Below, Dr. Wyn Kelley describes various aspects of how she taught 21L.021 Comedy in the spring of 2022.
OCW: In the syllabus for the course, you write of embracing “the varied experiences participants bring to class.” What specific differences in experience have you seen among your students in 21L.021, and how have those differences enriched the classroom environment?
Wyn Kelley: The class was majority students of color and Latinx students. In Comedy, where we frequently discuss different cultures of humor, I depend heavily on students supplying examples from their varied backgrounds. Also, while assigning classic texts from the Western tradition, I ask students to supply examples of their favorite stand-up and sketch-comedy artists. We shared a number of these later in the term, and their in-class reports included many clips from film adaptations of the works we read. In general the class discussion tends to be freer and less formal than in my other classes, and students naturally bring their own experiences into our discussions of comic conflicts, characters, and energies.
OCW: You require students to participate in discussions of the texts in an online forum. How did those discussions work?
Wyn Kelley: The forum discussions tend to start out haltingly at first, but almost always students find ways to introduce their own favorite examples of comic art into the forum. As the term goes on, certain themes become familiar to all and generate fuller discussion in the forum than we have time for in class. I try to keep my feedback brief but to steer students to topics for papers. They often seem surprised to find out what is eligible for a paper in this class!
OCW: What methods do you use for encouraging fruitful discussion in class?
Wyn Kelley: I usually begin by offering a 1–15 minute set of slides to frame the discussion—focusing on historical and literary context, offering sample passages, and raising questions. As the term goes on, student reports take on the same function, and I take a less prominent role.
OCW: It’s somewhat surprising to see Moby-Dick on the reading list. Granted, Melville’s writing is varied and expansive enough to encompass a range of tones including the comic, but why did you decide to include this particular novel in a course on comedy?
Wyn Kelley: And this was the first time I ever offered Moby-Dick in Comedy! I specifically selected the first 23 chapters, before the characters go to sea; these chapters are classic sex comedy, here complicated because it’s taking place between two men, and Melville heightens the comedy by making one of them a tattooed Pacific Islander. Students seldom reckon with the book’s humor, and I looked forward to introducing them to Melville’s sly wit. But I had to drop that reading assignment because we had fallen behind and needed a catch-up day. I keep meaning to do it though. It’s a literary joke well worth playing with.
OCW: The course deals primarily with comedy in theater, the novel, and film—narrative comedy, if you will. Near the end of the semester, you devoted one class session to discussing standup comedy. How do you bring these two things together?
Wyn Kelley: It always seems as if we don’t have time for contemporary forms of comedy, and I’ve handled that problem in different ways over the years. The emphasis on classic works, though, prepares students to find certain structures and themes in the comedy they enjoy in contemporary media, and I try to make those connections visible throughout the term. I don’t have to work hard at that. The students tend to bring up their own examples constantly. The syllabus doesn’t reflect this free flow between assigned texts, forum entries, class discussion, student reports, and their own experiences, but the class makes that flow one of the great pleasures of the semester.
- GIR CI-H
- GIR HASS-H
- 21L.021 Comedy can be applied toward a Bachelor of Science in Literature, but is not required.
About once a year, usually in the spring semester
Assessment and Grading
Students’ grades were based on the following activities:
Attendance, participation, and oral communication (30%):
- Attendance (10%)
- Participation (10%)
- Discussion forum (10%)
Written work (70%):
- First essay (10%), revision (10%), second essay (15%), third essay (15%)
- In-class report (10%)
- Reflection (10%)
Breakdown by Year
A fairly even distribution from first- through fourth-year undergraduates
How Student Time Was Spent
During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:
- Met twice per week for 1.5 hours per session; 26 sessions total; mandatory attendance.
Out of Class
- Outside of class, students read assigned texts, posted on the class discussion forum, completed written assignments, and prepared to deliver in-class reports.