Alan Dundes – Making sense of nonsense

The world’s greatest folklore scholar died on March 30 the way he lived— while teaching a graduate seminar in anthropology at Giannini Hall on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley.

“To call Alan Dundes a giant in his field is a great understatement, observed George Breslauer, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences, adding that “he virtually constructed the field of modern folklore studies and trained many of its most distinguished scholars.”

Yet when I called the obituary departments of three major newspapers, the editors had not heard of Professor Dundes, who probably received more media over the years, due to the controversies that arose from his publications and his studied irreverence, than any of the 99% plus of all University teachers.

His students loved the vibrant classes that provocatively opened their imaginations with insight, curiosity and humor. Heartfelt messages poured into his family and colleagues from all over the world — Poland, China, Tunisia, Serbia — from his students and scholars whom he mentored so enthusiastically.

Alan Dundes was given the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1994. Addressing students at the Commencement Convocation in 2002, he said: “It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.” That’s not something you ordinarily say at graduation. But then that was vintage Dundes — he made you remember what he said because what he said was worthy of being remembered.

He always stayed close to the people. He called Folklore “the autobiography of a people. You’re dealing with real people in everyday life.” He would ask his students to submit 50 bits of folklore — jokes, proverbs, myths, riddles, games, customs, pranks, limericks, parodies, puns, yells, dances, gestures, graffiti and more. His archive of more than 500,000 items of folklore is a testimony to prodigious research and publications.

One day he opened a letter from a student he taught in the Sixties, which contained a $1 million personal check. Professor Dundes was astonished and promptly donated the sum to establish a chair in folklore studies at Berkeley.

In one of his more concise self-descriptions, Dr. Dundes said, “my professional goals are to make sense of nonsense, find a rationale for the irrational, and seek to make the unconscious conscious.” He rarely lost an opportunity to emphasize the need to explain his specialty. He told the New York Times twenty years ago that “folklore is not a matter of running down little wart cures. It is a serious subject that deals with the essence of life.”

In a society so increasingly dominated by commercialism that tries to make everything for sale, Professor Dundes was emphatic that folklore continually gets produced year after year and in the most modern technological settings. As his colleague, Laura Nader, pointed out: “Dundes completely redefined the basic concept of ëfolk’ which pre-Dundes was defined as ëpeasant’ and peasant only. His expanded definition included what Dundes called ëany group of people whatsoever who share at least one common linking factor.'” That could mean ethnic and religious groups, occupational associations, sports teams, or even individual families.

One of his many books was titled “Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing,” (co-authored with Carl Pagter). This volume analyzed modern folklore such as the personal exchanges and messages between workers coming out of fax machines, computers and photocopiers.

Dundes’ interpretations and explanations outraged people on just about all sides of any spectrum of belief or loyalty. But his students could not have enough of him. The packed 400-seat classroom for his Introduction to Folklore class had a waiting list.

Certainly, this witty, learned, fast-paced teacher reached thousands of students since he began teaching at Berkeley in 1963. But he could have reached millions with a regular television show or even one interactive television series. Neither commercial nor public television had the vision. Maybe he was too politically incorrect. Or maybe his subject matter was probed too differently in a culture that thinks folklore is like an ancient bedtime story.

Our increasingly monetized, spectator society needs Alan Dundes to help us examine why we do what we do.

In a tormented world so full of daily tragedies and deprivations, it is not hard to recall the words from Joseph Conrad –“the horror of it all.” In Alan Dundes’ works, the recollection of this man’s contributions to the cultures of the world evokes the phrase “the joy of it all.”

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