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Math Geek Mom: Cultural References

Comedy nights.

November 12, 2015

Economists talk about buying things that we “need and want.” However, in thinking about this, the distinction between needs and wants is often not made, although it was one that I considered when I decided not to buy a television while in graduate school, due to my limited income. My parents eventually bought me a small TV as a birthday gift, but, thanks to several years without exposure to this medium, I am often at a loss when cultural references arise, something about which my teenage daughter is always quick to remind me. This is something I found myself thinking of recently as two cultural references made their way to the nightly news.

These past few weeks have brought back several memories of those years, memories that I was not even aware of having, until they landed in the forefront of my consciousness thanks to modern news sources.  The first memory showed up a few weeks ago, with the arrival of October 21, 2015 the day described in the movie “Back to the Future, II.”  This past week we recalled the anniversary of the sinking of the ship the Edmund Fitzgerald. It took hearing the song on the radio for me to actually listen to the words and catch that the ship had left “bound for Cleveland.”

As weak as I might be with cultural references, I still managed to participate in planning a yearly celebration among the students and faculty in my program during my years as a graduate student. We were not natural comedians, but we put our best effort into developing entertaining ways to joke about the grueling endeavor we had all willingly signed up for. For example, there were questions in the tradition of Johnny Carson’s “Carnac,” where the question was given before the answer. I remember one in which a particularly organized graduate student was compared to a local mobster, with the question being “name two people known for their organization.”

Most of the time the jokes were respectful, although I do remember some talk about one faculty member being awarded a research grant from the “Hair Club for Men.” I assume he has since forgiven us for this.

There was once a song done in the tradition of “Dear Abby, Dear Abby” with the department chair answering imaginary questions from new faculty members. I don’t remember what the word was that we needed to rhyme, but we had him concluding by telling the complaining newbies “be glad that your office is not on the stairs.”

Other jokes were written in the tradition of the dialogue “Mr. Jaws” (another cultural reference) in which the answer to a question was given by playing a piece of a song. In those days, the songs were were taken from vinyl records and recorded on tapes for our use at the party, as this was before the arrival of compact disks. I recall parts of one dialogue with an imaginary graduate student that included such lines as;

  • What do you do all day? “Take it to the limit”
  • What is it like working for the most demanding professor in the program? “I miss the Earth, I miss my wife.”
  • Who is on your dissertation committee? “gypsies, tramps and thieves”

While he never performed for us, I was intrigued by one professor who was part of a musical group that actually performed at national conferences. He told us of one song they sang, called “I’m a T.A.” The first lines of the song went something like “I did college once, and thought it was quite nice. Then I got this great idea; I’ll do college twice!”

But my favorite joke was the one I sent to my former classmates from the neurosurgery floor of the Cleveland Clinic soon after I moved here.  The question was “what does Rosemarie think about finishing her dissertation?” the answer was “I need this like I need a hole in my head!”

Did any of my readers participate in comedy nights in their graduate programs, and what jokes can you share from those years?


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