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In Praise of Those Who Taught Us Well

Knock, knock. Who’s there?  

July 6, 2017

I was thinking about Alan Dundes, a Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the other day – he was the best teacher I’ve ever had and the lessons I learned in his class are still useful today.

His field? Folklore. It’s the study of people and cultures, particularly the beliefs and values of various groups that are expressed in rituals, myths, sayings, rhymes, games, art, customs, festivals, and jokes (among other things). According to Dundes, the ‘folk’ in folklore is any group that has something in common, whether it is gender, race, geography, vocation, language, family, hair color, etc. – or a combination of the above. To be considered folklore, it must manifest multiple existence – it must exist in more than one place and time and there must be at least two versions. For example, there are multiple versions of hopscotch, “okay” gestures, and endings to ‘a rabbi, a priest, and a pastor go into a bar’ joke. Much of folklore has been orally transmitted through the years, and increasingly it’s being spread via the internet.

Warning: A lot of folklore is decidedly not politically correct. In fact, some of it can be quite offensive.

We heard a lot of stories, myths, and jokes in class – and the class was definitely not politically correct. If there is an ‘ism’ out there, or something a group has difficulty discussing openly, there’s quite a lot of folklore about it. Why? Because it allows people to express what they believe or value, as well as release some of their anxiety. And that was part of the beauty of the class – Dundes shared a lot of myths, rhymes, gestures, jokes, and rituals with us and got a lot of laughter or “ewwws” from the students – and then we analyzed the item and interpreted it to better understand why we had that reaction. Analyzing various types of folklore allowed us to discuss some uncomfortable topics.

He made us think beyond the words, gestures, and rituals to what a group was actually saying about themselves – and others. No one that took his class will ever forget his Freudian analysis of Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star, or his very controversial interpretation of the rituals of football (see below). For a quick lesson on the ritual number three in American society (as well our fixation on the future and a lot of funny aphorisms), have a look at his 2002 UC Berkeley Commencement address. One of his classes was about the rituals surrounding The Palio in Sienna, Italy (much of which is in his book La Terra in Piazza), and when I later went to see The Palio, I understood not just what was happening, but why. It is so much more than a horse race.

Folklore is context-specific and open to interpretation – and different groups interpret things differently. There’s a great example of this when Dundes tells a “A priest and a nun go golfing one day” joke in a talk he gave at the Commonwealth Club (it’s about 55 minutes into the one-hour talk) and tells how men and women responded differently to the joke – and interpreted the underlying meaning quite differently.

In a 2005 interview, when asked whether he had to be careful when talking about his interpretations of various forms of folklore, Dundes said “That’s okay. I’m at Berkeley. We can say what we want here. There’s free speech here. We had to fight for it.” I wonder if that’s still true today. He did mention in the interview that for one of his writings, “Into the Endzone For a Touchdown: A Psychoanalytic Consideration of American Football,” he received death threats and people called for him to be fired.

Dundes died in 2005 and UC Berkeley, the New York Times, the LA Times, and The American Folklore Society all did great obituaries. I see that the class I took, Forms of Folklore, is still being taught at Cal and I wonder what he would make of the world today. He’d probably remind us that the jokes we tell are a (somewhat) socially acceptable way to release anxiety – and that folklore is context-specific. So, what’s funny to one group will decidedly not be funny to the other. You can see this in the Dear Red States letter that made the rounds in the past few presidential elections, and the Dear Blue States – A Response from the Red States letter, the Pepe (and other) memes, t-shirt slogans, the Hillary jokes, the Trump jokes, and other items.

He was a fabulous instructor – students worked quite hard in the class and enjoyed every minute of it. It was the best type of learning. So much of what he taught in class has come back to me in terms of understanding people and cultures – and I have built on these learnings over the years and continue to use them to this day.

There are a few items that you might want to watch/read, if you’re interested in Alan Dundes’s work:

Thank you, Professor Dundes.


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Margaret Andrews

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