Taking humor seriously: How to use humor as a pedagogical tool

Bob Mankoff

Bob Mankoff

Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker and founder of The Cartoon Bank, is one of the nation’s leading commentators on the role of humor in American politics, business, and life. A frequent guest on network talk shows and Ted talk presenter, Mankoff believes that humor provides a unique approach for making academic writing come to life.

Here Mankoff shares his perspective of how using humor, specifically cartoons, can be an important pedagogical tool for textbook and scholarly journal article authors.

TAA: What unique qualities/characteristics do cartoons possess that make them an effective pedagogical tool to communicate a point?

Robert Mankoff (RM): “Cartoons are images and images grab our attention. Surveys of New Yorker readers show that 98% of them look at the cartoons first and the other 2% lie. That’s a joke of course, but it makes a point, a point you are not likely to forget. Why?  Because there is considerable research evidence that the novelty and surprise inherent in humorous material is recalled better than non-humorous information. And cartoons, because of their attention-getting graphic and visual impact, are first and foremost funny. Something that is funny is likely to stick in your mind because humor is a pleasurable emotion. When that pleasure is associated with information it leads to increased memory retention because we are likely to repeat and recall what we find pleasurable.”

TAA: How can an academic author judge when a cartoon might be appropriate in their work? What tips can you offer for picking out a cartoon that will be effective?

RM: “The best way to approach this task is to understand what the author wants to accomplish. If the goal is to provide merely a break from material that might be rather dry and cognitively taxing, then the humor, how funny the cartoon is, will be the most important factor. The laughter break will allow the student to catch their breath and relax a bit, before plunging into the text again. Of course the cartoon should not be irrelevant to the topic at hand, but merely being on topic will be enough for this purpose.

However, the author will usually want to accomplish more than just a break—he or she will likely also want to reinforce the ideas in the text and make them more easily recalled. While humor is certainly a factor and should never be completely absent, for purpose of aiding recall, it does not have to be the predominant factor. That factor is relevance—does the cartoon actually make a point. The following cartoon used in a psychology textbook (Psychology 10th Edition David G. Meyers) in a chapter on nature and nurture does just that.”

parenting cartoonThis cartoon effectively reinforces this section of the text:

As most parents will tell you after having their second child, babies differ even before gulping their first breath. Consider one quickly apparent aspect of personality. Infants’ temperaments are their emotional excitability—whether reactive, intense, and fidgety, or easygoing, quiet, and placid. From the first weeks of life, difficult babies are more irritable, intense, and unpredictable. (Myers, David G. (2009-01-10). Psychology (Page 139). Worth Publishers.)



TAA: You talk about humor, and particularly cartoons, being judged in a context. Explain more about what you mean, and how the same cartoon might be viewed differently in the pages of The New Yorker, than in an academic journal or textbook.

RM: “The Who, What, Where and When of humor is essential to understanding the How of it. Ridicule works when our friends make fun of our enemies but not the reverse. And mockery that is received well by an audience of fans in a comedy club will be looked at very differently in a serious publication such as The New Yorker, where the primary mode of ridicule is self-ridicule at the fads and foibles of its readership. The humor in The New Yorker is basically benign, as befits a publication whose worldview is serious and empathetic. So the humor needs to be congruent with that.  However in The New Yorker the cartoons never illustrate, reinforce or even reference any of the articles. This is obviously very different from how the same cartoons might be used in an academic journal or textbook. But what is similar is that the benign but insightful humor of The New Yorker cartoons, which aim to provoke thought but not offense also, for many of the same reasons, work well in an academic setting.”

TAA: Does a textbook author locate existing cartoons that happen to illustrate a point they want to make, or are cartoons generally created specifically for use in a textbook?

RM: “I suppose someone could commission a cartoon for their textbook, but they would have to have a fairly clear idea of what they wanted. Speaking as a cartoonist and not as an academic, I think it would be pretty difficult to come up with something funny and relevant from a general instruction like, ‘give me something funny on Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.’ In my experience, the process is a bit more serendipitous. Typically the author has seen a cartoon he or she finds apt for their discipline while engaging in leisure reading online or in a favorite magazine. The artist’s work may convey nothing more than a headline’s worth of information about the subject, but there is recognition on the part of the scholar that the cartoon happens to be illustrative of a point he or she wishes to augment.

Following is an excellent example from the aforementioned psychology textbook which used over sixty New Yorker cartoons. In the chapter ‘Developing Through The Life Span’, the author illustrated this longitudinal development with this sequence of cartoons.”

This is the path to adulthood.









Young man go to your room and stay there until your cerebral cortex matures.








When I was your age, I was an adult.









The arithmetic seems correct yet I find myself haunted by the idea that the basic axioms on which the arithmetic is based might give rise to contradictions which would then invalidate these computations.

RM: “One reason The Cartoon Bank is such a great resource for authors is that the scholar no longer has to depend on serendipity to find a relevant cartoon—there are search tools available on the site that enable you to search keywords to help you locate a cartoon appropriate to your needs—even one on Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.”





Mankoff will be keynoting at TAA’s June conference with a presentation entitled “Taking Humor Seriously”. Visit the TAA Conference website for more information. 

Visit The Cartoon Bank for more information.

About Maureen Foerster

Director of Institutional Memberships & Meetings / Newsletter Editor
Text and Academic Authors Association