Breaking the Ice

I hate icebreakers.

There’s the “getting to know you” type. First, there’s the problem of those who hate talking (or love talking) about themselves. Further, after the first few classes as a graduate student – even at a commuter university – you know nearly everybody in your cohort. The “introducing yourself” icebreakers tend to feel, well, stupid and repetitive.

The other kind are the “joke” icebreakers.

They can be okay if they’re relevant or just simply silly. Examples? I’ve used videos like this slow loris being tickled, just as a way to get most people smiling:

Note: The rest of the videos aren’t exactly NSFW, but aren’t really appropriate for work either.

I’ve also used “Male Restroom Etiquette” in a research methods class (after noting that it describes the situation from a heteronormative point of view and includes some anti-gay violence). Not only does it highlight the strange in the familiar (which is useful for getting students thinking in a research methods class), but it has its own assumptions which can be used as object lessons. The presumptions of the video become fodder for the class.

But when the videos are “comedy”, you run the risk of increasing tension rather than reducing it. In my experience, it’s usually a matter of what group (if any) is being mocked. For example these two videos both address the same thing – ultraviolet and … emissions… at crime scenes:

Remember, our society is still sexist (when women make the same amount of money as men for the same jobs, then I’ll think about re-examining that statement). Throughout the first video, the woman is demeaned. She’s portrayed as being late (irresponsible), putting her social life before work (irresponsible), not knowledgeable about her own job’s practices (not knowing how the UV works), too stupid to figure out what that means, and, oh, by the way, participating in sex acts that are often portrayed as demeaning. The first video reinforces the subordinate social role of women in our society.

The second video pokes fun at people who already have power in society (police officers, white males) and assumptions shared both by them and the audience (I’m taking a class today primarily about the bad assumptions CSI has given to the population and juries). This video subverts and critiques the social order.

“Breaking the ice” is supposed to indicate that the social rules are loosened. That (in a classroom setting, for example), the instructor is not just a tyrant and the students passive listeners. When you choose videos and activities for icebreakers, make sure that they don’t reinforce the very rules you’re wanting to loosen.

What are the best (and worst) icebreakers you’ve experienced (or used)?

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