Students behind humor magazine just want laughs

Duke Department Of has a generally feminist and leftist tilt.

When the Duke Department Of V-DAY Zine came out, the single sheet of paper that origami turned into a sixteen-page publication, while impressive, was the least clever thing about it. “I would ask you to ‘be mine,’ ” reads one Valentine’s card panel, “but I recognize the problematic language of ownership that has been normalized in gendered power dynamics over time that leads to internalization of monogamy as natural and that relationships should be modeled after markets not private properties.” Another used words to disrupt a picture of the president. “Are you a right-wing, white nationalist government?” it asks. “Because I want to smash you all night long.”

You get the picture. The second has as its easy, but well-skewered, targets the government and student sexuality. Okay; well-enough done, but how hard was that? The first, though, has as its target the kind of language used by the very people who put out Duke Department Of, which bills itself as Duke’s “only intentionally comedic publication.” When you include yourself as a target, everybody gets to laugh, and when everybody gets to laugh, you’re probably writing humor.

A student effort, Duke Department Of has been writing humor, much of it online, since its launch by three women in 2015. “It was founded by femme folk,” says sophomore Syd Roberts, of the group’s generally feminist and leftist tilt. And though Department Of welcomes contributions from whoever emerges, its evident approach makes it less likely that the cliché of a Duke student—“salmon-shorts-boat-shoes-dad’s-an-investment-banker-mom’s-a-corporate-litigator-and-here-to-get-an-econ-degree” spills out of her mouth as almost a single word—would feel so motivated. “It’s not like we’re chasing away the male voices,” says rising senior Jenny Chagnon, who works with Roberts and a collective of others (all female-identified but one) to get something up on the website at least once per month (and something with a little physical reality around events like holidays). “But why I was interested in the first place was this felt like not Duke—a safe space to take a risk.”

The group functions as a pretty free-floating collective. Pieces don’t even have bylines, though that itself is a light jab at the perception of Duke students’ constant resume building. Again, an easy target, though well tweaked. Changnon’s mother graduated from Duke, during the days of Jabberwocky, a humor magazine that functioned in the 1980s and early 1990s (before charges of racism turned things sour) but never contributed. Chagnon vowed not to miss the same opportunity, and “now it feels like we are part of tradition.” The tradition of Duke humor magazines usually means the magazine lasts a few years and then vanishes.

Roberts notes that if satire can sometimes be mean (though never cruel), the nebulous authority structure of Department Of makes sure it’s always punching up—at, say, misogyny or racism— rather than down. Though the ultimate consideration, of course, is whether a piece is funny. “A piece on Trump versus a piece on dining halls,” Roberts says. “One isn’t more important than the other.” Recent pieces have rated campus bathrooms and eateries, asked Young Trustee candidates whether they liked pineapple on pizza, made fake Duke-based Tinder profiles: the Bro, the Grad Student (and yes, the “social justice warrior”). “We aren’t here to impose our will on anybody,” Roberts says; they want to be funny. The two joke about graduates as products to be consumed by businesses and professional schools.

“I ❤ late-stage capitalism,” Changnon jokes, and the two agree it could be a bumper sticker.

“Yeah,” says Roberts. “We could sell it.”

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