Unintended Giggles

Quick question:

So, has anyone else, while teaching a class, heard a breakout of schoolboy giggles behind them upon sketching the typical shape of the spatial intensity of the synchrotron radiation from a charged particle? You know, this:

[tex]f(\theta;\beta)=\frac{((1-\beta \cos\theta)^2-(1-\beta^2)\sin^2\theta)}{(1-\beta\cos\theta)^5}[/tex]

for [tex]\beta=v/c\simeq 0.6[/tex]

As soon as I drew it* and heard the giggles I knew what they were getting at. I had not anticipated it at all. It did not help that I drew it in the more exaggerated fashion that the Griffiths E&M text does in figure 11.16. I tried to turn around and be stern and say “oh, come on…”, but I don’t think I did a good job. A bit embarrassing in a mixed class.

It did not help that earlier in the lecture I’d made a more innocent joke (that I always make at this time of year), writing this at the end of a derivation:

[tex]P=\frac{\mu_0q^2a^2}{6\pi c}\ ,[/tex]

… and (in a sort of Barry White voice), saying ” this is called the Luuurrrvvv formula”. I got a stony silence this year, and not the satisfying groan I got before. This is a joke you either get right off, or not, I imagine. Physicists among you…. got it?


(*Go ahead and plot it with Maple, or whatever your favourite program is for that, if you like…)

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16 Responses to Unintended Giggles

  1. WMGoBuffs says:

    Years ago in my undergrad Modern Physics class, my prof (name withheld) started class by saying “Consider two protons {draws protons on board}. Let’s go ahead and label them {does so}”. Minutes later, the wave of giggles worked its way across the class, for on the board was:

    P o o P

  2. Supernova says:

    I just told my graduate E&M class today I did NOT want to hear any jokes about “hard” ferromagnets (they are just the group to do it, too, and have a track record of such things). There were a few smirks, but at least nothing disruptive.

  3. Seth Zenz says:

    All I know is that any instructor who uses the phrase “penetration into classically forbidden regions” has earned the giggles.

  4. Nathan says:

    I know it’s not very nice, but a very serious discussion of retarded potentials gets me every time.

  5. robert says:

    I recall a course on complex analysis with a presenter whose every contour of integration was an excuse for a visual double entendre, accompanied by a snarf snarf sort of giggle. He (for sadly it was a chap) also found the Wick rotation most amausing.

  6. Clifford says:

    Nathan: Yep… that was one of the last bursts of giggles in the class at something I wrote down. It never fails.


  7. theoreticalminimum says:


  8. Clifford says:

    Thank you for getting that. I was losing faith in my readers for a while there…!


  9. Pingback: Professors Do It Too at Asymptotia

  10. “A bit embarrassing in a mixed class.”

    Why is it more embarassing in a mixed class than a non-mixed class? I’m not being sarky — I’m genuinely curious.


  11. Clifford says:

    Easy to answer. It is easy to lose control of the atmosphere of a class… and tip over into the territory of intentionally or unintentionally making someone uncomfortable with sexually charged jokes that may go too far and cause discomfort. Having spent a lot of my own formative years in such hostile-feeling environments (not over sex, but race), I am sensitive to being responsible for it (or appearing to be) myself…


  12. I get that…I’m wondering why there’s more risk of that with a mixed class.

    Sexually charged jokes don’t offend me — it’s the sexism that might accompany such a joke that would bother me, not the sexual content. But if the issue was a sexist or racist joke, then having a class with no women or no black people wouldn’t make the situation any less problematic. The issue isn’t that women and black people are terribly fragile and sensitive about having their disadvantages mentioned in front of them; the issue is that certain jokes reinforce harmful biases in society and that’s why they’re bad. So those jokes shouldn’t be made even if there are no black people or women in the room to overhear the jokes and feel uncomfortable.

    But it sounds like you’re not talking about a situation with jokes that are inherently sexist or racist, just about jokes that are sexual. So is your concern that joking around with sexual overturns can easily lead to sexist jokes in a mixed class?


  13. “Overturns” should be “overtones”. Sorry.


  14. Clifford says:

    I think it is pretty simple what I’m saying. The line between sexual and sexist can be a thin one (depending the direction taken) and I personally find it best, in a classroom setting of young undergraduates, especially when I am the professor presiding, as it were, to be as clear as possible on which side of the line one is on – regardless of who is present – and to steer the proceedings a touch. This is true in general, but when it is mixed class, there is an additional risk of creating discomfort – even if it just as a result of a misunderstanding of the intent of a joke, etc – and so I try to be more careful. So when a joke of that sort pops up in stealth mode, it can throw one a bit… I want to tread carefully, for the reasons I said.

    Now, you can make a big deal about this and declare that I am wrong and that I should react *Exactly* the same way no matter who is present, and I simply disagree. The issue of things running fast toward a hostile/uncomfortable atmosphere for some is kind of important, in my experience. But you’re very welcome to your opinion about this, of course.



  15. I certainly wasn’t saying you were wrong or criticising, and I apologise if I sounded that way. I am genuinely interested in how these issues interact with classroom management (which is not something I’m overly familiar with).


  16. Clifford says:

    No no, all good.


    P.S. Another factor you might not be fully aware of… The USA, I have found, is generally far more skittish about such topics than Europe. So I find it best to err on the side of caution.