Some of the graduate and undergraduate courses I regularly teach.
Introduction to Folk Narrative / syllabus
Some of the materials from the course I helped to design and teach for the U.S. Army on Information Advantage / Social Information Systems
One of my goals when I teach is to undermine the divide that course participants seem to think exists between the humanities and the sciences. It helps that the kinds of texts that are usually the focus of my courses, vernacular discourse in general, are often situated near the edge of the humanities/science divide. On the other side lies linguistics, psychology, sociology and beyond them information and computer sciences. Introducing texts as data and working step-by-step through various forms of analysis (sometimes imagined as close and distant reading) enables the kind of grounding in scientific and scholarly methods that participants not only need but makes it possible for them to participate in ways they have not imagined.
I like proceeding this way: the practice of interpreting texts remains for so many a mystic process conducted by hermeneutic priests or impresarios. Making texts both qualitative and quantitative both pulls back the curtain on the mystery of interpretation and aligns the work in our course with other kinds of research into cells, chemicals, or algorithms. My goal is for participants to experience for themselves that 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. The goal is to highlight the many kinds of interaction that make up research: sometimes we work alone, sometimes with others, and sometimes we communicate across a larger group. All parts of the process add value. 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 courses. 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 things 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. 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.
In all my classes we spend time working paragraph by paragraph with scholarly and scientific prose, both because I want them to practice reading such publications but also because we spend some time 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.
Our teaching doesn’t end at the edge of campus. All of us have found ways to make the world “out there” more familiar with the content and methods that are central to our work in the academy. Whether I am participating in teacher workshops, moderating festival panels, writing letters of support for community grants, or developing curricula for state and federal agencies, I am always trying to convey the importance of the scholarly-scientific paradigm. Being both open and committed has often led to opportunities, like helping the Evangeline Council of the Boy Scouts to develop first a data collection program and then a “citizen science” curriculum which became part of their Swamp Trek experience. Scouts from acround the nation now learn 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. Finding people where they are, and getting them to understand the many dimensions of that place is how I press the tools of scholarship and science into their hands. My hope in doing so is that they hold onto the tools for some time to come.