Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Teaching’ Category

An Interview with Rachel Tavaras, Indiana University Graduate and Collections Manager at the Museum of Miniature Houses in Carmel, Indiana

Rachel Tavaras grew up in the Chicago area and earned undergraduate degrees in History and Anthropology, both in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University (IU), where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. At IU, museum work was a special focus for her and she undertook internships and practicum at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, the Wylie House Museum, the Monroe County History Center, the Hinkle-Garton Farmstead, and the LaPorte County History Museum. After graduation in 2015, she joined the Historical Administration M.A. program at Eastern Illinois University (EIU). This highly regarded program is built around an on-campus year of coursework and hands-on training followed by a six-month supervised internship or job in a relevant museum or historical institution. While at EIU she was a graduate assistant at the Tarble Arts Center. Eager to catch-up with an outstanding undergraduate alumna who made a big difference during her time at Indiana University, I was pleased that Rachel agreed to an interview with me. In it we discuss her first job hunt, the Museum of Miniature Houses in Carmel, Indiana, where she now serves as Collections Manager, and her experience studying at Indiana and Eastern Illinois.

JJ: Thank you Rachel for being willing to do this interview.

Folk wisdom holds—and I think that it is often true—that one’s first full time job is often the hardest to find. We will come to your current work in a moment, but first could you tell us a bit about how you first got connected with the Museum of Miniature Houses?

RT: The initial job hunting process was quite daunting! My graduate program at Eastern Illinois University requires that we complete a six-month internship after coursework, unless we find a job. While I would not have had an issue with taking an internship, I sought something more permanent. When I saw an opening for the Collections Manager position at the Museum of Miniature Houses and Other Collections through the Association of Indiana Museums (AIM), I did not hesitate to apply.

Miniatures have always fascinated me, and, while I did not have a background in miniatures explicitly, I felt that my prior experiences with other types of collections could apply. From working with jewelry from the Middle East at Mathers, to working with Midwestern folk art dioramas at the Tarble Arts Center, I felt confident in my ability to work with a collection of objects made by less “formally trained” artisans. My theoretical training, both in class and in the museum field, also helped when it came to landing the job. I have been trained in methods of material culture, decorative arts, understanding folklife, and more. Such training is essential to understanding miniatures, whether it be a representation of an American Rococo living room or a Japanese farm house from Osaka.

IMG_1798[4]Rachel Tavaras shows off the “Yellow Georgian,” an assemblage of objects in the collections of the Museum of Miniature Houses in Carmel, Indiana.

JJ: Did you have any personal contacts with the museum beforehand or were you applying in response to the AIM advertisement? What did you learn from the application and selection process?

I did not have any personal contacts from the museum beforehand—I applied merely because of the online advertisement. Because I did not know anyone at the museum personally, every chance to leave an impression with the hiring committee was especially precious.

Because of this, through the hiring process I came to better understand the importance of the interview. I think that many recent graduates focus heavily on their resume and cover letter—and rightfully so. These are the first items that a potential employers looks over, and they will ultimately determine the applicant’s chance at an interview. For the interview, I was fully prepared and had anticipated many of the questions that the hiring committee asked. I had also researched the institution and miniatures in general beforehand, giving me the opportunity to explicitly express how my skills and experiences would make me a great asset. My efforts were worthwhile. Since being hired, I have been told that I “nailed” the interview. While my application materials got me the interview, it was my interview that go me the job.

I have since had to opportunity to be on the other end of the hiring process. Looking for a part-time Collections Assistant was an intimidating task, especially being so new to my own position. While sifting through applicants, I was reminded of the importance of first impressions. Many applicants sent vague and brief application materials. It was clear that they did not read the job description. On the other hand, one applicant both emailed and physically mailed me copies of her application. She was a high contender.

JJ: The name alone suggests that the Museum of Miniature Houses is a rather interesting institution. I won’t be alone in wanting to know more about it. Is the part-time Collections Assistant your only staff colleague or is the staff bigger than these two roles? Do volunteers play a big part in your museum? What can you tell us about the history of the museum and its current status? Who is the museum’s governance authority? Read more

Theories of Material Culture: Two Highlights

I am now concluding my graduate course Theories of Material Culture. I have taught this course several times previously and I always enjoy it. This year, the students who gathered with me were more diverse than usual. Beyond the normal folklorists and cultural anthropologists, there were practicing artists, a learning scientist, a fashion scholar, and an ethnomusicologist. In comparison to past instances, this made the course simultaneously more interesting and a more challenging exercise in translation. I am thankful for the chance to work with students whose interests intersect with mine in such stimulating ways. Interacting with these students was a big highlight of my distractingly busy semester.

Intentionally, I have made the Theories of Material Culture a weird course. In response to students who rightfully complained about constantly noting how key book-length works were often mentioned* in our courses but not assigned, the only readings in the course are books. Many books. Experience shows that, as part of a more diverse reading diet, this course pattern helps students in noticeable ways later–during qualifying exams, research planning, and dissertation writing. Some works have reappeared in different versions of the course, but some are always new to the course and occasionally some are new to me. This semester, I added two titles that, while I had not yet read them because they were brand new, seemed like sure bets. And they were. The were most beloved by the students and they provoked particularly rich discussions. These were Pravina Shukla’s Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015) and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

I cannot spare the time now to comment properly on these two excellent books, but I note here that they were highlights for me and for the students. I eagerly recommend them to you. Of reviews of Costume, I like the one written by Brandon Barker for JFRR. For The Mushroom at the End of the World, I note Eugene N. Anderson’s review in Ethnobiology Letters. (These two journals are both wonderful open access publications, by the way.)

* Particularly unnerving to students is the faculty habit of mentioning canonical books as if everyone in the room had not only heard of them previously but had read them and long ago assimilated their lessons. (I know I to am guilty of this tic too.) Books do of course get assigned in our classes, but usually a smaller number are balanced with a mixture of works in other genres. This normal pattern is true of my other courses too.

Its Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA) Applicaton Time Again

Its time for graduate students with material culture interests to think about, and follow through on, applying to participate in the 2014 Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology. This is a four-week training program focusing on the methods needed to incorporate museum collections into broader research efforts in cultural anthropology and in cognate ethnographic fields such as folklore studies.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and held at the Smithsonian Institution, the program covers students’ room, board, and tuition. Housing is provided as is a small stipend for food and other local expenses. Participants are individually responsible for the cost of travel to and from Washington, DC. This is an intensive residential program and the participants are expected to devote full time to the training. Anyone working with, or interested in working with, material culture collections in their research should check out the program. Details are on the SIMA website.

Applications are due on March 1, 2014.

For other NSF funded training programs in cultural anthropology, see the Methods Mall website.





2013 Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Fieldschool

Sharing below information on the 2013 Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool.

The 2013 Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Fieldschool introduces students to the tools and methods required to creatively apply information and computing technologies to cultural heritage materials and questions.

The CHl Fieldschool is a unique experience in which students come together for 5 weeks to collaboratively work on cultural heritage informatics projects. In the process they learn to envision and build applications and digital user experiences for cultural heritage – exploring skills such as programming, web design & development, user experience design, project management, digital storytelling, etc.

Build soundly on the principle of “building as a way of knowing,” the CHI Fieldschool embraces the idea that students develop a better understanding of cultural heritage informatics by actually building tools, applications, and digital user experiences.

2013 Fieldschool Theme: Each year, the CHI Fieldschool has a theme which guides and informs all work and projects undertaken by students. This year’s theme is “Visualization: Time, Space, and Data.”

The CHI Fieldschool is offered through the MSU Department of Anthropology as ANP491 (6 Credits)


Note:  Interested graduate students from CIC Schools (Big 10 + Chicago) may wish to investigate participating through the CIC Traveling Scholars Program, which lets graduate students enroll on their home CIC campus while participating in a class on another CIC campus. For information, see:

AFS Releases Lay and Expert Knowledge Project Reports #oaweek

In time for Open Access Week, the American Folklore Society and the Center for Folklore Studies at The Ohio State University have just made available a collection of reports and working papers derived from the Society’s project on Lay and Expert Knowledge in a Complex Society. This two-year project was funded by the Teagle Foundation as part of its “Big Questions and the Disciplines” program and focused examined undergraduate teaching of folklore in the contemporary world.

These materials are available now as volume 2 of the series Working Papers of the Center for Folklore Studies under the editorship of PIs Dorothy Noyes and Timothy Lloyd. This working paper series is made available through the OSU KnowledgeBank (the OSU institutional repository) and are harvested for search (OAI-PMH interoperability!) through the Open Folklore portal.

It has been an honor to participate in this project and I am super happy that first rate open access strategies are being used to make the work more accessible.

Why Michael Wesch’s “Blogging” Should Count

In his essay “Blogging for Promotion: An Immodest Proposal” anthropologist Greg Downey outlines a clear set of actionable proposals for reform at the intersection of scholarly communications practices and academic tenure and promotion practices. I commend his essay, which was published today (10/20/11) on Neuroanthropology, a compelling and influential PLoS (Public Library of Science) weblog that he runs with Daniel Linde. Rather than discussing this important contribution here in depth, I am going to try enacting one of its proposals. (For reference, see especially the discussion that follows Downey’s section heading “An immodest proposal (not an indecent proposition)”.)

First the set up. I am working extensively right now preparing a new course for spring 2011. This course was devised as part of my participation in a two year think-tank funded by the Teagle Foundation (a funder supporting projects designed to foster innovation in undergraduate teaching and learning) and organized by the American Folklore Society. The AFS project was built around the theme “What is the relationship between lay and expert knowledge in a complex society?” Colleagues teaching in a range of institutions, from community colleges and private liberal arts colleges to large research institutions gathered to explore the frontiers of research-based teaching, changing curriculum practices, and the wider contexts of our work in a small border discipline bridging the humanities and the social sciences, as well as the academy and the public sphere. As part of our work, we developed plans for new courses and teaching resources. Part of my work focused on working out plans for the course that I will initially teach next spring (it opens for enrollment today).

I have mentioned the course here previously. In a nutshell it uses the toolkit of folkloristics (and by extension my other field–cultural anthropology) to consider human responses–including aesthetic, expressive, customary, and communal responses–to a range of recently emergent and highly contested human social problems. Called “The New Social Problems: Communal and Expressive Responses” the new problem domains to be considered include such things as the digital divide, genetic engineering, intellectual property contests, and nanotechnologies. I am sure that I will be discussing the course further as it moves forward. The important point in this context is noting the influence that one colleague–whom I do not know and whom I have not yet met–has had on the shaping of my plans for this experimental course.

Michael Wesch, on his website/weblog Digital Ethnography (which is a key node in the digital infrastructure of his undergraduate-based research group), has regularly and effectively documented the pedagogical experiments and research work that he has been pursuing (over many years) with many successive groups of Kansas State University students. Wesch has been appropriately recognized and celebrated for the innovative work that he and his students have been doing. What I want to highlight here is that the manner in which he has documented and explained this work has made it richly available for the wider scholarly community. Because he has used as a venue for reporting on his work, his strategies and experiences are openly and immediately accessible to me (and to my students) as well as to everyone else able to surmount the digital divide. Essays like “Our Class on How We Run Our Class” in which Wesch and his students describe (and enact) the technical and intellectual strategies through which a standard U.S. undergraduate course is turned into a deeply meaningful research collaboratory for social scientific investigation are just not available in the conventional published literature in our field. It is on the basis of the inspiration provided and the information conveyed by Wesch and his students that I am able to imagine a very different kind of course to pursue with my own students in January.

Michael Wesch’s Digital Ethnography efforts represent the kinds of “blogging” work that deserves to count as a substantive scholarly contribution (bridging teaching, research, and service) in such areas as annual review and tenure and promotion considerations.

Information R/evolution

While the fall semester is just beginning, this season’s call to submit book orders is a haunting reminder that the spring semester will be here very shortly. As I have noted previously, I will be teaching a new and experimental course on Folklore and the New Social Problems. Alongside ethical and topical matters, a meta-concern of this course is information literacy and the cultivation of durable research skills for a changing world. The call to submit textbook orders is especially ironic in these contexts in ways that I do not have time to explore in this post. Thinking about them today though, I wanted to catchup with an inspirational colleague (and an inspiration for my upcoming course) so I checked in online with Michael Wesch. I was happy to see that he has been named “Coffman Chair for Distinguished Teaching Scholars” at Kansas State University (well deserved!). I also watched, for the first time, his video Information R/evolution. It is a great companion to The Machine is Us/ing Us and it focuses on the changed information ecology in which those of us with access to digital resources work. Like many of Wesch’s other projects, it speaks well to the concerns so many of us are trying to negotiate. It is a valuable resource for my course. Check it out.

To be clear, I love books and nobody is working harder than my library colleagues to address the changes Wesch introduces. A key value of Wesch’s video work is his ability to explain these changes to general audiences (including those undergraduates with whom he has had such success).

Folklore and the New Social Problems

Like many friends, I am now rushing to prepare courses to be taught in the upcoming fall semester. This year I am teaching a new course in both the fall (=Indigenous Worldviews) and the spring. As fall progresses, I will need to get my act together for the new spring course. Book ordering will, for instance, come quickly. I wanted to describe here my new spring 2012 course and invite suggestions and comments from anyone interested in weighing in.

This new course “Folklore and the New Social Problems” or (in expanded form) “The New Social Problems: Expressive and Communal Responses” builds on work that I have done with graduate students over the past few years and was the focus of my contribution to the recent Teagle Foundation-funded project of the American Folklore Society. As part of the Teagle Foundation’s “Big Questions and the Disciplines” initiative, the AFS project focused on undergraduate curriculum innovations linked under the question “What is the relationship between lay and expert knowledge in a complex society?” This provides one context for the course that I will teach next spring.  Here is the course description.

FOLK F253 Folklore and the Social Sciences (3 cr.) S&H
VT: Folklore & New Social Problems
TOPIC:  The New Social Problems: Expressive & Communal Responses

This course considers human responses–including aesthetic, expressive, customary, and communal responses–to a range of recently emergent and highly contested human social problems. Working together to map uncharted territory, we will draw upon the methods, theories, and empirical findings of the international field of folklore studies while cultivating skills in media literacy and critical thinking.  As a course in folklore studies, we will specifically investigate the relationship of lay and expert knowledge within the fraught, complex, and large-scale phenomena and dilemmas that are its empirical focus. Among these course topics are: globalization and trade policy, financial engineering, the digital divide, intellectual property, the industrial food system, the trade in living human tissues and organs, biodiversity, geoengineering, climate change, cultural and linguistic diversity, farmer’s rights, corporate and media concentration, genetic engineering/synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and bioprospecting/biopiracy. Because these issues transcend the historic disciplines, the course will turn to the insights developed in a range of fields but the intellectual center of gravity will be the enduring concerns of folklore studies, as expressed in such core concepts as art, performance, identity, community, vernacular knowledge, context, expressive life, worldview, and heritage. While they will not be the focus of this course, we will acknowledge the enduring significance–in and beyond folklore studies–of what might be characterized as the old social problems. These would include such issues as slavery, terrorism, disease, colonialism, war, poverty, hunger, corruption, and racism.

Suggestions welcome!

Thanks @ColoradoCollege

In a few moments the students in my Introduction to Folklife course will arrive and take their final exam. I will then head home to Indiana, eager to see my family and enjoy the little bit of summer that is left before the fall semester at Indiana begins. I am very thankful for the opportunity that Colorado College provided to me. Teaching folklore/anthropology in a very different campus and classroom context was very valuable to me and I already know some of the ways that the new undergraduate courses that I will teach this coming year will benefit from my experiences here. It was also wonderful to spend time with my old friend Vicki Levine and her family and to become friends with new-to-me folks, especially Ginger Farrer.  For facilitating my visit, special thanks go to the staff of the CC Department of Anthropology (including its chair, my distinguished folklore colleague Mario Montaño), the CC Office of Summer Programs (where everyone was so helpful), and the Tutt LIbrary (where Daryl Alder and her colleagues were an amazing support to my students and to me in my research too). Of course I wish to thank my students too for taking a chance on what might have seamed an enigmatic course taught by an unknown professor. To everyone at CC, have a great new school year.

Photos below the fold. Read more

Khaira Arby Rocks

Just got back from the Khaira Arby concert here in Colorado Springs. The students in my Introduction to Folklife course went with me. It was awesome. It was great in an everyday sense and also in a “great to go along with my course” sense.  She is awesome, has a great band, and is really fun to watch and to listen to.  Because of rain earlier today the concert had to move inside (it was going to be on the lawn on campus here) but the hall was comfortable and it worked out and sounded great.  I am not an expert in the music of Mali (or anyplace), but I like Ali Farka Touré’s music and I guess that is a start. Khaira Arby and her band are in the same basic territory. The main difference is that she and her band rock more and her voice is an amazing, expressive instrument. Her band is extremely talented and they came off as a very well rehearsed unit. Really great.

The concert was a perfect compliment to a film that I showed in my class.  It is a documentary on the adobe architecture of Mali called Heavenly Mud. I love to teach vernacular architecture with this film but one of its fringe benefits is that it has great music in its soundtrack. Khaira Arby is from the region near Timbuktu and her music is recognizably akin to the music in the film (which shows in detail the remarkable architecture of both Timbuktu and the equally amazing city of Djenné) This provided a point of contact between the class and the concert. On top of that, yesterday and today our focus has been music. What could be better?

Her MySpace page suggests that this was her last concert in the U.S. Her next stop is the U.K. for three shows, then two in Belgium, then one in Poland (at the Africa Museum!). Hopefully some of my friends and readers will have a chance to see her. She and her band would be great at the Lotus Festival in Bloomington one of these years.

Someone needs to make a English wikipedia page for her!

Here is a music video that shows her singing and the architecture around Timbuktu.

Here is NPR coverage of Khaira Arby.

It is funny to see online that she is represented on her tour by Rock Paper Scissors, the world music agency headquartered in Bloomington. Maybe the bodes well for a Lotus visit?

%d bloggers like this: