Lenin in Poland

There is an old joke:

Brezhnev is planning a state visit to Poland. He wants to present his hosts with a gift and so he summons the Kremlin artist.

“I want a picture,” he says. “Lenin in Poland.”

The artist is a little concerned. “I’m not sure what there is to go on; photographs and the like. Did Lenin even ever visit Poland?”

Brezhnev waves away these concerns. “You will think of something.”

A couple of weeks later, the artist is back at the Kremlin for the unveiling. Brezhnev pulls back the sheet and sees a picture of Lenin’s wife, Nadya, in bed with Leon Trotsky.

“What’s this?” asks Brezhnev. “Where’s Lenin?”

The artist replies, “In Poland.”

This joke is interesting in that you can probably ‘get’ it without much of an understanding of the people and places that it references. The structure is quite a standard one. However, when I tell it to people I tend to experience one of two reactions; those who laugh or groan and those who sit there stony-faced before asking, “Who’s Brezhnev?” It seems that this latter group can’t get past their need to know the characters and that this interferes with them understanding the joke.

This might not be such a surprise. It seems that we tend to first focus on surface features of a given problem – in this case, a joke – before we can interact with the deeper structure. If those surface features are not familiar then we become a little lost.

I have always had an interest in comedy. I used to hang around a lot in comedy clubs in London because one of my best friends used to run one. I even had a go at it myself. A colleague from work also ran a comedy club out in Ruislip and I did a couple of five minute slots. I found the video file a couple of years back and was pleasantly surprised to see myself introduced by Lee Mack…

When you try to write jokes it becomes immediately apparent that it is all about predicting what knowledge your audience will bring with them. There are lazy approaches; using a swear word that your audience will know but won’t hear often, relying on stereotypes like a 1970s end-of-the-pier comedian or mundane observational stuff like, “You know when someone squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube…” However, clever comedy requires that you go out on a bit of a limb. Even surreal jokes often use the real world as a launch-pad, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”

As teachers, we exist in the middle zone. Our analogies and explanations have to relate concepts to what our students will already know. Yet we are using these tactics to help them apprehend the unknown. If all of our teaching just stayed completely within the everyday experience of the students then what exactly would be the point? A good education expands our students’ horizons so that they can see farther then they ever could without it. That’s the point of all that Shakespeare, world history and stuff like that.

We want to educate students who will get the joke.

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3 Comments on “Lenin in Poland”

  1. Dylan Wiliam says:

    Marvin Minsky’s work is, I think, useful here. He proposed, in his ‘frame-system’ theory, that to make sense of incoming sense data, we need to create a reference frame and certain details of the frame have to be filled in for the frame to be instantiated (this is similar to Immanuel Kant’s use of “the category”. For example, when we hear about a doctor attending to a patient, it seems we have to ascribe a sex to the doctor before we can create a mental image. The important point here is that if the listener does not share sufficient background knowledge with the speaker, then the listener is simply unable to process what is being heard. I think this means that while we do appear to first focus on the surface features and then focus on the deeper structure, what is going on here might be better described as a process in which the surface features help instantiate the frame, so that mental resources are available for the deep structure.

    Further evidence of this can be found in the research on expertise, such as the way that expert chess players or physicists go straight to the deep structure of the problems they are given.

    • Socrates says:

      Been reading your Cognitive Science Sir (I’m a former student of yours :-))

      “Further evidence of this can be found in the research on expertise, such as the way that expert chess players or physicists go straight to the deep structure of the problems they are given.”

      &

      The important point here is that if the listener does not share sufficient background knowledge with the speaker, then the listener is simply unable to process what is being heard.

      I would suggest that even simpler approach and explanation than Marvin Minsky, listeners understand extended exposition based on their long term memory of the topic being spoken, if its insufficient “then the listener is simply unable to process what is being heard. ”

      Furthermore without this long term memory the speakers comments will overload short term (working memory).

      If they do share long term memory with the speaker then they will be able to leave short term memory mostly empty to think about the speech, problem etc.


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