A Beginner's Guide
In the summer of 2013, we (a professor and a student) were shocked when we realized how little professors and students utilize or respond to bodily behavior in class, especially at St. Olaf College and other schools founded in the Christian tradition with its stress on the incarnation (enfleshment) of the Word or Logos (John 1:14). We are now ready to share the results of our research. A warning is in order at the beginning: we believe it is true that education, at its best, should include play and humor. After all, the Greek term for education is closely related to the term for play (παιδιά), but we are writing this not to advocate the play of children but the role of play in adult, higher education, much as this was advocated by Frerich von Schiller’s The Aesthetic Education of Man and in Montaigne’s essays on education. More on Schiller and Montaigne at the end, after reporting our findings on crying, laughing, yawning, and coughing.
Imagine the following scenario: as a professor, you are in class and you hear crying. The first and probably most important thing to determine is whether you are the one crying. This can be accomplished in two reliable ways: 1) With the tips of your fingers, gently wipe the region of your face immediately below your lower eyelid(s) along the ridge of your nose to check for moisture, or 2) Observe the faces of your students, paying close attention to facial expressions of horror, sympathy, or fear oriented in your direction. If either of these measures find anything, it is highly probable that you are the source of the auditory expression of distress.
If this is the case, you are probably in extreme physical pain, one or both of your eyes are irritated by some foreign object(s), or you are in some kind of emotional pain or anxiety. You can use this crying to your advantage: tell the class you are upset that their papers were not submitted on time or that you are unhappy that not all members of the class got an A. Weeping may also be effective in fending off criticism and building up solidarity. You will need to decide how long and how much crying will be needed to meet your objectives. Located near your eyelids you will find the lacrimal glands; if you need to produce more tears, blink excessively. Each blink should draw additional fluid from the glands and, with practice, you will be able to produce a visible stream of tears in no time! Be prepared for students to respond with crying, if they are not already weeping.
If you discover that the crying is not yours, but belongs to one or more students, do not try to comfort them with a lecture about how tears are not just water and salt, but also contain immunoglobulin, lysozymes (antibacterials), fats and mucin (lubricants). It may be smart to mention these facts later as part of the lesson plan, but in the moment you should focus on locating the weepers and determining as quickly and accurately as possible the cause of the weeping. Take a look at the weeper(s) to see if the cause of the crying is severe injury and, if so, take immediate, appropriate action, which will likely include calling in a professional medical team. If the crying is not due to physical injury or ocular irritation, they may be responding to some emotional harm, perhaps caused by a peer. If you can rule out the possibility of a flesh wound (and this will have to be done very quickly), consider the possibility that you might have caused the crying. Perhaps you have disappointed one or more students in some way, or said something harsh or otherwise inappropriate. If you are confused and unsure how to correct some hurtful comment with the usual tools (such as saying “I take it back. What was I thinking? I am a prize-winning idiot. Sorry.”), then, as noted by Cardoso and Sabbatini in their important paper “The Animal that Weeps,” your crying along with the students could actually restore some kind of balance in the class or seminar room. They note that crying could “be considered as a kind of psychic homeostatic mechanism, returning [a classroom] to an emotional equilibrium that has been upset.”
Now consider matters from the other side: You are a student in a class and hear crying. Follow the same procedure as a professor in determining the source of the crying and be aware that (as noted above) you can control the flow of tears through blinking or self-induced physical pain or emotional trauma. So long as your crying is not due to the infliction of harsh physical pain, try to relax and consider your options. You now have tremendous power. You can work the tears into a kind of wordless accusation about some wrong that you believe your professor has done, and you also have the perfect way to silence the professor. If the professor tries to comfort you or give an account of why crying can be a way of expelling dangerous toxins and is thus good for you, add auditions to the weeping. If the professor continues to talk, add wailing.
Once tears have been mastered, we are ready to move on to the second scenario: laughter. If you are a professor and you hear laughter in a class or seminar room, follow the same initial procedure as with crying. Find out as soon as possible whether the person laughing is you or someone else. Most people laugh in distinctive ways and so, if you know your “laughter signature,” you will be able to determine pretty quickly whether you are the one emitting the relevant sound structures. In a close study of shrieks, laughter, and “belly laughs,” Robert Provine has determined that: “A laugh is composed of a series of short vowel-like notes (syllables) each about 75 milliseconds long, that are repeated at regular intervals about 210 milliseconds apart.” If the students are laughing, try to work with the harmonic structure of the laugh(s); when someone laughs, they usually have to stick with a specific vowel sound such as “ho, ho, ho” or “ha, ha, ha” and, once begun, this is almost never altered. Try to use terms in your discipline that can be linked to these sounds; for example, you could refer to “holism” if you have a “ho, ho” student, or speak about “habitat” if the student is in the “ha, ha” mode.
From a student perspective, if it is the professor who is laughing, study the sound structure and make sure that any further contributions you make that day harmonize with the relevant vowel structures you hear coming from his face. Also try to determine whether the noises are a genuine case of laughing or whether he or she is simply making nervous noises, perhaps to relieve anxiety. Also of importance to gauge is whether the laughing has an objective: is the professor trying to be ingratiating or seem like “one of us”? You have a number of choices and can work the situation to your advantage. Imagine the professor has just told a joke that neither you nor your peers find funny. Nonetheless, imagine you are fond of your professor and do not want the professor to lose self-confidence or become embarrassed (and perhaps take it out on innocent students). A full-out fake smile or laugh is too easily detected. But you can make a single, short, syllable sound—not a grunt, but a loud, closed-mouth “mm” sound—while at the same time tapping your chair or table with your hand and shaking your head back or forth. The vagueness of this gesture is a surefire way to displace any potential discomfort or embarrassment.
If you are a student and a peer laughs, and you can laugh genuinely in response to an amusing gesture or clever remark, we suggest that laughing is a good and proper response.
We come now to what may appear to be the worst-case scenario: yawning. The first thing to do when you see or hear a yawn is to reassure yourself that yawning is not the worst thing that can happen. In fact, it could be much, much worse. Some think the worst event is the professor and/or all of the students falling asleep during a lecture. Sleeping in class is not a serious problem. If everyone falls asleep and everyone wakes up at the same time, chances are no one will dare to ask whether everyone else was asleep. Being asleep in class can also be a wonderful opportunity for both professor and student. First, as a professor, if you can teach people even when they are asleep, you are a super-star. Actually, far worse than sleeping or yawning in class or a seminar is vomiting. This can be bad from both points of view: students should worry if their performance has been so bad that the professor vomits; likewise the professor should worry if the students are vomiting because of his or her performance. Vomiting is clearly the hardest thing either to contain (one person vomiting in a room of twenty makes it 70 percent probable that at least one other person will vomit) or recover from (unless the vomiting can be explained in terms of food poisoning, noxious gasses, motion sickness, and so on). So if you find students or professors yawning, relax. Things could be worse, and we have a solution that is guaranteed to work.
If you are a professor and you are faced with a student yawning, relax. Do not automatically conclude that you or your discipline is boring. Every vertebrate yawns, so tell yourself that the yawning is no big deal. The average person yawns 250,000 times during their life, and there is evidence of yawning prior to birth. Some claim that a fetus yawns from the eleventh week onward. Still, yawning can be a problem because it is contagious; you are 50 percent more likely to yawn if you are next to someone you see yawn. Action must be taken. And this is true for students as well, especially if you are contributing to a seminar or class and the professor starts yawning as you begin. This is when you have to be proactive.
In the face of the yawn, you have an antidote: the cough. We hesitate to commend this in the context of Christian higher education as it may involve some subterfuge, but in light of Matthew 10:16, if your class or seminar is the equivalent of a pack of wolves, this is where and when a little serpent wisdom should be considered. At the beginning of a class or seminar, whether you are a professor or student, somehow give the impression that you may have a cold. If at all possible you might use an honest, truthful statement like “I hope I am not contagious,” for while this may suggest you might be contagious, strictly speaking, we assume that all of us hope we are not sick and contagious. Next step: identify the person who is both most likely to yawn and whom you are most motivated to prevent from yawning. Let us refer to this person as the alpha yawner (AY). Once you have identified the AY, get into proximity of the AY and begin coughing without covering your mouth. A few modest coughs at the beginning are likely to be unobjectionable, and you can increase the depth of the cough as time goes on. Once you reach the point when the AY believes the air around him or her is contaminated, you are safe! A yawn is essentially a large-intake of air. Even if the AY believes that he or she needs to breathe in large amounts of air in order to restore blood oxygen, students or professors will not in fact do so if they believe the air is heavily contaminated. (We have in fact field tested this technique and found it to work well in all trials.)
This, of course, is only the beginning of our study of the choreography of the class or seminar room. We commend these techniques not just to help keep a class or professor on their toes, but to help minimize the darker side of approaching education with a sense of play (Schiller) or entertainment (Montaigne). We all know how play can inadvertently involve harm, and we find Montaigne’s advice on what to do with a student who resists the charms of education profoundly disturbing and to be avoided at all costs: “I know no remedy except that his tutor should quickly strangle him.” Although we are sure Montaigne was simply using his Gallic sense of humor, we still find especially sinister Montaigne’s adding that this homicide is best done “when nobody is looking.” We beg you to take a different course: if your students or your professor begins to yawn, do not strangle them. Instead, start coughing.
Charles Taliaferro is Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College. Thomas Churchill is a student at St. Olaf College.
Cardoso, Silvia H., and Renato M.E. Sabbatini. “The Animal That Weeps.” Dana.org. The Dana Foundation, 1 Apr. 2002. Web. 12 June 2013. http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=1740.
Montaigne, Michel De. The Essays: A Selection. M. A. Screech, trans. London: Penguin, 1993.
Provine, Robert R. “Laughter.” American Scientist Vol. 84, No.1 (1996): 38–47.