Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1998
Johns Hopkins 
     Magazine Home


Several years ago, Professor Ron Berk made a career-changing discovery: It is physically impossible to laugh and snore at the same time. His students at the School of Nursing have been yukking it up ever since
--and learning their coursework better than ever before.

B A C K  -  T O  -  S C H O O L    I S S U E

Who Says Statistics Can't Keep You in Stitches?
By Sue De Pasquale
Art by Mike Lane

With just one week to go before the final exam in Descriptive and Inferential Biostatistics, the tension in Ron Berk's classroom ought to be thicker than pea soup. But wait! Isn't that the theme to Jeopardy! we hear? And what's that chuckle rippling through the lecture hall?

To review for the exam, Berk has put together a collection of sample problems and flashed them up on a screen via overhead projector. Number 12 has touched off a wave of appreciative snorts among the six dozen young women and men in the hall:

"Nurses who routinely participate in the sport 'Knock the Physician Off the Pedestal' will demonstrate significantly higher levels of joy than nurses who absolutely refuse to engage in such irreverent behavior." After some discussion, the class concludes that "level of joy" is the dependent variable in this problem, and that the statistical analysis it calls for is the separate variance T-test. Then it's onto the next problem: "Hospital supervisors who take regular doses of ADMINISTRIVIUM will demonstrate a significantly lower level of obnoxiousness than their drug-free counterparts."

Cautionary Notes

The cover pages of Berk's handouts carry warnings normally reserved for operators of heavy machinery or mattress pads:

DO NOT operate a motor vehicle or dangerous machinery while reading this material.

If DROWSINESS occurs, it shouldn't be surprising.

DO NOT induce vomiting. The content will take care of that.

DO NOT remove this protective cover under penalty of law.

Berk's classroom shtick wasn't always so jocular. There was a time, he recounts solemnly, when his students sustained numerous gashes, bruises, and dents on their foreheads from passing out face forward onto their pencils and notebooks during his unbearably boring lectures. Then, 11 years ago, he made the move from Homewood, where he had been teaching education students at the School of Continuing Studies, to the School of Nursing. He was the only non-nurse and the only male on the faculty, teaching a subject notorious for being anxiety provoking, superdifficult, and deadly dull. In his words, "I had nowhere to go but down."

He happened upon humor almost out of desperation: "I had no clinical background whatsoever. So, in order to cover up my incompetence in the clincial areas, I used jokes in the examples I made up," he explains. From there it was an easy jump to inserting humorous information in his course syllabus (Under prerequisites: "One semester of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, Barney, or the equivalent"), and issuing warnings on the covers of his handouts ("DO NOT drink alcoholic beverages while reading this paper").

Berk acknowledges that college professors, as a group, are not exactly known for being the life of the party. But he contends that even those with "the charisma of spackling" have the wherewithal to inject a little levity into their lectures. To make the job easier, he's written a how-to book on the subject: Professors Are from Mars, Students Are from Snickers: How to Write and Deliver Humor in the Classroom and in Professional Presentations (Mendota Press, 1998).

Much as he enjoys a good laugh, Berk doesn't advocate humor for its entertainment value alone. He contends that it can actually improve student performance by reducing anxiety and knocking down the barriers that normally exist between students and their professors. And being a statistician (and assistant dean for faculty development at Nursing) he's done the research to back up his contention, using his Hopkins students as guinea pigs. In a study due out in the fall issue of Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, he reports that over the course of a semester, undergraduate and graduate students in three different classes showed improved attitudes toward statistics, decreased anxiety, and increased overall achievement. Berk acknowledges that, given the variety of variables involved in teaching, it's difficult to isolate humor as the only explanation for their improved attitudes and performance. But the man who routinely signs his e-mail messages with "Fabio" or "Don Johnson" feels comfortable concluding that humor can be a very effective tool for getting students to tune in to, and grasp, daunting material.

Low-risk Fun

The syllabus offers a great "low-risk" way for profs to poke fun at their courses. Berk suggests peppering real references with humorous ones, to see which students are really awake. Some statistical references he's come up with:

   Eses, S.P. (1989) Multivariate loglinear regression factorial analysis of covariance. Annals of Boredom, 76, 1190-1260.

   Gray, J. (1196) MANOVA is from Mars, WOMANOVA is from Venus. Uranus: Misunderstood Multivariate Publishers.

   Lipton, T.J. (1992, 4 PM) Differential effects of caffeinated versus decaffeinated t-tests. British Journal of Statistical Beverages, 29, 463-470.

   Meany, U.R.A. (1995) Regression toward the spleen effect: Clinical manifestations of mediocrity. In N.O. Median & Q. Modo (eds.), Mediocrity means never having to reach significance! (Pp. 243-269). Lake Woebegone: Central Tendency Press.

And he's beginning to gain professorial converts at a rapid clip, thanks to his book and a crowded lecture circuit that has him doing workshops with educators from Ashland, Kentucky, to Daytona Beach, Florida. Berk's first advice to wanna-be funny profs: Set aside any notions of being the next Johnny Carson or Jerry Seinfeld of the Anthropology world. Standup comedy has a place, but it's not in the classroom, according to Berk. Monologues and clever ad-libs that demand a witty delivery are "high-risk," he says, and best left to the professionals. Where professors can shine, he says, is with "low-risk" jokes-the kind you can mull over well in advance, test out on friends and family, and, in many cases, deliver via the written word.

He advises starting off on a light note the first day of class by distributing a syllabus peppered with fictitious entries. A tried and true entry under "teaching strategies," for example: "Lecture, small groups, dramatic presentation, peer critique and humiliation, stand-up comedy, IMAX movies, field trips, hand-to-hand combat, picnics, and cruises." Or, to show you don't take yourself too seriously, make a mockery of your credentials. Berk, who works in the healthcare field but says he has "no real letters," never fails to elicit a group chortle by listing: "Ronald A. Berk, PhD, CNN, ESPN, CSPAN, and All-Around Fun Guy." If it sounds like Berk (or "Ron," as his students refer to him) enjoys making jokes at his own expense, you're right. He's a jovial figure with an infectious laugh, known around the halls of Nursing for the loud ties he wears and the toy frog keychain that dangles from his hip pocket. The more approachable a professor, he says, the less hesitant a student will be to ask questions or come for help with coursework. That's why it's not unusual for him to drive home a statistical concept by doing a "Tooltime" skit from TV's Home Improvement, or to start class with a Top 10 list that makes reference to The X-Files or Ally McBeal.

Says Berk: "I'm not setting myself up as superior; I simply stayed in school longer. I have a respect for my students that says, 'You're not inferior.'"

But what about maintaining the dignity befitting a professor at The Johns Hopkins University? Does the lightheartedness he advocates really have a place within the hallowed halls of one of the nation's great institutes of higher learning? Unabashedly yes, says Berk. "It's all in the way I do things. I've never had the feeling that students have lost respect for me. I'm not at the level of being a clown. I try to be as clever as I can [in the humor I use]. Jeopardy!, for instance, is an intellectual activity."

Berk's book is filled with pointers and tried-and-true approaches, designed, he says, to put being funny within reach of even the "humor- impaired."
Not everyone is so easily convinced. Four years ago, Berk proposed doing a training session on using humor in teaching for the National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME)-an organization of which he'd been past president. He'd checked the literature on teaching statistics and found 40 different methods for reducing anxiety and stress; humor was not among them. "I looked at that and thought, Whoa, it's wide open," he recalls. Nevertheless, his proposal was turned down cold. "It was rejected for two years in a row on the grounds that it makes no contribution to the field. I was bashed."

He says he was later vindicated when the American Educational Research Association gave him the green light to do the session. Berk says his session was quickly oversubscribed, and the resulting reviews were so strong that he's been asked back every year since. In the meantime, the NCME has done an about-face on its earlier rejection and hired him for the last two years to teach at its annual conference.

Berk faced a similar lack of enthusiasm when trying to find a publisher for Professors Are from Mars, Students Are from Snickers. He was turned down by 22 publishing houses before Mendota Press, an imprint of Magna Publications, agreed to take on the project. "The sense was that humor in academia is an oxymoron," he says; "that professors take themselves so seriously, the market [would be] impossible to penetrate." Though thrilled to be in print, Berk has no delusions of being the author of the next mega-seller; he and his editor are pleased that Professors Are from Mars has sold 1,200 copies and is now in its second printing. Berk's book is filled with pointers and tried-and-true approaches, designed, he says, to put being funny within reach of even the "humor-impaired." It turns out, for instance, that the makeup of the audience has a lot to do with whether you flop or leave them howling with laughter. The best bet, according to Berk: a large class, where students sit tightly packed and women outnumber men. "Women are rooting for the speaker to succeed, whereas guys couldn't care less," he explains. The gentler sex is also less "uptight," he says, and more willing to give themselves over to the "emotional venting" of laughter.

Ad-Libs that Aren't

Prepare a handful of one-liners well in advance, and you'll never again be flustered by unexpected interruptions or distractions, says Berk. A few of his favorites:

(Baby crying outside classroom)
"It sounds like her interview for the new assistant professor positions didn't go very well."

(Garble words)
"Sorry, I rented these lips (or, "It's my first day with my new mouth.")

(Microphone goes dead, or feedback)
"Let this be a lesson, what can happen when you buy your sound system from K-Mart!"

(Lights flicker or go out)
"Was it something I said, God?"

The Jeopardy! Type Review for Exams
After Berk adapted the Jeopardy! game show format for his test reviews, student test scores skyrocketed. Best of all, he got to play Alex Trabek.

Picking the Correlation This type of correlation between overall GPA at graduation and passing/failing the Where's Waldo? Licensing Exam (1,0) also expresses the relationship between Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops.
(What is a biserial correlation?)

This type of correlation between graduating or not graduating the program (1,0) and employed versus not employed (1,0) was also the first (and second) sound Jack heard on the beanstalk.
(What is a phi coefficient?)

This type of correlation between two judges' rankings of athletes' balance beam performance also sounds like a brand of gum.
(What is Spearman's rho?)

Berk has found that self-effacing humor doesn't work for everybody-in particular, he advises caution for female professors in traditionally male fields, many of whom have worked hard to be taken seriously. "When you put yourself down, there are men who may take advantage of that breakdown in barriers," he says. "Of course, it depends on your style and personality." Berk also turns serious when talk turns to offensive humor. There's no place for it in the classroom, he says, where, unlike a nightclub, students don't have the option of walking out if they are offended. Professors need to be ever-vigilant about allowing potentially offensive material to creep into their comedy-one reason he advises against doing ad-libs. He usually field-tests his material with several Nursing colleagues before trying it out on students, and he issues a disclaimer at the beginning of each semester, asking students to let him know if something he says offends them. "If one person is offended, I've blown it," he says.

There are obvious targets to avoid: putdowns of individuals or groups, on the basis of ethnicity, race, or gender. And he also advises steering clear of jokes about physical characteristics (being short, blond, or pregnant), and about extremely sensitive issues, such as abortion or divorce.

When choosing a target for ridicule, he says, it's best to choose a big enough target or "butt." (He refers to this as the "Big Butt Theory of Humor.") Under this category might fall the university itself, or its president, or the practices of a particular profession. A safe but successful strategy, Berk says, is to "focus on characteristics that are obviously not true, outrageously exaggerated, or relatively unimportant." He likes to start off his professional presentations by noting that Johns Hopkins University is the recipient of the most federal research dollars; he then goes on to cite such generous contributors as "Moisha & Izzy's Bagel Shop" and "Beenie Weenie's Carpet Cleaning."

Back in Inferential Biostatistics, Berk's students have just completed their final review question ("There will be a significant difference in the number of TV viewers who like Tim 'The Toolman' Taylor versus Al 'The Flannel' Borland on Home Improvement as a function of gender") and are now hard at work on their final Jeopardy! question. As the Jeopardy! theme song fills the air, the students labor to fill in the missing sections of a statistical table. The category is ANOVA, or analysis of variance.

After class, I do a casual survey to gauge students' take on Berk and his rather unconventional approach to teaching. One serious-looking woman says, "It's not effective at all for me. My brain can only handle so much and I tune out when he starts telling jokes. Then I realize that I've missed everything. I'd like a more straightforward approach."

For the most part, though, those I talk to seem amused and say that Berk's classes are a welcome respite from the relentless seriousness that abounds in Hopkins's lecture halls. "This is completely different from any other class I've had here," says Laura Casey, a student in Nursing's accelerated program. "He makes you want to come to class. You don't feel bored, like you can just get the notes from someone else. And he's careful to use humor that is not offensive."

For his part, Berk shows no signs of returning to the somber pedagogical style that had his students keeling over from boredom. "I can't take anythin g seriously anymore," he says. "And I'm having more fun than I've ever had in my life."

Copies of Professors Are from Mars, Students Are from Venus can be ordered by calling Mendota Press at 1-800-433- 0499, ext. 182, or Matthews Medical Bookstore at 1-410-955-3931. Material reprinted here was with permission of Mendota Press, ©1998.