URI Honors Colloquium examines power of humor to promote health, happiness

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Dr. Patch Adams is among featured speakers


KINGSTON, R.I. – August 18, 2015 – What do you get when you combine two witty University of Rhode Island professors, one a communication scholar, the other a scientist?


Belly laughs, for sure, as well as a unique and compelling URI Honors Colloquium that features writers, cartoonists, humorists, clowns, neuroscientists and all-around funny folks talking about the joy, benefits and importance of humor in life.


This year’s lecture series, “The Power of Humor,” will run Tuesdays at 7 p.m. from Sept. 22 through Dec. 8 in Edwards Hall on the Kingston campus. All talks are free and open to the public.


Rachel DiCioccio, professor of communication studies, and Brian Quilliam, associate dean and professor of pharmacy, came up with the idea for the program since humor inspires them – in and out of the classroom.


“Humor is a part of who we are – personally and professionally,” says Quilliam. “We want to show the community, on campus and throughout the state, how humor can make you feel happier and healthier.”

If you’re expecting a series of one-liners, think again. One of the extraordinary things about the program is that it features speakers from a variety of disciplines. Dr. Patch Adams will talk about his groundbreaking work linking humor to good health, and a British neuroscientist will discuss how laughter stimulates brain activity. Other speakers include New Yorker cartoonists, a nationally renowned political humorist and a Boston scholar with expertise in humor and diversity.


“We’re excited to offer a program that is somewhat non-traditional for a University, but so applicable to our everyday lives,” says DiCioccio. “Brian and I love humor and can’t wait to show others how fulfilling humor can be – and how it can change people in a positive way.”


It’s a stretch to say that humor defines DiCioccio and Quilliam, but it comes close. DiCioccio has been laughing since her childhood in Cleveland when her father entertained family and friends with his wit. Quilliam used humor as a kid growing up in northern New Jersey, emphasizing the comedic aspects of daily life to make family and friends laugh.


They both started teaching at URI in 2003 and immediately hit it off at University meetings. Why? They both liked to laugh. They teased each other, but in a playful way that strengthened their friendship and made working together fun. “Humor is pervasive in our lives,” says Quilliam. “That was obvious.” One day, DiCioccio, who teaches an honors class about humor, approached her colleague about proposing an Honors Colloquium on the topic.


“I said, ‘You’re funny, I’m funny. Let’s do this.’ ” DiCioccio says.


Brian’s response: “I’m funnier, let me think about it.”


A “maybe” turned into a “full speed ahead,” and in no time the two had secured RSVPs from nine speakers, all prepared to dazzle the audience with their knowledge about the benefits of a good laugh and the complexities of using humor to communicate.

Not surprisingly, DiCioccio and Quilliam use humor to cope with the ups and downs of life. Quilliam is a funny guy at home with his kids (“My co-workers enjoy hearing about some of the comedic exchanges between my kids and me,” he says), and they both apply humor in the classroom to make students feel more comfortable.


The benefits of humor, they say, are immense. Laughter and humor can boost the immune system, relax muscles, cultivate friendships, sharpen critical thinking skills, relieve stress, enhance resilience, defuse conflicts and promote group bonding, especially among co-workers. Best of all, it’s free.


DiCioccio recalls the time humor helped her cope with a wardrobe mishap while she was a graduate teaching assistant at Michigan State University. It was a bitterly cold winter day. She was dressed to the nines – high-heeled boots, a flowing corduroy skirt, a handsome leather briefcase. Her students were standing outside the college as she approached from the parking lot.


“I hit a patch of black ice in my granny boots,” she says. “I went down, and my Ralph Lauren skirt went up – over my head.”


What’s worse, she was wearing knee-high socks, not tights. She was mortified. She managed to limp into the classroom. The students were “dead silent.” Humor kicked in, and she performed a curtsy fit for royalty. “The students broke into thunderous applause,” she says. “That’s how we all got past it.”


The colloquium will begin with the talk by Adams Sept. 22. Adams is founder of the Gesundheit Institute for Holistic Medicine. He is a writer, clown and activist and was portrayed by the late Robin Williams in the movie, “Patch Adams.”

Here’s a list of the other talks:


Sept. 29, Humor and Cartooning, a talk by Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor for The New Yorker. He is the author of many books on humor and cartooning including “How About Never – Is Never Good For You?” He lectures worldwide about humor.


Oct. 6, Humor and Diversity, a talk by Teja Arboleda, president and creative director for Entertaining Diversity. An Emmy-winning assistant director and winner of two Telly Awards, Arboleda is the author of “In the Shadow of Race.” He is a performer, writer, editor and producer focusing on race, cultural diversity and the impact of humor.


Oct. 13, Humor in Politics, a talk by John Fugelsang, a television and radio host, actor and comedian. Fugelsang has appeared in movies and on television shows, including “CSI” and “Providence.” He is the host of the politically-focused comedic show, “Tell Me Everything on Sirius Radio.”


Oct. 27, Science of Laughter, a talk by Sophie Scott, a professor and neuroscientist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London. Her research focuses on the neurobiology of speech perception. Her interest in stand-up comedy bridges the gap between neuroscience and the examination of laughter. She has delivered her popular TED talk, “Why We Laugh,” to scientists and non-scientists throughout the world.


Nov. 3, Humor and the Law, a talk by Laura E. Little, the Charles Klein Professor of Law and Government and senior advisor to the Dean of the Law School at Temple University. She has presented internationally on the topic of humor and the law and has written several manuscripts on the topic.


Nov. 17, Humor and Disability, a talk by Bruce Baum, professor emeritus of education at Buffalo State College and creative director of Humor Creativity, a group committed to incorporating humor, magic and other creative endeavors to promote professional and personal growth. Baum is the author of the book, “How to Motivate Audiences.” He is the 2007 recipient of the President’s award for Excellence in Teaching at Buffalo State College.


Dec. 1, Humor and Gender, a talk by Liza Donnelly, a writer and cartoonist working with The New Yorker and Forbes.com, and a cultural envoy for the U.S. Department of State. Donnelly’s expertise is the use of humor and cartoons to tackle issues of inequality related to gender and world peace.


Dec. 8, Humor in Science, a talk by Marc Abrahams, author, editor and co-founder of the “Annals of Improbable Research” and master of ceremonies for the Ig® Nobel Prize. The Ig® prize, in its 25th year, is awarded for science that “makes you laugh, then think.” Abrahams has authored many books, including “This is Improbable Too,” and he is a regular columnist for The Guardian. He is a national speaker who examines and reports the occasional humorous side to serious scientific inquiry.


The public is invited to attend the series of free events in person or online. Most of the lectures are available online at URI Live!


Additional events include:


Oct. 6, “You’ve Crossed the Line,” a performance by Entertaining Diversity at 8:30 p.m., in Edwards Auditorium, following the Honors Colloquium talk by Arboleda. The free event will engage the audience in a lively discussion about the taboo side of diversity and gender.


Oct. 15-18 and Oct. 22-25, “In the Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play),” a play by Sarah Ruhl that will be presented by the URI Department of Theatre in the Fine Arts Center.


Nov. 7, 8 p.m., “URI Family Weekend: Steve Martin and Martin Short in a Very Stupid Conversation.” The Thomas M. Ryan Center. Tickets and information are available at The Ryan Center.


“In the 52 years the URI Honors Program has offered the Honors Colloquium there has been a wide array of engaging topics but none more so than ‘The Power of Humor’ promises to be,” says Lynne Derbyshire, URI professor of communication studies and Honors Program director. “The topic of humor appeals across academic disciplines and beyond, because humor impacts everyone. From the Simpsons to New Yorker cartoons to cat videos, laughter improves our lives.”


The major sponsor of this year’s Honors Colloquium is the URI Honors Program.


Other URI sponsors are Office of the President; Office of the Provost; The Mark and Donna Ross Honors Colloquium Humanities Endowment; The Thomas Silvia and Shannon Chandley Honors Colloquium Endowment; College of Arts and Sciences; College of Pharmacy; The Harrington School of Communication and Media; John Hazen White, Sr. Center for Ethics and Public Service; Gender and Women Studies Program; Theatre Department; Talent Development Program; College of Engineering; College of the Environment and Life Sciences; College of Human Science and Services; College of Business Administration; College of Nursing; Division of Student Affairs; Department of Marketing and Communications; Department of Publications and Creative Service; Instructional Technology and Media Services; ASF College of Continuing Education, URI Providence; and URI Family Weekend 2015.

For more information on colloquium events contact Deborah Gardiner at 401-874-2381 or debg@uri.edu.


For information about ways to support the Honors Colloquium, contact Derbyshire at 401-874-4732. If you have a disability and need an accommodation, please call 401-874-2303 at least three business days in advance.


For TTY assistance, please call the R.I. Relay Service at 800-745-5555.


Click here for more details about the Colloquium.


Pictured above:

Rachel DiCioccio, professor of communication studies at URI, and Brian Quilliam, associate dean and professor of pharmacy at URI.

Dr. Patch Adams, with mustache.

Robert Mankoff.


Photos courtesy of URI.