Skip to content

Two Short Courses in Tartu

#fulbrightspecialist #fulbright #exchangeourworld

In an earlier post, I expressed my appreciation for the opportunity to visit the University of Tartu as a Fulbright Specialist. Among my tasks while there was to teach two short courses. Here I want share the story of those courses and reflect upon how they fit into my visit and into my fall of sabbatical leave.


The Departments of Ethnology and of Estonian and Comparative Folklore are not only headquartered in the beautiful building on the left, but they are located across from the wonderful, legendary cafe Werner on the right. The cafe itself justifies a trip to Tartu.

As I noted earlier, the University of Tartu has well-established and distinguished degree programs in (1) folklore studies, (2) ethnology, and (3) Estonian craft. My visit was in part prompted by the addition of an English-language MA program in folkloristics and applied heritage studies. This new program is being offered by the three departments in partnership. Given the focus of the new program and the interests of its students, there was a desire in the core faculty to offer an enhanced opportunity related to museums and material culture. That is where I fit it, as I regularly teach graduate courses in museum curatorship and in material culture studies for students of both folkloristics and in ethnology (≈ cultural anthropology). I suspect that my experience working in both museums and academe is also relevant here.

For my Fulbright visit, I was asked to contribute to a course called “Material Culture and the Museum.” Wonderful Tartu colleagues Kirsti Jõesalu, Elo-Hanna Seljamaa, and Ene Kõresaar organized and kicked off the course prior to my arrival and carefully managed its mechanics during and after my visit. I offered four course lectures and then participated with the students in the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Ethnography Conference held during my final week in Estonia at the Estonian National Museum (more on the conference later). The descriptions for my course talks were:

Museum Ethnology and Material Culture Studies: An Introduction

In the first of four sessions, the core concerns of museum-based folkloristics, cultural anthropology, and ethnology (= museum ethnology, hereafter) will be introduced. Material culture studies within these fields is an intertwined but independent endeavor. Concerned especially with the areas in which museum ethnology and the study of objects and built environments intersect, material culture studies as an research area in ethnology will also be introduced.

Theories of Material Culture

In the second of four sessions, the focus will be a survey of theoretical perspectives relevant to the study of material culture within the ethnographically-oriented disciplines. As a prelude to later investigations by course participants, a wide range of perspectives will be introduced briefly. The session will conclude with a somewhat more elaborated account of the primary approach to material culture studies now active in North American folkloristics. This dormant perspective reflects the communication or performance focus characteristic of North American folkloristics more generally.

Practices in Museum Ethnology

The third of the four sessions will characterize the practice of museum ethnology by scholars who are both based in museums and those who, while employed in other kinds of institutions, take museums and their collections as a special focus. What does a museum anthropologist, a museum-minded folklorist, or a museum ethnologist do? Why do they do what they do? What are the broader implications of this kind of work? How do such museum scholars contribute to the larger work of their field(s)? These questions will animate this session.

Contemporary Developments in Museum Ethnology and Material Culture Studies

In the final of the four sessions, the focus will be on emergent trends at the intersection of museum ethnology and material culture studies. These trends will be situated within a broader revitalization of work within these endeavors. Among the developments to be discussed are: (1) the changing role of museums in society, (2) reconfigured relationships with originating or source communities, (3) the impact of new digital technologies, and (4) the rise of new or reconfigured heritage and property regimes. We will also reflect on the relationship between museum/collections-based material culture studies and the now much larger and more diverse realm of material culture studies as a whole.

I was honored and a bit surprised that so many colleagues from around Estonia came to sit in on these four course meetings. There was a large and talented group of students participating in the course from the English-language MA and from other degree programs, but there were also faculty, researchers, and museum curators from around Estonia attending as well. It was exciting to engage with this diverse and interested audience. I am sorry that the size of the group prevented me from connecting personally with everyone.

I am on sabbatical leave this fall. Did I really have any business teaching? Yes. I will not be the first to observe how valuable teaching can be for the advancement of one’s own thinking and research. My Material Culture course at IU has been taught several times already, as has my Curatorship course. They need fresh thinking. Together, these two courses occupy 30 weeks of graduate seminar (75 contact hours). While in a small group, American-style seminar, I might have conversed my way across the topics outlined above, the large audience and tight time window necessitated coming at the material in a new way. Thinking about how to present the big picture in these two intersecting domains in a brief series of lectures was extremely productive for my own thinking. As I re-engage with my own museum-related material culture research, this fresh look is really valuable. One other thing that I can say about it was that–in the doing–I really drew inspiration from the recent work of younger scholars, including the IU graduate students with whom I get to work. The whole undertaking was generative and I appreciate the opportunity to pursue it. Special thanks to my colleagues for organizing it and for all who attended the course meetings.

My other short course was titled “Getting the Most Out of Peer-Review.” One of the advantages of a university with smaller course modules is that there is room for focused courses like this. This is the course that previously mentioned was partially supported by the European Union. It drew students from beyond folkloristics and ethnology and the participants were mostly PhD rather than MA students. It was at a high level from the first moment because a majority of the students came to the course with publishing experience. Most had already published one or more peer-reviewed articles, which meant that our discussions did not focus on the mechanics of submission and publication but focused specifically on peer-review. In this, we explored two phases. How to (1) engage with peer-reviews as an author receiving them and (2) how to be a good citizen and effective as a peer-reviewer. My kind hosts Kirsti Jõesalu and Elo-Hanna Seljamaa handled the kick-off and follow-up and mechanics of this course also and I hosted and led two seminars (one short, one long-but-with excellent snacks!) in which we discussed the broad domain. Unlike the lecture-hall material culture course, the peer-review course could be handled in seminar style and I thus had an increased chance to learn from the participants. I note here my thanks to all of the participants and to my hosts.

I won’t elaborate the peer-review course content further here, but I will note one related issue of particular interest to me.

The students in this course are advanced in their research and advanced in their publishing careers. This is normal for their institutional and disciplinary contexts in Europe and it also articulates with how most of them will meet their dissertation requirement for the PhD. As is true in the hard sciences in the United States but rare in cultural anthropology or folklore studies (or history, art history, etc.) here, these students dissertations will be assembled around a suite of peer-reviewed articles rather than a long-form, book-like manuscript. I hope to write more about this difference in the future, but if you are curious about what such a dissertation looks like, consider the case of Anastasiya Astapova’s dissertation titled Negotiating Belarusianness: Political Folklore Betwixt and Between. I choose this example because it is highly regarded and connects to my own home department.

As you will see if you consult the dissertation online here:, this dissertation combines a 69 page contextualizing and framing essay with presentation of five peer-reviewed articles and chapters. The first of these appeared in the journal Humor, the second appeared in the Journal of Folklore Research (published the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and IU Press), the third appeared in Ethnologia Europaea, the fourth appeared in the Journal of American Folklore, and the fifth appeared in an edited book titled Contesting Authority: Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs. This is a stellar set of high profile publications in leading venues.

If you look at the dissertation online, you will find all of the framing and wrapper material, but not the five articles/chapters themselves. Professor Ülo Valk kindly gave me a paperback edition of the dissertation and it includes reproductions of the five published or then-forthcoming contributions. (All of the current Tartu dissertations are beautifully produced as book-like objects.) I suspect that the University of Tartu withholds these in the open access version for copyright reasons.


While I mention Anastasiya Astapova’s dissertation in my post, there are plenty to attract our attention. Here is the cover of Jinseok Seo’s dissertation on Korean shamanism.

I hope to reflect more on this model of the dissertation in the future. Here, I mention it to provide context for the peer-review course. This structure definitely gives the peer-review article genre a key place in doctoral training.

In closing, here I want to thank the Fulbright Specialist program again as well as my staff and faculty hosts at the University of Tartu. In connection with the two courses, special thanks go to the students and colleagues who engaged with the efforts described here. (And thanks to the European Union for supporting the peer-review course.)

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: