Not Joking Around: Students Examine the 'World at Play' in Summer Class

July 23, 2009 — The worlds of play and academia are colliding this summer in a University of Virginia anthropology class. Students in the entry-level course, 'World at Play,' are discovering how jokes can do more than provide a few laughs.

Jokes provide social critique and reveal personal values, said instructor Suzanne Menair, a doctoral student studying linguistic anthropology.

"It's easy to dismiss the content of a joke," but jokes allow people to say things they wouldn't otherwise say and provide interesting social interactions, she said.

"The class arises from my own interest in joking and play, especially wordplay," Menair said.

The class is a mixture of 20 students, some of whom have never taken an anthropology class and other upperclassmen who are interested in the linguistic side of anthropology.

"I look at joking more seriously now and see how it reflects society," third-year women's studies major Kristie Rush said.

The class is divided into four sections, beginning with 'Play as Prism,' which explores joking through a socio-cultural perspective, exposing cultural contradictions.

The second part of the course, "Dirty Jokes and Gender," discusses stereotypes of women in humor – which relates to Menair's doctoral dissertation, titled "On Humorous Exchanges," about dirty jokes on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.

"My research interests were initially driven by a desire to understand capitalism, but what I discovered when I did my field work in Chicago is that to understand American finance, you have to understand the culture of joking through which financial traders express their ideas of capitalism," Menair said.

Through the class, Menair hopes to share some of the insights she's gleaned from her research. Rather than pointing out offensive jokes, she encourages students to decide why jokes are funny, or considered funny.

As evidenced by the variety of reading topics, play appears in many cultures, including joking among Japanese inn workers, Apache tribe members and Ku Klux Klan supporters.

The class covers satire in films, from the slapstick humor of Charlie Chaplin that became a social critique of Adolf Hitler in "The Great Dictator" to the most recent Sacha Baron Cohen movie, "Bruno," about a gay Austrian fashion reporter.

In addition to studying the cultural context of joking, the class also examines the framing of jokes, especially in the wordplay section of the class. This section focuses on the linguistics and other technical aspects of jokes and mock insults.

The last section of the course examines different perspectives about the effects of humor in society: Is it revolutionary or reactionary?

Menair leaves that question for the students to decide. "I hope they finish the class as better analysts of everyday life," Menair said.

The class runs through Aug. 6 and will also be offered in the fall semester.

— By Laura Hoffman