The Place of Laughter in Writing Center Spaces

Graduate Students, Peer Tutoring, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Writing Center Tutors / Tuesday, April 18th, 2023

By Arawomo Oluwayinka

I vividly remember working with two of my students, and the laughter we shared has always made these sessions memorable. In the first session, the student was struggling with incorporating comments from her advisor. In the other, the student was tired of the course content and the TA was not helping matters. Both students were working on serious writing projects and had serious writing concerns. However, we were able to navigate through it with our shared laughter, creating a more supporting space to do the main business of strengthening their writings. When we meet outside of our writing center space, we still share moments of laughter because of the connections we’ve made. These two experiences got me thinking more about the place of laughter in writing center spaces. 

Initially, being an international student I was super conscious of laughing in my sessions, but I couldn’t repress it. I wondered if I was weird, disruptive and unofficial. So I decided to pay attention to other workstations. I was not weird after all! Laughter seemed typical in our writing center. 

My initial worry and realizing laughter was common in our writing spaces made me curious about what prompted laughter and its work in one-on-one sessions. Since I was no longer tutoring because of my role as the TA assistant director, I could pay more attention to laughter in our writing center space. 

I also turned to the literature, which shows ongoing conversations on the benefits and risks of humor and laughter in learning spaces such as the writing classroom and writing center/tutoring sessions (Bell & Pomerantz, 2015; Sherwood, 1993). While some instructors are worried about the misunderstanding, and power imbalances that may make humor/laughter go wrong, those who believe that there is a place for laughter in these spaces highlight its social and cognitive benefits such as creating lighthearted moments, supportive spaces, and collaborations that make learning more effective. Very instructive for me is that humor/laughter humanizes us especially because institutional contexts may not. Also, making laughter/humor a mindset, a constant in our learning spaces, and a culture was also insightful for me. These studies also helped me realize that even though laughter was pervasive in our space, it was possible to miss it as a pedagogical tool, especially when working one-on-one with students who may not have recurring appointments. 

After reading the research, I was interested in tutors’ perspectives on laughter in the writing center. More importantly, I wanted them to consciously reflect more on laughter, especially because of the cultural nuances of laughter. To learn about our tutors’ perspectives, I conducted  short, informal one-on-one interviews with seven tutors. Like all of our writing center tutors, these tutors are all doctoral students. They come from different fields of study such as Literary Studies, Sociology, Spanish & Portuguese. You can learn more about the tutors who participated by looking through the slides below.

  • Tolulope Akinwole is a doctoral candidate in Literary Studies at UW-Madison researching the expressive arts coalescing around the public bus in postcolonial African cities. He is also associate editor of, and he manages

To understand their collective perspectives on each question,  I chose to present their answers all together. It would have been so much fun to have you listen to our conversations, so that you could have been a part of our laughter. 

Sit back, enjoy our conversations, laugh and learn with us. [laughs]


Does laughter occur in your session?

Abby: Yeah. Not every session, but I would say it probably comes into a lot of them. 

Helen: Yes, I do tend to laugh in my writing center session. I find it that students often come into the writing session being prepared to find humor in what they write.

Johs: I try to laugh. It can be more tricky depending on the personality of the student. If there is a good vibe, I try to make it fun. Making it a bit humorous and making fun of myself, I do that a lot. [laughs]

Luke: I think it definitely does happen. I don’t know that it happens in every session because understandably if a student is bringing a rather serious personal statement and it doesn’t make sense, it will be inappropriate to laugh.

Samitha: Laughter does happen in my sessions.

Seth: Yes. I think so. Probably not often as it does in other sessions. I’ve definitely heard lots of laughter in the writing center. As a TA leader, I have so few sessions that it’s hard to remember. Definitely laughing happens. 

Tolu: Of course, laughter happens in my sessions.

In what contexts do laughter occur?

Abby: Sometimes laughter happens at the very beginning, maybe we are talking about how the weather is terrible or how we are working to make it to spring break—small talk at the beginning. But I think it is also can come in the middle of sessions, especially like…if something comes up and we are working together on something; we are trying to do something and we make mistakes together, or maybe I think if something is really hard and we are trying to puzzle through something and we are not getting there; I think laughter can be kind of cathartic, where both people acknowledge that this is very hard. Those are two ways laughter comes up.

Helen:  Often if I find that something isn’t expressed the way that students want it to be it can be fun to say “‘this’ could mean this,” especially in moments of grammatical ambiguity because I love grammar. Pointing out the joy of unintended meanings is an overly fun way to connect where it isn’t super academic but instead: let’s work on expressing what you want to. I have also found that people who will come back—I have mentees, but people who will come back and sign up for an appointment over and over—will often share that appreciation… the more someone returns, the more I know that they are excited about that way of perceiving things. 

Johs: I think I often initiate the laughter. [laughs] It’s organic because of my personality. Also the student could initiate it. It could be tricky. If a student comes with a physics paper, for instance, I have to laugh at myself because I don’t understand the content. I can help with the grammar and organization but I don’t know anything about equations. [laughs]

Luke: I think the one place in which it happens in a more regular way is in those moments of commiseration and moments of ‘I know how hard this is and it’s stressing me out”. In some moments it intuitively happens for sure but in terms of specific moment, the commiseration is probably the first thing that comes to mind.  By commiseration, I mean,  a mutual identification of a shared problem or struggle. For instance, a personal statement invites vulnerability and when you are applying for a career or job, you also don’t want to risk anything! When you are acknowledging all these tensions [and incongruities in writing prompts], you laugh and assure yourself that you’re gonna get through this. 

Samitha: There are different kinds of laughter. It mostly happens when students themselves find something to laugh about and in cases like that, I join in and laugh. 

Seth: A lot of time it happens when students are recognizing their own struggles and mistakes. I think there are a lot of times when it happens too, any time  there is an opportunity to break the tension. It is a kind of confidence mechanism building. A lot of times we are laughing about how hard writing is. [laughs]

Tolu: Laughter occurs when students are feeling anxious over the draft and it helps ease the tension. Sometimes, I do something meant to be funny to tone down the feeling of anxiety. Laughter could be students’ strategy of masking their anxieties about their writing.

Do you worry about the cultural nuances of laughter?

Abby: I haven’t thought about that a lot. I try my best to sort of read how the student is perceiving the session. I would never want to laugh at the student or have my laughter come off that way. A lot of times when I find myself wanting to laugh, I want to make sure that the other person is also in that same place. I think there is a lot of room for shared laughter. I am trying to think of the time I laughed and the other person didn’t. I think that can be uncomfortable and that gets towards sort of a communication or approach or perspective mismanagement or breakdown. 

Helen: Absolutely. I think I hold back from laughing first because it can be a marker of response to vulnerability that can often be off-putting if someone feels that they have put themselves out there and they are being laughed at. I will test the waters. I won’t just laugh at their writing. I try to make sure that I am laughing with them and with their writing to notice how language works. I try to never be the first to laugh. So then when they laugh, I sort of join in. Laughing with students is important because people often hide their fear of vulnerability if they are in the Writing Center when they look around them and see people having conversations that seem a certain way. Laughter when it is done right can be a tool of showing that you can be the way that feels natural and also get your needs met. You want to make sure you are not laughing at students because there is a power imbalance where you are the one giving feedback, but I think it is so positive and not disruptive especially if it is student-initiated. 

Johs: I am from Denmark. It’s quite similar to the US culturally… I lean into my Danishness when I am in the writing center. Even using it as a point of difference to situate yourself for the student – writer. I don’t feel I am undermining my own authority or anything like that. [laughs]

Luke: I should be worried about that. It is not something I have actively thought about whether my laughter makes someone uncomfortable. I think I do pay attention to other softer things such as body language, and other social cues. I will take it into account. When I don’t actively think about how my  laughter is being received, I pay attention to other social cues, which I would hope and maybe not that social cues will help me know whether or not laughter is making someone feel uncomfortable or not. 

Samitha: As an international student, laughter is sometimes mixed with doubts for me because sometimes I don’t get jokes and I am so afraid of laughing at the wrong thing. Sometimes, laughter doesn’t come as natural to me as it does if I am in a more familiar context with family or friends I grew up with… Sometimes, I laugh automatically as a defense mechanism hoping that it would put other people or myself at ease. I think, based on my assessment of myself, I laugh sometimes because I don’t know what else to do but I think different people are humorous in different ways. That is why I am having some trouble thinking about laughter, but whenever a student does laugh and points something out in their writing, I am always relieved and so happy to know because it is an indicator to me that they are comfortable in the session. Their laughter puts me at ease and I do join  in. 

Seth: I think usually my laughing  accompanies students’ laughter. Usually, the students laugh first [laughs] that is usually how I prevent myself from feeling that concern. I tend  to keep a kind of pretty straight affect when I am offering feedback  or listening to a student read . It is very unlikely I would laugh during those times  because I am thinking about not coming off that I am laughing because they have made some mistakes. Also it is partly just part of the practice of learning to let students lead the conversations so that if you respond to their laughter you know that they are setting the tone for the meeting. You are giving them so much power to set the tone for the meeting. A big part of it is thinking about how to give the students power to lead. 

Tolu: No, I don’t; especially for laughter. I think humor is the issue, not laughter. What brings up the laughter is what I worry about. So I worry more about what I or a student does to induce laughter.

What is the work of laughter in writing center space/instruction?

Abby: I think being able to laugh about our work and our approach to things is so important. If I was told that I can’t laugh in sessions that feels will take some of the joy out of sessions. I think laughter can be indicative of being able to have moments of “this is really hard and we just need to laugh about it.” Ever since we were in the same OGE and you talked about it, I have been a little bit more cognizant of when laughter happens in sessions. I think when both people are laughing about something it really helps to build a connection and a feeling of “we are in this together” and like very much so that feeling of “I’m here to support you and we are working on this project as a team.” Taking away laughter will make it harder to do that. 

Helen: I especially think that laughter can make people relax. I have a background in comedy. I love to laugh and love to have other people laugh. It is such an enjoyable experience to be light-hearted about things, and it can break down barriers. I have been surprised by how much organic laughter has been in the Writing Center environment.  With teaching, it is not as if I am doing stand up comedy, but I am always looking for laughter. [laughs] It is so much fun when students are laughing with each other. However, the one-on-one environment has been really powerful in terms of letting laughter represent us. People are not returning because of the laughter but because of the conversations where there is laughter.  I do think that laughter characterizes our Writing Center when people come in and they are nervous. I can hear them in other conversations lighting up, and it feels good that it is not just me that is experiencing laughter. 

Johs:  It’s doing a kind of social work. It creates a common ground because we don’t know each other, so we need a common ground to stand on. It is a good strategy for creating a bond between you and the students even if it is just very brief. Again, it creates bonds, even if you are only creating the bond so that you can work better together, especially if you are working with a younger student or a person whose first language is not English and they don’t feel that comfortable. So you create some kind of connection between you. 

Luke: It is a tension-reliever.  I do think about it because it is one of those things that can be used to pave over social discomfort and it can sometimes have a critical component; it can be both polite and very critical and sometimes you don’t always know which one it is. It is very polyvalent in the sense that it can play all of these roles. Laughter in the sense of commiseration is a low level kind of solidarity. Laughing as identification with students (solidarity laughter) is a big part of what laughter or humor does. When a student is laughing that tends to show a degree of comfort, but then again laughter can mean anything – it could also  mean discomfort. People laugh when they are uncomfortable. I laugh when I am uncomfortable. It can mean so many different things, that’s the tricky part. 

Samitha: Recently I had a student come in and at the end of the session they said, “I was so anxious about coming in and it was fine. I don’t know what I was worried about.” I think laughter creates the affect that when students are coming into the space, they know that they are not coming into the space where someone will sit with them and judge them because writing has so much judgment associated with it. It’s a place you meet someone to talk to and a place for conversation. It has a way of helping us not take writing too seriously. [laughs] Laughter, just from the philosophy of the writing center and how we approach writing, would play a very important emotional role in achieving that.

Seth: A lot of time it happens when students are recognizing their own struggles and mistakes. I think there are a lot of times when it happens too, any time  there is an opportunity to break the tension. It is a kind of confidence mechanism building. A lot of times we are laughing about how hard writing is. [laughs]

Tolu: Humor peels off the layer of formality; such an atmosphere better helps the writer. I think it is also okay for writers to laugh at themselves and their work and not take themselves too seriously sometimes… they should, of course, take their work seriously. Sometimes undergraduate writers come to the Writing Center with the impression that theTA functions as an evaluator who reads to decide whether or not they have passed. Humor and laughter helps to reorder things and invite them to collaborate. I engage in humor sometimes, because it helps lower a student’s affective filter.

How will our conversation on laughter shape your writing center work moving forward?

Abby:  Whenever someone brings something up for me about, “does this occur in your sessions?” then in my sessions I am really really cognizant of it. I think it is interesting to see how we become a little bit more self aware about the things we are doing in one-on-one sessions especially when you are doing a lot of them, like I have 16 sessions a week and I think sometimes you kind of go into an automatic mode. It is helpful when somebody is like “see if you noticed that” and it helps with that self awareness and to take you out of that “I just have to get through this” kind of mindset. 

Helen: I want to explore more conversations like this so that I can share the joys of writing center work and listen to how other people make their sessions as successful and positive as possible. Even though we keep the details of sessions confidential, I like to hear about the experiences of others while sharing my own approach! Also, it’s always great to hear about how writing center appointments can match students’ current mood; I was scared to go to the Writing Center when I was a college student, and now as a TA and PhD student, I wish I could tell my former self that a writing center appointment doesn’t need to be intense!

Johs: I’m gonna think about it a lot more… [laughs loudly] It is not something that I do intentionally, it is a sort of pedagogical strategy. Unconscious… [laughs]

Luke: It would bring a little bit of consciousness into laughter. In today’s session I am sure I laughed but I didn’t consciously reflect on it, but I will probably do that next time. I don’t know I will definitely be looking for spaces for laughter to happen, but if it happens, the scrutiny is turned up a notch. I appreciate any chance to put the writing center one -on-one conference in a different perspective, and I have never thought of how my laughter makes someone uncomfortable, which I would like to think that it doesn’t but the reality is that there are situations where it does happen.  As a pedagogical tool, a thing with writing center pedagogy is the moment I try to think  of a systematic way of implementing and using things so it is impossible because it ends up to be a case by case basis. You need to pay attention to what a person is asking for  and what they need to a certain extent. So there is a place for laughter, but it is not like you are required to have three giggles for 45 minutes, ‘Can you imagine?’ [laughs] It is not the way to go but a way to accommodate laughter.  

Samitha: I worry about being awkward in everyday interaction, so I am conscious of laughing. Now I am genuinely laughing [laughs] because I find this situation amusing. The quality of laughter now is different but in the previous moments, I was laughing because I did not know what to say. [laughs] Laughter does, in general, help put people at ease but that ease addresses different kinds of feelings they are coping with. [laughs] I don’t know what to say. I am filling-up-space-kind of laughter. I will be a little self-conscious, in a good way. [laughs] Thinking about why am I laughing? Oh the student is laughing! Am I observing why the student is laughing and be more self conscious. 

Seth: I have very few one to one tutoring sessions. I will be thinking more actively about how I use laughter because now I am thinking more of how I use little jokes to temper expectations about my own expertise and various way I do cause laughter and not just follow when a student is laughing and also do things to make a student laugh because of the ways that I may be uncomfortable in a meeting. I will probably be thinking more about it. It’s a really interesting conversation to have and I think it’s something that we don’t explore thoroughly all the time. Like I have not actively thought about what laughter does in my meetings or why I am doing it or why students are doing it. It is just something that hasn’t typically been a question for me. [laughs]

Tolu: I do not intend to turn the WC into a comedy affair, but I remain open to the pedagogical affordances of humor.

Closing Remarks

My key takeaway from these conversations are the different perspectives on the prevalence of laughter, and it tends to happen more or less for some tutors, but some degree of laughter is present. Also some types of laughter they mentioned include shared, student-initiated, solidarity laughter, laughing with and not laughing at students. Tutors do highlight the affordances of laughter to navigate uneasiness, create a supportive space, acknowledging and navigating the difficulty of writing and the vulnerability of sharing one’s writing with another. Echoing Tolu, I do hope we can continue to  “remain open to the pedagogical affordances of humor” with a cultural awareness of laughter. 


Bain, Kimberly. “Laughter in the Writing Center: Creating Intimate Rhetorical Experiences in the Writing Center to Engage the Learning Process,” Praxis, March 8, 2023.

Bell, Nancy and Anne Pomerantz. Humor in the Classroom: A Guide for Language Teachers and Educational Researchers. Routledge, 2016. 

Davis, Laura. “Creating a Classroom Culture of Laughter.Edutopia, October 5, 2015.

Flannery, Amdahl. “No Laughing Matter: Humor and the Writing Center.” Writing Center Staff Website, University of Pittsburg. April 2003.

Kim, Seung Eun. “Laughter in Contexts of Interactional Troubles in Writing Tutoring Service. “The Sociolinguistic Society of Korea, vol. 24, no. 2, 2016, pp. 49-77. 

Sherwood, Steve. “Humor and the Serious Tutor.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, 1993, pp. 3-12. 

Thonus, Terese. “Acquaintanceship, Familiarity, and Coordinated Laughter in Writing Tutorials.” Linguistics and Education,  vol. 19, no. 4, 2008, pp. 333-350.

Arawomo Oluwayinka smiling and sitting in the Writing Center at UW-Madison

Arawomo Oluwayinka is a PhD candidate in the Department of English, Composition and Rhetoric program. She has taught first year college writing instruction, and one-on-one writing instruction in the writing center. She is currently the TA Assistant Director of the UW-Madison Writing Center. Her research interests include Nigerian women’s sexual rhetorics, women’s digital writing and rhetoric, and emotions in writing center spaces.