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Professor couple speaks the language of humor

August 15, 2019

Don and Alleen Nilsen live their lives, both personal and professional, with laughter

If you walk with Don and Alleen Nilsen through the well-manicured retirement community where they reside in Tempe, you might take note of the lovely birds that flit to and fro, or the pleasant bouquet of citrus aromas before they nonchalantly point out the on-site medical building where they tell you they expect to take their last breaths.

“When we pass that big building, we tell our kids, ‘That’s where we’re gonna die,’” Alleen says with a smile, then imitates their vexed response: "'Oh, Mom, don’t say that! That’s creepy!'"

Don laughs, too. “It’s the truth,” he says.

“What is, is,” Alleen adds with a shrug.

This kind of matter-of-fact attitude only serves to make the couple, both professors emeritus of English at Arizona State University — who’ve been together for more than six decades — more endearing. To hear them tell it, life is but a series of often wildly unexpected incidents, best navigated with a good sense of humor.

The subject of humor has played a dominant role in their professional lives, serving as a major focus of their academic and teaching careers. Most recently, their co-authored book, “The Language of Humor: An Introduction,” was awarded the 2019 Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor Book Award and the pair received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.

“There are educational benefits of humor, there are psychological benefits, there are social benefits,” Don said. “For one thing, it keeps your students awake. But another thing humor does, is it has double vision. It allows you to see things from two perspectives. And that's the beauty of humor. It gives you a broader perspective that allows for invention and discovery.”

Video by Ashley Sorensen/ASU Now

Don and Alleen met in a French class at Brigham Young University in the 1950s, and she was quickly taken with him.

“I’d been out with lots of dumb boys,” she said. “I wanted a smart boy, and he was so good at French.”

She made an effort to sit next to him in class, and over the course of the semester, a friendship blossomed. Then, when the day of the final exam came, he didn’t show up. Annoyed, Alleen sought Don out on campus and chided him for his absence only to be met with amusement.

“Oh, I didn’t need to take that class,” he told her. “I was just auditing it. I already learned French in the Army.”

By that time, the die was cast and the two soon became engaged, despite Alleen’s parents’ reticence regarding Don’s humble “farm boy” background.

“But we ended up as well as anybody,” Don said.

“Oh, heavens yes,” Alleen agreed.

Over the years, the Nilsens had three children who accompanied them on their travels as they taught in various locations across the country and the world, collecting a cache of rollicking anecdotes along the way.

There was the time early in their careers, in upstate New York, when their children were very young: They got 102 inches of snow and had to carry the kids home from Sunday school when their car got snowed in. (If you ask Don, it was stuck there all winter. If you ask Alleen, it was two days — a week at the most.)

There was the time shortly after that, in the late 1960s in Afghanistan, when Don bought a beautifully crafted writing slate off a young schoolboy only to see him burst into tears at the realization of the punishment that awaited him if he didn’t have his slate with him in class. (The boy got his slate back. Don did not get his money back.)

Then there was the time at a convention for the Modern Language Association in 1973, when Don happened to meet the late Nick Salerno, an ASU professor emeritus of English, and Marvin Fisher, ASU professor emeritus of English and humanities, and discovered they knew Alleen from their time as classmates at Phoenix Union High School. As luck would have it, both Salerno and Fisher were serving on a search committee for a new professor to join ASU’s Department of English.

Don got the job, and they settled in Arizona, with Alleen joining the ASU English faculty shortly after.

A little less than a decade later, in 1981, Art Buchwald, an American writer and humorist best known for his column in The Washington Post, gave a talk at ASU that inspired the Nilsens and a handful of other ASU English professors interested in humor studies to create a conference on the subject.

Buchwald discouraged the idea.

“He said, ‘You’re going to fail because people are going to come and expect to laugh for four days, and that’s impossible,’” Don said.

Taking Buchwald’s advice to heart, the Nilsens and their colleagues structured the conference so that it was less about making people laugh through presentations that employed various styles of humor and more about dissecting the phenomenon of humor through research and discussions.

In 1982, they founded the Western Humor and Irony Membership and hosted the first humor studies conference at ASU. It was a success and continued annually for six years before universities around the U.S. and then the world began taking turns playing host. The Western Humor and Irony Membership later became the International Society for Humor Studies.

The annual conference is still going strong, taking place this summer at the University of Texas at Austin. In the 37 years since its founding, members of the society have produced more than 900 articles and book reviews, all catalogued in the society's journal, Humor.

In 2011, the Nilsens established the Don and Alleen Nilsen Humor Scholarship Award at ASU for the best humorous online presentation that teaches any aspect of language. And when they’re not disturbing their children with allusions to death, they teach classes at their retirement community, local community colleges and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at ASU.

Occasionally, the Nilsens give one-time presentations, like the one they held in July for a group of Mensa members.

Don has a joke he likes to tell at the beginning of his classes about a rabbi, a priest and an engineer, each of whom find themselves in the predicament of being about to meet their demise at the blade of a guillotine. At the moment of no return, both the rabbi and priest invoke their personal deities and the blade does not fall. The engineer is the last to place his head on the block, and while looking up at his fate, he exclaims, “Hey! I see the problem!”

Top photo: Don and Alleen Nilsen laugh as they talk about the many places they’ve worked over their careers and their passion for the global study of humor, at their Tempe home, on June 28, 2019. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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ASU ecologist says state’s rivers are facing rocky waters

August 15, 2019

Heather Bateman studies how human land use affects vertebrate populations, habitats and riparian systems

An Arizona State University professor said the state’s rivers are only going to see shortages in the future, which will have a direct impact not only on humans, but wildlife and their habitats.

Two factors are driving this: climate change and human population growth.

“The Southwest will face major challenges in the future by needing to balance anthropogenic water consumption with water that nature needs,” said Heather Bateman, an associate professor with ASU’s College of Integrative Arts and Sciences. “We might need to set priorities as a state or region on which ecosystems should hold the right to maintain their hydrologic flows.”

ASU Now spoke to Bateman, a field ecologist who studies terrestrial wildlife such as birds, reptiles, and amphibians, on this troubling development and what it will mean for the future of Arizona’s river system.

Question: How does nature use water?

Answer: Water is rare in the arid southwestern United States. Rivers and their floodplain habitats make up less than 3% of the total land area. These habitats, called riparian areas, are interfaces between aquatic and terrestrial systems. Riparian areas support trees and woody vegetation that require shallow groundwater. These forests offer a cooler and more humid microclimate, compared to the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Most wildlife relies on riparian areas at some point during their life cycle. This means that animals use the habitat for migration or commuting, to find food and mates, and some species will only raise their young there. Several species of fish and wildlife that have state and federal projection are found exclusively in streams and riparian areas. Unfortunately, because these areas have been modified and diminished, species needing these areas have declined in numbers and are of conservation concern.

Q: How is Phoenix’s burgeoning population straining our rivers and ecosystems?

A: Phoenix is the fifth largest city and Maricopa County is among the fastest growing in the U.S. This means that the demand for water by humans will likely increase for consumption, municipal, industrial and agriculture uses. As industry changes and land use changes, water use will also fluctuate. For example, converting an alfalfa field to residential homes will save water, but converting desert to residents will consume more water.   

Q: What will this potential shortage do to our state’s riparian system?

A: Having less water in streams means that groundwater in riparian areas will lower and trees and woody vegetation needing this will die back. Sometimes the timing of high flow events is very important. For example, cottonwood and other trees set seeds to be released during the season when water flow is high. These floods scour river banks and deposit the seeds in suitable substrate. Without floods, these plants cannot recruit, or produce the next generation. When these flood-adapted plant species die back, other plants will take their place and a different suite of wildlife will start to use these areas. Our research has found that in highly modified rivers, non-native plants that don't need floods become established. We find lower diversity of lizards, amphibians and small mammals in these modified areas. Interestingly, even intermittent waters are important resources in the desert. If these arroyos and washes don't flow during monsoon or winter rainy seasons, those habitats can also experience decreases in biodiversity.

Q: Are there examples where resource managers have done a good job keeping the state’s rivers flowing?

A: Some natural resource agencies have asked the state for permission to keep water in the stream, sort of a water right, and not be withdrawn for other uses. The process involves documenting how flows in rivers are important for maintaining diverse habitat and wildlife and that this is a beneficial use of water. As I mentioned before, some areas might be worth prioritizing for keeping water in the stream for important areas. Arizona has only two streams with the federal designation of Wild and Scenic. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law over 50 years ago and was used to prioritize areas deemed to have significant natural resource value. In the U.S., less than 1% of our rivers have this protection. 

Q: What does this possible shortage mean for future wildlife?

A: When streams become de-watered or lose their high flows, I mentioned that the forest composition can change. Species needing more water will be replaced by more drought-tolerant species. Same can happen with the wildlife. Animals that need plants or water for feeding and nesting will be replaced by species that are more tolerant of a wider range of conditions. These generalist species can be found in other habitats and the uniqueness of riparian areas will decline.  

Q: What can Arizona residents do to improve our water and rivers?

A: Go visit these areas. Take a walk along a stream and listen for birds and see if there are flowers and pollinators around. Feel the coolness of these areas as they provide shade from the sun. I find these areas to be inspirational and not only are they good for the wildlife, but they are good for us too. Three streams come into Phoenix, which is why we call it the Valley. These streams are water sources for humans too. Pay attention to how decision-makers handle water issues. For example, how might a border wall that blocks stream flow affect the San Pedro? The headwaters of the San Pedro are in Mexico and the stream flows north into Arizona. This stream also has an important conservation designation. Without headwater flows, there is less water to support vegetation, and less vegetation to support wildlife or future human growth. Besides, it's good for people to connect with nature. I hope that people can see Phoenix as a river city.

Top photo: Heather Bateman, an associate professor with ASU’s College of Integrative Arts and Sciences, stands outside the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Arizona. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now 

Reporter , ASU News