Problematic Humour In Academic Talks

I recently attended a large academic conference, and I had an excellent time—I met fantastic colleagues, learnt a lot of state-of-the-art science, and heard some wonderful senior scientists talk about their decades of work. But there were a few moments that made me cringe, and these moments were all meant to be funny.

What characterized all these attempts at humour was their use of humans to make a broader biological point, and therein lies the problem. Using people as a source of humour almost invariably means making fun of someone, and if this someone is neither yourself nor all humans, you’re going to hurt somebody.

I should point out that all of these attempts at humour were successful–the audience laughed, and may even have understood the biological concept a bit better as a result. This means that by giving you examples of such humour below, I’m not just calling out the speaker*—I’m calling out all of us for responding in a way that encourages speakers to include such jokes.

Here’s an example: a speaker at this conference wanted to illustrate how the best reproductive strategy for a male insect—i.e. which female he decides to court–may depend on what sort of male he is. This is approximately the image he used to make the point:

nerd supermodel

Why is this problematic? Because it assumes that men who don’t fit conventional notions of masculine attractiveness could never be attractive to women who are conventionally attractive. Because it poses female physical attractiveness as being mutually exclusive from being a “nerd,” even though women like Lyndsey Scott are high profile examples that shatter this stereotype. And most importantly, it is problematic because it makes fun of people who don’t fit conventional norms of physical attractiveness.

Even if it is overwhelmingly true that nerds don’t date supermodels (we are after all animals who likely experience some sort of sexual selection), it isn’t absolutely true. And that is enough to make this sort of humour hurtful, because individuals matter. As biologists we are better positioned than anyone else to appreciate the importance of individual variation. If you recognize that individuals vary in complicated ways and couple it with some compassion for individuals’ feelings, you’ll see why this isn’t funny.

At least a couple of other examples of human-based humour at this conference shamed fat people. I don’t think any of the speakers with fat-shaming slides intended to be hurtful, but as someone with wide hips and not even a hint of a thigh gap, an image like this in a talk certainly made me uncomfortable about my body for a brief moment.** This is not a feeling that I or anyone else should have to experience in a professional setting.


So here’s what I’ve decided to do in my talks—avoid drawing human parallels to my study organisms, and especially avoid trying to be funny while doing so. I may draw some laughs, and I may even make my point effectively, but is it worth alienating part of my audience? Before you start accusing me of having no sense of humour, there are plenty of jokes in talks I find hilarious. At this same conference, one speaker had his whole audience in splits while describing a crazy set of circumstances that thwarted his attempts at fieldwork—that sort of humour is perfect for an academic talk. But if there’s even a tiny chance that your joke is going to hurt somebody, just drop it. I’m certain that, as a community, we biologists can do an even better job  than we already do to make all sorts of people feel welcome in our field.

*I’m not naming the speakers. If you were at the conference you may be able to identify the speakers, but seriously, this sort of thing is so common that we don’t gain anything by naming names.

**Kudos to @prancingpapio for calling out this particular instance of fat-shaming very publicly on Twitter. I wasn’t brave enough to do the same, but hopefully I and others will do so next time.

4 thoughts on “Problematic Humour In Academic Talks

    1. Oh I like that phrase so much! Print out for office worthy…
      I have mixed feelings about anthropomorphizing, and whatever the reverse of that is, both of which show up in behavioral ecology research a LOT. Either way, I think uncritically and/or carelessly analogizing animals with humans and vice versa will never be productive.

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