Laughing Matter: Why Humor Makes a Brilliant Teacher

As the commencement speaker for Colorado Technical University’s June 2014 ceremony, Dr. Bertice Berry has plenty of wisdom to impart to the graduating class. So much so that she is bringing her trademark combination of fierce intellect and razor-sharp humor to bear on a series of blogs in which she reveals a few life lessons everyone ought to know.

CTU Commencement Speaker - Dr. Bertice Berry“I decided I was going to go to college,” Dr. Bertice Berry tells her audience during a TEDx presentation for Centennial Park Women. “[I figured] that must’ve been a happy place, because nobody in my family had been!”

The audience laughs in response, although Berry is already on to her next point. Like any good comedienne, she doesn’t wait too long for her audience to get the joke. She knows she’s more effective when her humor feels effortless. Yet, like any good professor, she is also subtly, carefully teaching her audience. Her message and her humor are intricately woven together to form an audible tapestry that is as enlightening as it is entertaining. The audience will walk away knowing a little bit more about what sociologists have found with regard to creating happiness in one’s life. And, thanks to Berry’s charm and wit, they’ll even feel inspired to do something with that information in their own lives.

This is an example of the approach that Berry formerly exercised in academia. It’s what made her one of the most popular professors at Kent State University, and it’s what makes her a highly sought guest speaker at events around the country today. Humor, in effect, is Berry’s own secret weapon to making a positive impact in the lives of the people she meets.

Learning to Laugh

If there’s one thing Berry likes to promote, it’s creating more joy and love in the world. Maybe she’s encouraging a group like Centennial Park Women to embrace the younger generation of female associates. Maybe she’s talking with employees at Pepsi about taking diversity to the next level of mutual respect. Or maybe she’s recalling the time she handed a few dollars to a homeless man on the street corner. “I opened my window, handed him the money, looked him in the eye and said, ‘I love you,’” Berry recounts. “And the man started crying…That’s karma: sending out ripples that effect positive change.”

No matter what the subject is that she’s trying to convey, Berry has come to rely on one method of communication more than any other, and that’s humor. And while it seems as inherent to her personality as her brilliant smile, it was something that she consciously chose to cultivate.

Growing up, Berry didn’t have much to laugh about. She was the sixth of seven children born to a mother who, though she worked hard and meant well, struggled with sobriety. There was a familial legacy of abuse and poverty that seemed impossible to overcome. Yet Berry did. After graduating with honors from Jacksonville University, she earned her Ph.D. in sociology from Kent State University and promptly began teaching.

At that point in her life, Berry was informed, inspired and ready to pass on the torch of knowledge to the young minds in her professorial care. Yet her idealistic visions were all but dashed when she concluded a particularly earnest lecture only to have a student raise his hand and ask, “How much of this is going to be on the test?”

Daunted but not defeated, Berry began to rethink how she could get through to her students. She had, after all, big topics like racism and sexism on her plate that she deeply wanted her students to understand. “It occurred to me that if I really wanted to touch their minds, I had to touch their hearts,” Berry explains. So she began to research how to best make people learn something. Sociology, if nothing else, boasts tremendous amounts of research and data on subjects like this very one, and soon Berry came across a little nugget of wisdom that said if something is, “bizarre, interesting or funny,” people are more likely to remember and/or implement it in their own lives.

“I had bizarre and interesting down,” Berry laughs. “So I had to learn to be funny.”

Drawing on her family tradition of circumstantial humor in which even going hungry was material for a joke, Berry began to incorporate an acerbic humor into her lectures. She poked fun at herself, the material, even her audience. (“Sisters!” she exclaimed at the Centennial Park Women event. “You all are proof that women do not dress for men. Y’all look good!”) Little, if anything, was sacred, and this bald honesty not only inspired entertaining lectures, it made Berry someone people could listen to, relate to and trust.

The Great Divide

Berry’s approach was unequivocally successful. Larger and larger auditoriums had to be found for her lectures, and students clamored for more. But what made her popular among the students failed to earn her much appreciation from her colleagues.

“We think that if something’s funny, it’s not smart, it’s not real, it’s not serious,” Berry says. But the opposite, whether one looks at the statistical data of sociologists or the empirical results of her own classes, is in fact true.

Eventually, Berry left academia because her humor opened more opportunities for her elsewhere.

Filling the Gap

While academia turned out not to be Berry’s true calling, connecting with and inspiring others absolutely is. She’s gone on to become a bestselling author, an award-winning comedienne and lecturer and a host of her own nationally syndicated talk show. These different formats accommodate Berry’s unique brand of delivery in which she uses humor to deliver often serious information.

It’s a format that dovetails nicely with Berry’s outlook on life in general. For in studying life and people, and teaching them with laughter, Berry has achieved what she originally sought to do when she decided to go to college. “The space between life and laughter,” she says wisely, “is happiness.”