Cathy Preston


Course Context:

ENGL 3226 (Folklore 1)

Folklore 1: Introduction to Folklore is a course that I teach every year, sometimes as an Honors Seminar (15 students), sometimes as a regular, English department course (35 students). As an Honors Seminar, I organize the course, in large part, around class discussion. As a regular departmental course, I alternate lecture format and class discussion. This assessment is based on my Spring 2010, Honors Seminar (12 students).

Working Definitions of “Folklore”:
“Folklore is the traditional, unofficial, non-institutionalized part of culture. It encompasses all knowledge, understandings, values, attitudes, assumptions, feelings, and beliefs transmitted in traditional forms by word of mouth or by customary examples” (Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 1986:4).

“Folklore is informally learned, unofficial knowledge about the world, ourselves, our communities, our beliefs, our cultures and our traditions, that is expressed creatively through words, music, customs, actions, behaviors and materials. It is also the interactive, dynamic process of creating, communicating, and performing as we share that knowledge with other people” (Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore, 2005:8).

Course Description: “Folklore 1” is designed as an interdisciplinary introduction to the non-institutionalized part of people’s lives: the stories and jokes people tell, the songs people sing, the games people play, the customs, rituals, and belief practices that people participate in, and the material objects people make. While in English department courses, students normally learn to read (interpret, analyze, and theorize) a variety of differently situated literary texts, in this course students learn first to document and then to “read” a variety of differently situated traditional, vernacular, and emergent cultural performances. Drawing on a set of threshold concepts and theoretical and methodological frameworks developed in the discipline of folkloristics, but enhanced by such other disciplines as literary theory, anthropology (and its sub-discipline, ethnography), sociology, psychology, socio-linguistics, history, communications, and cultural studies, students work to define the nature and function of folklore in our contemporary world. The course emphasizes, but is not limited to, the cultures of North America.

What did I do?
Targets of Improvement and Evidence of that Improvement:

One idea, presented during the “Student Engagement and Classroom Assessment” seminar, that I found particularly helpful in thinking about how I teach my courses (whether they are courses whose subject matter is formal literature or folklore) was the difference between students’ “learning about” the subject (a form of learning that is explicit and content driven) and students’ “learning to think like” literary critics, historians, theorists or folklorists (praxis); thus, in relation to “Folklore 1,” one target of improvement in terms of my teaching and the students’ learning was to improve and look for evidence of the extent to which students were beginning to think like folklorists.

A second idea, presented during the seminar, that I found helpful was that of the “Levels of Knowledge”: Worthwhile (that which is worth knowing and doing), Important (that which is important to know), and Core (that which is core or enduring to an understanding of the discipline?); thus, another target of improvement in terms of my teaching and the students’ learning was to identify which levels of knowledge students were focusing on in the readings and during class lecture and discussion.

A third idea of interest to me was that of identifying “Keywords” and “Threshold Concepts” within a particular discipline; thus, another target of improvement was to identify “keywords” and better reinforce “threshold concepts” as used in the discipline of folkloristics.

What I did:
What I already had in place:

Course Readings:

--sets of definitional and conceptual readings that are oriented towards presenting an overview of the discipline while enhancing explicit and content driven learning
--sets of case-study readings, drawn from professional journals, that are not only content oriented but which can be used to illustrate the ways folklorists think within their discipline and how they write about what they think; in other words, case-study readings provide a type of model that I use to move students towards a position of praxis.

In-class Lecture/Discussion of those readings and students’ experientially-based observations related to those readings

Written Exercises:

--4 reading-response papers (3-5 pages in length) spaced-out at three-to-four-week intervals through the semester
--4 fieldwork documents similarly spaced through the semester
--final course project: a longer essay (on a topic/question of each student’s own devising) that both documents and analyzes some aspect of folklore within its performance contexts and that is based in primary (student fieldwork) and makes use of secondary (published) research when available

What I added that was new:

Teaching Strategy: Keywords/Threshold Concepts



I identified two sets of Keywords that are important to the discipline. The first set is the focus of individual essays in the Fall 1995 Special Issue, “Common Ground: Keywords for the Study of Expressive Culture,” of the Journal of American Folkore:

Folklore, Tradition, Art, Text, Group, Performance, Genre, and Context.

The second set includes additional keywords that frequently appear in relation to discussions of folklore:

textual variant, verbal folklore (folk speech, proverb, riddle, myth, legend, folktale, joke, tall tale, anecdote, personal experience narrative), customary lore (custom, festival, ritual, rite, folk belief), material folklore (folk object/art, foodways), performance context (individual context, social context, cultural context, and comparative context), decontextualization, recontextualization, cultural appropriation, performance marker, performance frame, aesthetics, esoteric/exoteric, identity, liminality, tale-type, motif, reflexivity, fieldwork, ethnography, functionalism, structuralism, psychoanalytic, post-structuralism.

I then foregrounded the first set of these words (and most of the second set) on the course syllabus in relation to specific sets of course readings (see appendix). Additionally, at the beginning of each class period, I wrote that class period’s relevant keywords/concepts on the blackboard to reinforce their significance to the readings and to lecture/discussion.

I also identified a short list of Threshold Concepts which I occasionally wrote on the blackboard in addition to the period’s keywords:

--Folklore is that aspect of culture which is traditional, unofficial, and non-institutionalized.
--Folklore involves symbolic performances of identity and knowledge.
--Folklore is a system of signification.
--Folklore is both conservative and dynamic.
--Folk culture is interactive with other registers of cultural production (elite culture and popular/mass culture); folklore is both appropriative of and may be appropriated by elite and popular forms of cultural production
--All people have folklore.

Teaching Strategy and Assessment: Minute Paper



I instituted a modified use of the “Minute Paper” at the end of 22 of the possible 30 class periods (class met on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule for a period of 75 minutes each). I asked the students to take five minutes to write a brief comment on or question about something in the readings, lecture, or class discussion that they found of particular interest or importance or that they found perplexing, unclear, or questionable. I also suggested that if a student had trouble with such on-the-spot writing, he or she might do the exercise before class (based on that day’s readings or the previous class’s lecture/discussion).

Following each class (or occasionally, two consecutive classes) I typed up the students’ responses, eliminating their names to protect anonymity (although I had said that they need not sign their names to the Minute Papers, most students did sign their names), and e-mailed the complete list of responses back to the students.

I also intended to address at least one of their responses in some way during the next class session; sometimes I managed to do this, but perhaps not frequently enough. Also I found that sometimes questions raised by the students would be best addressed by or in relation to the course readings that came later in the semester and so left these questions for that later time.

As a teaching strategy, the Minute Paper I hoped might serve to reinforce for each student some one point that he/she had learned from the day’s readings, lecture, or discussion, as well as to provide a space for questions about the material that were either not asked in class or not as fully addressed in class discussion as was needed. By giving students access to each others’ Minute Papers, I hoped to reinforce their thinking about a broader range of comments and questions.

As a means of teaching assessment, the Minute Paper I thought might provide evidence in relation to the following questions:
--Are the students reading the assigned material?
--To what extent are the students focusing on keywords and threshold concepts as important to their understanding of the discipline?
--Which concepts are the students having trouble understanding?
--To what extent do the students’ comments/questions reflect the “Levels of Knowledge” paradigm: worthwhile, important, and core?
--To what extent do the students’ comments/questions reflect explicit and content driven learning, and to what extent do the students’ comments/questions reflect praxis?
--Is there any relationship between the comments made and questions raised in the Minute Paper format and the topics students choose to address in the course’s longer and more formal written assignments: the four reading-response essays, the four fieldwork documents, or the final course project?

What happened?
What difference did it make?



In the most general terms, I found the Minute Paper a valuable resource for immediate feedback concerning whether the students were reading the assigned material for the course (or at least some portion thereof), which types of readings (those which presented a broad overview of definitions and concepts or those which presented individual case studies) students seemed to be most focused on at different points in the semester, and what questions were being raised for the students by those readings in combination with class lecture and class discussion. References by author or title and/or to specific details in the readings (particularly details not mentioned in lecture/discussion) provided evidence that the students were indeed doing the reading, as well as evidence concerning which readings were of more interest to the students and which readings were the more thought provoking for the students. Use of keywords and the nature of the comments and questions tended to reinforce my sense that the students were indeed grappling with threshold concepts, while enabling me to identify problems involving misunderstandings of those concepts and blatant misreadings of particular sections of an assigned chapter or article. For example, two of the responses to the first set of readings (readings meant to begin to answer the question “What is Folklore,” while introducing such other keywords/concepts as “Folk Group,” “Folk Genre,” “Text and Context,” and “Fieldwork”) were as follows:



I enjoyed Sims’s [author of Living Folklore] discussion of the intersectionality between high culture, pop culture, and folk culture, such as her point that the TV show Friends is a part of pop culture, but a drinking game surrounding such a show could be part of folk culture. (January 14, 2010)

In chapter 1 in Living Folklore, it says that folklore is informally learned and does not happen in a formal setting. But I feel like that is too broad of a statement because the reading of certain books in high school is a form of folklore because it is a shared experience that many teens go through. Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby are only a few examples of stories that, although taught in institutionalized settings, do seem to apply as folklore based on my understanding. (January 14, 2010)



Both students reference the course textbook and grapple with the questions of “What is folklore” and, to some extent, “What is a folk group.” Both students have tried to understand the blurred relationships among elite cultural production, popular cultural production, and folk cultural production. Both students have equated folklore with a sense of shared experience or shared knowledge specific to a particular group, respectively those people who watch Friends or high school students who have read the same books. The first student has accurately differentiated between modes or registers of cultural production (a pop culture TV show, created by and transmitted through mass media channels for consumption by a large audience vs. a folk game that is created and performed by small groups of people for themselves, a game that is, thus, perpetuated and traditionalized informally through face-to-face or person-to-person interaction). The second student’s comment is more muddled, suggesting that there is still some confusion on her part. Folklore does circulate in institutionalized settings though it does so in noninstitutionalized and informal ways, but while high school age students may experience the reading of specific elite or formal literary texts within an institutionalized setting as, what a folklorist might term, a rite of passage, those students’ resituatings of elite forms of cultural production and institutionalized pedagogy as folk rite should be marked by some unofficial, expressive performances of their own (a ritual, game, song, set of shared personal experience narratives, legend, saying, belief practice, etc.) that make the rite and their newly formed status visible and meaningful to themselves. This, then, becomes a point that might be clarified by means of lecture or discussion in the class’s next meeting.

Identifying indications of “Levels of Knowledge” (worthwhile, important, and core) in relation to the students’ comments and questions was a bit more perplexing. Insomuch as responses to their comments and questions (had I replied to each) would generally have required something between a lengthy paragraph and a fully developed essay rather than a simple yes or no, true or false, or multiple choice answer, I would argue that on the “Levels of Knowledge” ladder, more of their comments and questions were of a second level (important) and moving towards the third level (core) than of a first level (worthwhile). And while the occasional comment or question was indicative of praxis (suggesting that a student was beginning to think like a folklorist), more comments and questions were content oriented. Evidence of praxis was better left to be determined in relation to students’ final research projects.

Finally, I did find some instances of carry over between comments made in the minute papers and the more fully developed reading response-papers and fieldwork documents although this proved to be less the case with questions raised in the minute papers.

How did the classroom assessment (feedback gathering) help me make adjustments mid-course?

Because the Minute Papers confirmed that the students were doing the course reading and that by means of those readings, in combination with class lecture and discussion, students were focusing on the discipline’s threshold or core concepts and generally seemed to be gaining an introductory understanding of those concepts, I made no adjustments at mid-course.

What did I learn? What’s next?
What worked? What did I learn?

Keywords on syllabus:



I found foregrounding keywords on the syllabus and then writing them on the blackboard at the beginning of each class to be useful as a means of orienting the students’ attention in relation to the course readings/lecture/class discussion and as an aid to my keeping class discussion on track. Furthermore, occasionally also writing a threshold concept in addition to keywords on the blackboard helped to reinforce thinking about threshold concepts (for example, the keywords “legend,” “performance,” “folk group,” and “textual variant” and the threshold concept “folklore is both conservative and dynamic”). I will continue to use these techniques in this and other classes.

Minute Paper:



Although, based on the information I drew from the Minute Papers, I made no adjustments at mid-semester to my curriculum or how I was teaching that curriculum, I will make adjustments the next time that I teach the course. Some case study readings seemed to be less effective than others either because students felt that they were too dated or because, for some students, some case studies were intellectually less accessible; these I will replace with other case readings. Similarly, comments and questions concerning the relationship between local and global forms of cultural production in relation to folklore and questions concerning the internet as a site of postmodern orality/transmission/performance of folklore appeared frequently enough in the Minute Papers that I will add a couple of case studies that specifically address these questions. The Minute Papers also helped me to identify which sections of the course might better be taught via lecture and which via class discussion, and I intend to alter my teaching methods accordingly. Finally, regarding my use of the Minute Paper as a teaching strategy rather than as a teaching assessment tool, if I continue to use it, I will need to make a more concerted effort to respond in class to some selection of the students’ comments and questions than I did this last semester, as well as to find a means for students not only to be able to read each others’ comments and questions, but to respond to those comments and questions if they are so inclined.

How useful students found to the Minute Paper to be I cannot address at this point because I have not yet seen the semester’s course evaluations.

Sharing with colleagues?

I think it would be interesting to involve colleagues of the English department in general or just those who teach the same set of courses (for example, “Literary Analysis”) in an exercise that involves identifying Keywords and Threshold Concepts important to the discipline.

Appendix [PDF]

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