Earlier this year, I worked with Jillian Belanger, Writing & Rhetoric Ph.D. student at the University of Rhode Island, to organize Open Mic, Open Minds: An Exploration of Social Issues Through Standup. The academic conference brought together practitioners and scholars at the Harrington School of Communication and Media to discuss the ways in which comedy can be used as a tool for social change.

Unlike a typical academic conference, this one included nods to the subject matter at hand. Instead of swag bags filled with notebooks and pens, participants received “gag bags” filled with chattering teeth, rubber chickens, and whoopee cushions. While registering, participants enjoyed the photo booth and DJ playing upbeat tunes.

The conference was the culminating event of a yearlong inquiry process Belanger spearheaded, which also included a standup workshop and competition for students. Belanger researches humor as a rhetorical tool for communicating ideas and opinions.

“Stand up comedians are the rhetors, orators and court jesters of our time,” she says, “sharing their perspectives and opinions about important social issues in a palatable, entertaining way. ”

She and I are currently planning an edited book about comedy, and I will be sure to be on hand for next year’s symposium as well. Watch this space for more info!