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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?

Colorado College Road Trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Denver Art Museum

I have always wanted to visit the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Today I had my chance and it was great. As part of my “Introduction to Folklife” course at Colorado College, my class and I had the chance to go north to Denver for the day and to visit both museums. Both are impressive. Both have great collections and deep traditions of excellent work in those areas that matter most to me—world ethnography and Native American studies/Native American art. There was no way we could see more than a small portion of both museums, but what we saw in both institutions was great. Colorado is very lucky.

At DMNH we were generously hosted by Steve Nash, who showed us around behind the scenes in the Department of Anthropology (which he chairs). We also got to see Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, who was busy working on the next issue of Museum Anthropology (Steve and Chip took over editing the journal from me in 2009 and are doing great work with it.)

Our focus at DMNS was the Native North American culture halls, where we saw objects relating to our current reading and research project (centered on Daniel C. Swan’s book Peyote Religious Art: Symbols of Faith and Belief) and our next one (focused on Claire Farrer’s Thunder Rides a Black Horse: Mescalero Apaches and the Mythic Present). Organized on the basis of cultural areas, the DMNS exhibitions (which are steadily being updated and improved by Chip and Steve) do a great job of providing an basic orientation to the diversity of Native North America. This was evident when we got to the Denver Art Museum and the students had a better ability to appreciate the contexts for the work that is presented in a art museum mode there.

At DMNH we also had a chance to see the strange and remarkable carved gemstone sculptures made by Vasily Konovalenko to portray aspects of Russian peasant folklife. One could talk and think about them for hours and they were a great conversation point for our class and a great reminder of how complex not only art and material culture are, but how complex issues of cultural representation are, in general and under the banner of folklife in particular.

After short drive downtown and a quick street-side gyro, we hit the art museum. Like DMNS it is huge and impressive and impossible to see properly on a single day trip. Here our foci were the Native American and non-western art halls, as well as the galleries devoted to the art of the Western United States. We saw the galleries for the arts of Oceania, Africa, Asia, and Native North America. DAM was among the first U.S. art museums to get serious about Native American art and their collections are stunning.  In my own area of special interest, the DAM is currently exhibiting 5 (!) beaded bandolier bags from the Southeast. This is simply dumbfounding and a reminder of how deep the collection is.  All the galleries provided rich learning opportunities for me and for the students. I was reminded of how fun it is to teach in the presence of rich collections well-displayed. (I really missed being a curator today.)

The students seemed to have good time. They were easy, engaged, and wonderful travel companions and all the logistics went off without a hitch.

Colorado College and its amazing block plan (which makes such trips possible through its one class at a time format) are at the root of the day’s success. Many people did great behind-the-scenes administrative work to enable me (as a new to CC  visitor) to take this trip with the students. Thanks to everyone who heaped to make it happen.

Visiting Colorado College

I was educated at big public research universities and–when not employed in museums–I have worked at large public research universities. My only teaching experiences outside such contexts were two courses taught at the private University of Tulsa as an adjunct during my time working as a curator at the Gilcrease Museum. This summer, I have been given a unique opportunity to teach in a very different context. During late July and early August, I will be a visiting professor at Colorado College (CC) in Colorado Springs. I will be teaching Introduction to Folklife for the Anthropology and Southwest Studies programs at CC. The class will be small and the teaching intense because CC has (and is famous for) The Block Plan. In the Block Plan, students take only one course at a time and work on it intensively for a bit more than three weeks before moving on to their next class. There are many reasons for me to be enthusiastic about this opportunity but, more than anything else, I think that it will be a great experience that will strengthen my work as an undergraduate teacher.

Among the simpler advantages of the block plan is the fact that it makes class excursions possible, thus the class and I will be able to visit, for instance, key museum exhibitions in Denver. We will also be able to host visiting experts in class.

Outside of the teaching aspect, Colorado College is home to a great faculty that includes many fantastic scholars in the fields of anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology. It is notably the home to my friend and collaborator Victoria Levine. I am very thankful for the opportunity that the faculty and administration at CC is providing me.

If you know anyone interested in studying anthropologically-oriented folkloristics this summer in Colorado, CC accepts visiting undergraduate students for its summer sessions.

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