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Department Of looks to bring satire back to Duke

<p>Department Of launched in the fall of 2015 and provides satire on Duke issues.</p>

Department Of launched in the fall of 2015 and provides satire on Duke issues.

Department Of bills itself as “Duke’s only intentionally comedic publication,” and this claim does not stretch the truth.

Unlike its Ivy League peers, Duke has never boasted a consistent humor publication. Whether due to a lack of invested interest, the relative youth of the university or the difficulty of forging a lasting movement in four short years, satire on campus has not caught on—and, in its second year, Department Of hopes to change that.

The publication released its first online issue of the semester last Wednesday. The objects of ridicule for the October edition include everything from the Tallman Trask scandal to the uncanny resemblance between Duke trustee David Rubenstein and comedian Steve Martin, and an actual title to one piece reads “Is Ann Coulter an Afghan Hound? A Mathematical Proof” (hint: she’s not). Even the format of the website has the effect of a sly joke; the lower-case, serif font and the mom’s-high-school-yearbook masthead project more than a whiff of irony. At an elite school not known to do so, Department Of urges Duke to take itself a little less seriously.

“It’s important for people at Duke to feel like they can create this space to be irreverent and make fun of Duke,” co-founder Katie Fernelius, Trinity ‘16, said. “It’s a really important thing for us to continue to remember how f---ing ridiculous Duke is.”

Department Of started as a pet project of Fernelius and fellow co-founders Sofia Manfredi and Mahsa Taskindoust, both Trinity ‘15, to address what they saw as a lack of outlets on campus for critical, written humor. Manfredi researched archives of former humor magazines at Duke for a class on documentary essays and was impressed by the incisive commentary of publications like Duke ‘n’ Duchess and Jabberwocky, which both enjoyed brief runs during the twentieth century. But years later, Duke had nothing to match that level of satire in the midst of the prevailing brand of “college humor” marked by trite riffs on Shooters and Marketplace (I plead guilty). What began as a hobby between three friends quickly gained footing as a funded organization, and Department Of was publishing in earnest by fall 2015.

In an academic culture where taking individual credit for work is prized—if not required for admission—Department Of is remarkable for its anonymity. Rather than credit authors for individual pieces, each post is attributed to the publication as a whole, allowing writers to publish potentially controversial material without fear of individual backlash. The anonymity also reflects the collaborative nature of the writing process, and it has the added side effect of screening out the “funny guys” who may only join for recognition.

“The type of person who’s bought into this Duke culture of ‘this is my work, this is my accomplishment, these are all my achievements,’ they don’t do well with Department Of, because we take ownership over everything—there’s no byline,” junior and executive member Lucy Cao said.

Sometimes, though, this anonymity has had unexpected consequences.

“People would email us being like, ‘Dear sirs, how do I join?’” Taskindoust said. “There’s this assumption that if you’re that funny, [you must be a man.] People would think that we were just a bunch of guys running it, and for us we were just shocked.”

When it started publishing, Department Of had an all-female leadership, including the three founders, and the fact that people assumed a humor publication must have been run by men points to the prevailing notion that comedy is a man’s game. Boys are expected to be the “class clowns,” and pop culture periodically latches onto comics like Amy Schumer as the female comedian-of-the-moment, but only with an asterisk.

“When people talk about women in comedy, it’s discussed as a category of comedy, in a way where you might talk about, like, slapstick comedy,” Manfredi, who has continued to work in the comedy world with the clickbait-parody website ClickHole, said. “People are still at the point where they’re trying to prove that women can be in comedy, which should just be a fact and a default.”

In the last two years, the membership Department Of has expanded and now reflects the increasing diversity of Duke’s campus; the publication acts a voice for the marginalized, targeting institutional problems and social issues that otherwise tend to get brushed under the rug.

Leaders make it clear, however, that Department Of’s intent has never been merely to stir up controversy. At the end of the day, the publication is a work of comedy, and like all satire, it abides by the guiding principle to “punch up, not down.”

“We’re not taking cheap shots that will upset people. That’s not what we do here,” sophomore and executive member Sydney Roberts said. “We don’t make jokes to cause controversy, to get more hits on our site. We make jokes because we feel they’re important to make, they’re funny, they serve a purpose, they serve an end.”

The publication’s pieces often feed off the political moment on campus, channeling ongoing conversations into an accessible medium. For example, a “Mean Girls”-inspired “Burn Book” distributed Oct. 2015 featured, among other targets, the Common Ground retreat program, which intended to give students a safe space to discuss identity and privilege but endured considerable criticism for its competitive application process and intense programming. Not long after, Common Ground cancelled its spring retreat to reevaluate the program.

Whether Department Of was directly responsible for bringing about this change is up to question, but no one can deny that the publication was in tune with the discussions of the moment. Like the magazines that came before it, Department Of aims to capture a particular moment in Duke’s political and social climate and evolve accordingly.

Early on, one of the biggest worries with the Department Of’s development lay in its very name. In a media landscape where Google searchability is tantamount to a brand’s existence, the query “duke department of” was decidedly vague, more likely to find you an orthopaedic surgeon than Coach K’s hypothetical Tinder bio. Leaders discussed changing the name, but eventually it stuck. Its ambiguity is part of its allure.

When I searched “duke department of” last week to read the new issue, the publication appeared as the first result on Google. To be sure, the multinational corporation probably knows me better than I know myself, so this result may well have been the product of an algorithm based on my daily Onion intake.

Perhaps, though, this is an indication that Department Of has done what its predecessors could not—finally giving satire a home at Duke.

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