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One of my goals when I teach folklore studies is to undermine the divide that students seem to think exists between the humanities and the sciences. It helps that the study of vernacular discourse in general, and its traditional forms (i.e., folklore) in particular, has long been pushed to one edge of the divide with literature and the arts occupying the center. Across the divide lies linguistics and those facets of the human sciences that address the individual and the particular. Introducing a focus on data and on step-by-step forms of analysis enables the kind of grounding in scientific and scholarly methods that students not only need but makes it possible for them to participate in ways they have not imagined.
At the heart of any humanities course is a text, but the practice of interpreting texts remains for most a mystic process conducted by hermeneutic priests or impresarios. One way to pull back the curtain on the mystery, and to align work in the humanities with that in the sciences, is to consider texts data and thus available for the kind of “mechanical” breakdown that we expect of cells, chemicals, or algorithms. That is, texts are machines made of words. They produce distinct meanings that can be enumerated based on which words are used and the order in which they occur. It’s that simple. The demystification process can, in advanced classes, take on the use of either established tools, available in a variety of forms (websites or standalone software) or hand-written functions in Python. In lower-level classes, we start with printouts and lots of marking, compile various patterns into spreadsheets, and then enact our insights in a variety of seemingly simple activities that underline for students the effectiveness of such ways of thinking. One such activity assigns each student in a class a page from a text, and then asks them to determine the one sentence on that page that best represents what happens on it. Students then compile their sentences, checking for redundancy and combining for overlap (which also allows them to see the power of revision as well as complex syntax), to generate a summary that everyone can use and driving home the analyzability of texts.
As students move through the various stages of breaking a text into its constituent parts and then re-assembling those parts into useful analytical units, like counts of particular words or a summary of a passage, they themselves move in and out of small groups, individual tasks, and larger, whole-class discussions and activities. One of my concomitant goals is to underline the various dimensions of interaction that make up the practice of science and scholarship, with the utility of sometimes working alone, sometimes with others, and sometimes having to communicate across a larger group necessary, and valuable, parts of the process. Too often students come into the university classroom with ideas of solitary genius or that the only authentic ideas, and productivity, are individual in nature. Getting them to experience ideas coming from different moments and different kinds of interactions for themselves is an integral part of my pedagogy. Given the amount of misinformation about science to which they are exposed — what is a theory (e.g., “evolution is just a theory”) or how peer review works (e.g., “this website proves vaccines cause autism”) — it is important that students enact the process as often and as much as they can for themselves. Practice is everything.
Obviously, one of the chief sources of information for students are the various online milieu through which they seemingly drift as their own bodies drift into and out of classrooms and campus buildings. Their attention spans are a regular admixture of critical concepts and memes, and as a member of a field focused on addressing memes and fake news, one of the advantages I enjoy is delivering concepts and methods for treating memes and fake news as material worthy of serious examination. Combining folklore studies with information science, we examine how offline and online communities, instantiated largely through the texts they exchange, enable certain kinds of ideas and disable others. We draw upon studies of folklore conduits as well as considerations of cascades and virality. The aim in these courses is to prepare students for their own research topics, where they will create small collections of data drawn from online sources and then apply those theoretical frameworks which best address the patterns and dimensions that interest them. Over the iterations of teaching in this way, I have enjoyed the elicitation of the folk critique of YouTube apologies, the careful description of Rh+ conspiracies as mythology, and the Cicada mystery as a nested intertextual nexus mirroring the web itself. These projects typically occupy much of the latter half of a semester, with students working both individually as well as in small “cluster interest” groups, helping each other to discover both primary and secondary sources as well as offering initial critiques of writing.
Because communication in general and writing in particular is such an important skill, we spend time in and out of class often working paragraph by paragraph. This is not new to students in my courses: much of the reading for courses, especially at the upper-level, is drawn from scholarly and scientific publications, both because I want them to practice reading such publications but also because we spend some time within any treatment of a given work examining how it is organized as a document. By the time it is their turn to write, they are familiar with the kinds of paragraphs that constitute such writing and the sections in which it is organized. One of the things regularly featured during such discussions is the observation “Is this great writing? No. Does it get the job done? Yes.” Writing is hard. Whatever it takes to get students to write early and often is one of my central tasks.
Some students will go on to practice reading and writing, analysis and synthesis as part of their daily work lives. Others will, I hope, have practiced it enough in the class that they will recognize when it has occurred and when it has not or when they need to flex a long-unused muscle. Given the spread of unscientific, and even anti-scientific, perspectives, this ability to recognize when a text is likely the result, or not, of the scientific/scholarly process is a critical one for university students to possess as they leave our classrooms and begin their work and lives out in the world.
As part of my commitment to making the world “out there” more familiar with the content and methods that are central to our work in the academy, I am regularly involved in community workshops, interviewed by various publications (including the New York Times once), and give talks to regional organizations. One long-standing relationship is with the Evangeline Council of the Boy Scouts which first approached me about constructing a time capsule. That conversation led to a much larger discussion about what kind of data might be collected by scouts involved in their newly developed Swamp Trek program, and how we might fold such “citizen science” initiatives focused on nature into participatory workshops on regional folk cultures. That program now reaches several hundred scouts from across the nation every year, and driving across the Atchafalaya Basin now reminds me that somewhere a scout is learning about how a toilet flushed in the Plains has an impact on the flora and fauna of the Mississippi Delta and that people have lived on this seemingly confused landscape for hundreds, perhaps, thousands of years.