Creating Hybrid Spaces for Talk: Humor as a Resource Learners Bring to Informal Learning Contexts

October 2014

Source: Teacher College Record, Volume 116, Issue 14, pp. 535–554
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the author focuses on recognizing humor as a powerful resource for newcomers in social settings like museums.
The author argues that by using humor, visitors negotiate hybrid learning spaces, as well as gain authority in informal settings. The author suggests that humor can perform many different functions in social situations, among them relieving the pressure of not knowing, making other family members more at ease, and subtly taking back power in unfamiliar contexts.

The author discusses humor as a tool families use to help themselves feel more comfortable in museums, but also to help merge their everyday agendas with those of the museum. She used exemplars of family humor come from two different research studies conducted in different institutions. Study 1 follows the Lopez family, at a small marine science center, while Study 2 is a more detailed study of 10 families at a large museum of science.

The author demonstrates that the humor seen functioned as a way to involve others, to ease the tension of not knowing a new setting, language, practice, or content, as well as to help shift authority from mediator to parent, or from parent to child. When Senor Lopez and Mr. Underwood made humor a central part of family activities, they helped open spaces for the family to explore new understandings in their own everyday language, and as part of normal family social practice.

The author noted that Senor Lopez’s humor (in study 1) was responded to in every case, typically by the more knowledgeable biologist/mediator. This use of humor effectively ensured that the father and the whole family received new and important information in a comfortable, jocular environment. Such humor appeared to help establish the family’s authority. The author suggests that humor disrupts the more dominant tell-listen-respond format we sometimes see in museums when docent educators are present. While this pattern is changing, visitors are often expected to listen and respond to the expert, rather than being involved in mutual dialogue.

The author argues that families’ complex weaving of personal humor with the exhibit storyline creates a hybrid space that, in turn, allows collaboration and participation. The findings reveal that when Senor Lopez focused on who eats whom, and Mr. Underwood wove a dental hygiene message onto an exhibit meant to teach tooth form and function, they both opened a hybrid space. Such spaces need to be recognized and sanctioned as constituting family visiting practices—practices that enable each family to participate with the exhibits in their own, often, new ways.

The author concludes that identifying families’ nuanced practices, such as creating humorous alternative “lessons,” has provided new insights into families’ “cultural practices,” especially when situated in a novel setting. 

Updated: Feb. 06, 2018