Homework is a joke

When is a riddle not a riddle? When it's in the keen analytic grasp of Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, and he's in the middle of one of his "Forms of Folklore" lectures.Then it becomes much more than a riddle. And his answers go much deeper than, "To get to the other side" or "When it's ajar."

Not that they're not funny, those riddles, jokes, quips and knock knocks he whips off to a standing-room-only lecture hall every fall quarter. He has a knack for slipping some sort of joke into everything he says, to make his points. Talking as fast as a traveling salesman, (and he knows all those jokes, too) he keeps 'em laughing, keeps 'em coming back for more, and keeps 'em taking notes, furiously. He also turns each class into an army of folklorists, who collect sayings, fables, and other items, which are stored in his bulging folklore archives, and, perhaps, recounted in his fast and funny style to future classes.

To Mr. Dundes, folklore is not just quaint tales from days gone by. It's very much alive today. Among his books is "Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded: Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire," written with Carl R. Pagter. It is a scholarly study of the jokes people photocopy in offices, which the authors find just as meaningful to those workers as the songs loggers used to sing.

"These things are better pulses of the public; they're better notions of the way people think than anything else. If somebody spouts a Shakespearian sonnet, it may or may not be part of their own personal psyche. When they tell a joke they've just heard at a . . . party, or they've just heard on the way to work, or they're looking at Xerographic folklore from the office, or when they're telling you Murphy's law, this is very current; this is going on right now.This expresses their attitude, their ideology, their world view," he said in his office recently, between riddles.

Speaking of world views, Mr. Dundes is now studying political jokes from Eastern Europe. Since folklore provides a way of expressing the otherwise unspeakable -- you can say so much in jest that you'd never mention seriously -- this vein of humor is meager in the United States, where the press says it all. But, "of course there [in Eastern Europe] they're not allowed to talk about anything, so it's fantastically rich," he says with relish.

"I'll give you one example. Two East German sentries are on duty. One says to the other, 'What do you think of our regime?' The other says, 'Oh, same as you.' First one says, 'Then it's my duty to arrest you.' They're all like this. They're really pointed and mordant. . . . This is their outlet."

There's a large joke cycle (the academic term for a group of jokes) in the Soviet Union right now about Radio Aravan, which is the radio station in Soviet Armenia. "They're always as though you're writing a letter to the paper. . . . It's 'Dear Radio Aravan,' and they pose the question, and Radio Aravan in this artless, but artful way, answers."

Some examples: Dear Radio Aravan, would it be possible to introduce socialism into Switzerland? Radio Aravan answers: Yes, it would be possible to introduce socialism into Switzerland, but it would be a pity.

Dear Radio Aravan, would it be possible to introduce socialism into the Sahara? Radio Aravan: Yes, it would be possible to introduce socialism into the Sahara, but at the end of the first five-year plan, the Sahara would have to import sand.

Alan Dundes has a wonderful way of twinkling at the eyes -- and, slightly, at the nose -- and coming to a full stop, mouth firmly closed for a beat, at the end of a joke, obviously enjoying it so much himself that you laugh at any punch line, no matter how serious his subject is, whether you are at the back of a crowded auditorium or sitting in his office. "We have no analogs to these," he says, happily. "It's clear these people are having their revenge on their politics."

To a scholar like Dundes (he has a PhD in folklore, but stresses "I was not the first." The first was given in 1953, and there are more and more universities in the US offering them) it wouldn't have mattered if the Radio Aravan jokes were duds. If a joke is told, it's significant -- to someone. Mr. Dundes figures out to whom, and why.

"Somehow the very popularity of it [folklore] is almost held against it, which is absurd. The more common it is, the more interesting and valuable it is , as social science -- and also literature, because jokes are literature as well. They have character; they have plot; they have symbolism; they have rhetorical style -- so that anything you could do with literature you can do with folk literature. So these materials are available, and you don't have a copyright problem, and they're terribly indicative of people's attitudes and feelings. And we need to know more about people's attitudes and feelings." All of which is to say that Mr. Dundes takes jokes very seriously.

His undergraduate course, Forms of Folklore, is one of the most consistently popular on campus. And, surprisingly, not one of the easiest. Granted, the subject matter consists of counting-out rhymes, toungue twisters, games, proverbs and riddles, many of which are familiar, and others of which are a good laugh or at least properly mystifying.

But there's more to it than exchanging tooth fairy stories and groaning at knock knocks for ten weeks. Each student must also collect 40 pieces of folklore, analyze them, and turn them in at the end of the quarter. "Do not fail to explain terms, puns, jokes, even if you think the point is obvious," the assignment sheet admonishes. "Folklorists and other academics may have led very sheltered lives."

They're encouraged to collect folklore of other cultures from the foreign students at Berkeley, as well as analyzing their own. Everything turned in is alphabetized and tucked away in the archives, which now fills 15 file cabinets, and gives you the chance to check how much money the tooth fairy left everyone else, say, or to discover the existence of that knock knock joke you thought your big brother made up, 20 years before he was born in Saudi Arabia.

The archives, Dundes says, boasts a vast collection. "We have [files] from Afghanistan -- that's a good word now -- to Zambia. . . . We have more from Iran than any other place except China. There's a lot of good stuff -- joke cycles on people -- which I'm sure don't exist in Iran because they don't have folklorists. . . . If they send people here it's to be engineers and technical things, so people aren't trained in folklore." No matter. Mr. Dundes's minions descend on the Iranian engineering students and rake off all that fascinating trivia everyone carries around with them.

No one is safe from the folklore collector, in fact. "People have often tried to suppress their ethnicity, or their grandparents,' or whoever it is, and in this course, which is a course designed to rediscover your grandmother, you realize these people are full of folklore, but you never paid any attention to them, so you go back to . . . your parents, friends, relatives, and yourself. . . . [It's] like the fish in water. You've been around it all your life, perhaps, and you've never thought about it." Students who surface from this rich and meaningful ambience long enough to take notes and type it up have a reward in store for them.

"You find that these are very interesting documents and texts about you and about your own life, because you chose to remember certain things. Your family does certain things because it's important to them. Well, why? What is it telling us about our own value system and our own world view?

"That's really the fun part, because I know ahead of time that people are going to discover this, [but] I don't know what they're going to discover."

Mr. Dundes himself has made some intriguing discoveries. He considers everything folklore, and worthy of critical attention, from the naming of rockets and missions in the moon launch to football terminology. He has analyzed elephant jokes and streaking. He theorizes streaking was a response to the Watergate scandal, a protest to all the cover-up. "Can't prove that, but I think it's very likely. It's really coincidental that all over the country people were exposing themselves in a ritual way. . . . And as soon as the Watergate trial was over, that was the end of streaking."

To those who would object to a college professor -- and his students -- spending time on such trivialities when they should be taking those engineering courses with the Iranians or studying literature that is more obviously literature, Mr. Dundes has a tolerant answer: "I likem the so called elite cultures, but it's just a small part of the whole.

"Our education system is predicated on the study of elites," he explained. "So people who major in art or music or literature study really a very narrow segment of human creativity. . . . You can graduate with a degree in art never having had folk art. You can graduate with a degree in music and never have had jazz or blues. . . . The trend is antipathy towards dialect and folk speech. There's a big lawsuit now with black English in Michigan. It's still a big issue as to whether these other languages should count. Should people speak in them and use them? For folklorists there's never any doubt. We always start with where people are."

The surprise is that, starting with where people are, the analysis of a joke cycle or a superstition can be far more exacting -- and revealing -- than literary criticism. It borders on sociology, but with less attention to statistics than to meaning. What sets Dundes apart from other professors, though, is not so much his subject as his excitement about what his students turn up. For example, he remembered the folklore project this reporter turned in in December of 1974 -- after reading around 200 a year every year since then. And it wasn't that the project was so unusual; it was that he loves whatever fragments of our culture are handed over to him, every fall. He's sometimes more excited if he's heard the joke before, because the situation for the joke is always new.

"So much of teaching is so repetitious, where the professor assigns a paper on the same book that he's read every year, and the students have to read the same book and write a paper on it. At the end of all this work, there's really very little new, perhaps, that's going to be said. In the case of the folklore projects, everybody has an individual experience. There are no two projects that are going to be the same. . . . They're fun for me to read. I enjoy it. I had 280 this quarter, and that's a little much to read in a week. But it's very exciting. It's very interesting, you know. It's fun. I learn a lot."

Full stop and twinkle.

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