Date of Award

December 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dennis A. Lynch

Committee Members

Anne F. Wysocki, Alice Gillam, Mary Louise Buley-Meissner, Anthony Ciccone


Critical, Humor, Laughter, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Writing





Nicholas J. Learned

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2015

Under the Supervision of Professor Dennis Lynch

In this dissertation, I work to rethink our current approaches to teaching critical thinking and writing in attempt to collapse the distance between the critical/rhetorical methods we teach in Rhetoric and Composition and the ways students interact rhetorically in their everyday lives. I am prompted to this line of inquiry by a problem I note in both theory and practice: the critical methods we teach in our writing courses rarely translate to real-world behaviors, often leading instead to student resistance, apathy, or cynicism. I begin in Chapter 1 by examining James Berlin’s Critical Cultural Studies-inflected writing pedagogy because I find it representative of the critical aims and methods that permeate Rhetoric and Composition more generally. I then turn to the work of Lynn Worsham, T.R. Johnson, Thomas Rickert, and others who argue (directly or indirectly) that CCS-inflected writing pedagogies elicit resistance, apathy, or cynicism. These scholars help me to show how the problems they note stem from the way CCS-inflected pedagogies try to (re)shape students simply by shaping the ways that they write, thereby neglecting the role that non-discursive forces play in who students are and what they do. In Chapter 2, I examine the solutions put forth by the scholars who helped me to frame the problem, finding that while these solutions offer productive ways to engage students’ non-discursive selves in the act of writing, they do so by ceding the desire to foster the kind of critical behaviors we tend to value in Rhetoric and Composition. I argue that these scholars’ inability to reconcile the critical methods we teach with students’ non-discursive, embodied ways of knowing grows from the way they frame critical thinking and emotion as incompatible. In Chapter 3, I look to the work of philosopher Henri Bergson, whose theory of intuition shows how peoples’ abstract and embodied ways of knowing (which he represents with the roughly parallel terms, intellect and instinct) work together in synergy to help people find their way through the world. In Chapter 4 I turn to practice, looking back at my experience trying to collapse the distance between the critical methods we teach and the ways students think and act in the real world. Through this experience I come to suspect that there might be pedagogical value to the rhetorical and affectively-engaging properties of humor and laughter, though because I had yet at the time to make use of Bergson’s theory of intuition, my solutions fell short. In Chapter 5, I examine Bergson’s theory of the comic, which grows out of his theory of intuition, and which I argue shows laughter to be embodied critical cognition. I then describe ways in which I structured a first-year writing course to take advantage of these critical and engaging properties of laughter. I conclude by examining sample writing produced by a student who was positioned to expand upon the critical insight contained in moments of her (and her family’s) own laughter in service of academic inquiry. I argue that this tactic resolves the problematic tension students experience between their rational and embodied ways of knowing when they are subject to CCS-inflected pedagogies, while also fostering the kinds of critical insight lacking in the solutions put forward by Worsham, Johnson, Rickert, and others. My aim in this project is not for all instructors of first-year writing to use humor and laughter in the pedagogically-strategic way I arrive at in my own courses, but to encourage others to find new ways to tackle through scholarship and practice this (potential) gap between the critical/rhetorical concepts we teach and the ways students think and act in their everyday lives.