When she was originally asked to teach Theories of Humor and Laughter at Emerson College, a course intended for aspiring comedians, Harvard Ph.D. candidate Sarah Corrigan felt more than out of place. While she was excited to teach the course, her research centered around modern forms of lament and lamentation; consequently, she wasn’t sure if she was the best fit for the role.
Corrigan would soon discover, however, that laughing and crying are more closely connected than one may assume.
“I was like, I'm the least qualified to teach this class,” Corrigan said. “One thing [that] I did not expect was that there was going to be so much crying involved, not in terms of the students crying, … [but] what kind of emotions [that] are being drummed up when we laugh actually brings us very close to crying and questions of tears.”
Corrigan, one of the faculty members who joined the Tufts community this year, is an assistant professor in the Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies. This fall, she taught a course titled Special Topics: Laughing & Crying in Literature & Film, inspired by the interconnectedness of emotions that she discovered while teaching at Emerson.
“When I was applying for this job, I thought, ‘Maybe the course I really want to teach is the combination [of] laughing and crying,’” Corrigan said. “So I pitched it, and luckily, they liked it.”
The course is divided into three parts: theories of laughter, poetry of loss and finally tragicomedy, the combination of tragedy and comedy. Throughout the semester, students examine notable theorists such as Henri Bergson, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schopenhauer to gain new insight on what it truly means to experience these seemingly opposite poles of emotion. Students then learn how to apply these theories to a wide variety of different media, ranging from the works of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen to viral Key & Peele Youtube skits.
Corrigan shared her own personal fascination with the subject matter. In her view, laughing and crying both represent raw and uncontrollable states of being, a key observation that motivates her course.
“I feel like in life, … we think of ourselves as very much in control, in control of the image we present to the world,” Corrigan said. “A lot of us spend a lot of time curating certain images of ourselves for the public … and laughing and crying are two moments where we behave involuntarily. And where something outside of our own conscious control seizes us, and we give in, either to giggles or to tears. ... This is one moment where we can’t necessarily control ourselves, and maybe there’s something productive in that.”
While the subject matter may seem niche in nature, Corrigan hopes that students will be able to apply the lessons learned through the various texts and discussions of the course to their own experiences with emotions.
In this regard, Corrigan elaborated that theories of laughter can be helpful in social situations, functioning as “analytical tools” for us to determine the proper reaction. She also emphasized the importance of understanding suffering through a sense of empathy.
“Looking at the different ways that poetry of loss has tried to convey the pain of losing someone can help us … to have compassion for the wide ranging amounts of emotion and experience that we have already had in our lives and will continue to have,” she said.
When prompted to speak on her experience so far at Tufts, Corrigan was all smiles. According to the assistant professor, Tufts undergraduates have “curious” minds, with some of her students even creating their own theories of laughter by building on the ideas of famous theorists. However, what she found to be most distinctive regarding the Tufts student body is their kindness.
“They are curious, just like I was praying for. … They’re also very kind to one another and humble,” Corrigan said. “The way that Tufts students, as I am seeing, uplift each other and care for each other is something I have never seen at any institution that I’ve been at. … And it’s really inspiring.”
Corrigan further expressed her gratitude to her students and the greater Tufts community.
“When you teach, the truth is that you’re taught a lot by the people who are in the class. And it’s really rewarding for me to see … just the heart that seems to be at the heart of this campus,” she said. “Freshmen are already really part of that beating heart in helping each other to make it through, and also I love my colleagues. They’re very kind.”
On top of lamenting and laughing, Corrigan shared her interest in a multitude of different fields, such as the medical humanities and psychoanalysis, the focus of her undergraduate thesis.
Before joining Tufts, Corrigan also taught classes examining the representations of doctors in literature, something she believes can be beneficial for those on the pre-med track at Tufts.
“I [would love to teach] classes on medical humanities, where we look at how doctors are depicted in literature,” Corrigan said. “I think it can be helpful for a pre-med student to see how someone in a position of authority over someone’s body, who is facing a serious existential question about their life and what does it mean to have a body and what does it mean to be sick and what is death? … We try to think about what kind of care we can glean from these texts that would actually be more useful.”
Whether it’s investigating depictions of medical staff in texts or analyzing poetry about loss, Corrigan believes that literature is an important aspect of the human experience and a worthwhile pursuit. A common perception of literature is that it is a fruitless and impractical career path, to which Corrigan expressed her disagreement.
“We can tell a lot about the health of a society by the stories it tells about itself, and the way that stories survive us,” she said. “Human storytelling is a medium for being eternal, for living forever.”
Corrigan is expected to receive her Ph.D. from the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University on Nov. 8. In the upcoming spring 2023 semester, she will be the instructor of two international literary and visual studies courses, titled Forgiveness and Special Topics: Existentialist Literature.