Thursday, October 28, 2010

Great College Stunts

Back when I was in applying to colleges, I heard a lot of stories about various pranks that the students took part in at each institution. The science and technology schools are especially proud of their heritage of practical jokes. However, on these college tours, one never hears about my favorite type of prank: jokes on the students by the professors for the sake of some greater educational purpose.

I was listening today to the sixth lecture from the History 5 class (Fall 2010). Even in the video, one cannot see the lecturer but only the slideshow. So, listening to it, this practical joke (and I use this in a loose sense) might have been funnier than in person. Thomas Laqueur (the lecturer) is speaking about the divisions in the early protestant church. He stops; there are some rustling noises. Then he says "is that a Berkeley homeless person?" Another long pause ensues in which presumably some unknown person moves through the audience. Then he says, no, it's Ulrich Zwingli (and the slide changed to a portrait of Ζwingli). I presume, again, that the "homeless person" is dressed like the portrait of Zwingli that Laqueur shows in the slideshow at this moment. Everyone laughs. Zwingli, played by emeritus professor Thomas Brady [1]. "Zwingli" explains the theological contention he has with Luther and the connection between religion and politics of the period. Laqueur interjects frequently with after jokes about Zwingle's death and the protestant conception of the afterlife. Finally, the stunt ends and Laqueur returns to his lecture, now focusing on the Catholics.
German Histories in the Age of Reformations, 1400-1650 

This reminded me of an instance at my own university in which a math professor played my number theory class. And I know it sounds totally weird, but this is a true story. So it was 11am and I was standing in the vestibule outside my number theory class. I had been up late the night before working on my qualifying paper, and I was very tired. The door opened to the lecture hall and a thin man with scruffy brown hair, wearing-- I thought-- round spectacles and pushing a cart full of pineapple. I blinked for a moment, just to make sure, and then stepped aside to let the outpouring of Linear Algebra students exit the classroom.

Our lesson that day was on the mathematics of the Fibonacci sequence. The lecture was interesting and fun (and, as it turned out, very similar to the Linear Algebra lecture from earlier that day). At some point, my professor, whom I will call James for the sake of convenience, stopped the class for a moment, explain that he forgot something. He proceeded to call 411 on his cell phone and ask for the number of Quimby and Dimby's Singing Pineapple Delivery Service.

This bizarre moment may need some context. In most classes, a stately math professor doing something like this might seem like it would require the Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. However, James was a little different. A specialist in surreal numbers and the coauthor of a textbook that included fake biographies of the Ancient Greeks and cartoons, James was stick skinny, gangly, sporting a full beard, and often covered head-to-toe in magenta chalk. He was brilliant and exuberant, but also comical in, among other things, his obsession with brightly colored chalk. So the mid-class cell phone call was certainly unusual and pushing the boundaries of his usual eccentricities.

So he finished his 411 call and told the class that he had to make just one more call before he got back to teaching. He called Quimby and Dimby's Singing Pineapple Delivery Service and appeared to have some difficulty explaining to the person on the other end of the line that his class was in the same room as before in order to have them do the show. At this point, my morning already appeared very strange and I was open to almost anything to happen next.

About ten minutes before the lesson ended, a man entered the room with a cart full of pineapples and something that resembled a violin case. Although he looked like the same guy as before, he was not wearing glasses. He greeted the class cheerfully. James said to him, "aren't you going to sing the song and show them how to count the pineapple [2]." The man, who was presumably Dimby, explained that his brother, Quimby, had come to the previous class, but was unable to return due to "too much Maui Wowi." He said he would show us how to count the pineapple, which he did, but he told James (who looked rather concerned and dishearted at the news) that he could not sing. He explained that he could accompany James if James wanted to sing, and he handed James a untidy pile of papers that were presumably the lyrics to the song. He then proceeded opened the violin case, which turned out to be a ukulele case, and the two of them put on a rather strange performance of a song. I don't remember any part of the song except the chorus, which was made up of the list of the Fibonacci numbers up through around 6000. It was pretty funny. We all joined in on the last chorus.

That evening when I got home, I googled Quimby and Dimby's Singing Pineapple Delivery Service. There were no results matching that phrase. The whole thing was an elaborate prank.

  1. Brady is credited in a slide at the end of the stunt. According to Laqueur, Brady wrote a book on this splintering in the protestant movement.
  2. The pattern of growth on a pineapple matches the Fibonacci sequence, as does the pattern of growth on many plants.

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