading Week.

Week 7, February 19th. Neuroscience, Nick Dale: Warwick's Ted Pridgeon Professor of Neuroscience will offer a session on laughter and the brain.

Week 8, February 26th. Sociology, Kate Fox. Kate is both an academic and a professional stand-up poet.

Using sociological models, including Bourdieu's work on Cultural Capital, and feminist, Queer and social movement theories, this session will showcase examples from stand up comedy, spoken word, politics and the media to look at the ways that laughter and humour can be used to resist power and construct identities. The session also looks at how useful humour might be as an academic tool which can disrupt monolithic discourses of all kinds. From Michael Moore and Mark Thomas to Bridget Christie, Russell Brand and Josie Long, comedians are increasingly becoming activists. How does this square with the idea that we're "only" joking? The session will include: an introduction to relevant sociological theories about comedy and humour- as well as looking at the important role that Embodied Cultural Capital has to play in the production and reception of comedy (including a round of the Cultural Capital game - Bourdieu used the idea of a game as a metaphor, but this is an actual game with prizes!) Also, illustrations of resistant humour - from The Daily Show to stand-ups and some of my own performance auto-ethnography (including a consideration of auto-ethnography as a resistant form in academia- a form which is often tragic but could be funny). Finally there will be a workshop element in which we experience humorous ways to say the unsayable - not necessarily the taboo or offensive - but the things which disrupt everyday practices of normality.

Week 9, March 5th. Mark Hinton, Centre for Lifelong Learning: Clowning workshop. Mark, who has trained in clown and fool with key teachers of modern theatre clowning from Brazil, France, Belgium and the UK, will facilitate a workshop investigation of the relationship between the foolish and the funny.

Week 10, March 12th. Nicholas Monk, Carolin Debray, closing workshop.

Module convenor

Carolin Debray (C dot Debray at warwick dot ac dot uk)


Term 1 (Autumn) 2018-19
Mondays 11.00-13.00


Room R1.13
Ramphal Building


For 15 CATS:

20% Forum Moderation Exercise
30% Marking exercise
50% Reflective journal (5000 words)

For 12 CATS:

50% Marking exercise
50% Reflective journal (5000 words)