Interview with Professor Danille Christensen
Religion and Culture Major Caitlin Van Wicklin interviews Prof. Danille Christensen on her area of study
(Photo of Dr. Christensen holding the photo Mrs. McDonald canning by Frank M. Hohenberger)
What does it mean to be a folklorist?
Folklorists explore the creativity and skills that people bring to everyday life. In addition to verbal forms like stories and jokes, we study customary behavior (e.g., ritual, dance, rap battles, festivals), as well as tangible things (e.g., buildings, musical instruments, wrought iron, art cars, bento boxes). Generally, the stuff we study exhibits both tradition and innovation, is learned or practiced outside of official institutions, and demonstrates deliberate artistry and technical skill. We use ethnographic methods (observation, participation, and interviews) to collect data and apply a range of interpretive frameworks to analyze what we find. Because we're interested in the dynamics of culture—what changes, what stays the same, and why—we also draw on historical data, and we compare practices in one area with those in another.
Why is it important to study folklore?
It's important to understand that all of us, in the present, in urban spaces, at work and at play, participate in cultures that shape our values and assumptions. I often tell students that folklorists are curious about the patterned things people say, make, and do in everyday life to communicate who they are, what they value, and where they belong. For instance, people often use cultural forms to comment on who doesn't, or shouldn't, belong: to take a recent example, rumors about avian flu or ebola generalize about Asians and Africans exactly like rumors about leprosy and AIDS have bolstered stereotypes in the past. Our personal cultures influence the ways we treat and talk about others; just watch the news to see how performances of identity can generate conflict and also foster dynamic and positive exchanges.
How are you incorporating performance and communication training into your classes?
When I refer to performance, I'm talking about the ways that people communicate cultural competencies in everyday life—how they demonstrate that they know the rules about how to dress, make a strip-pieced quilt, greet others appropriately, etc., in specific situations. And when people choose to challenge cultural rules, they're also sending complex messages. So I ask students to notice social contexts and learn to read concrete details, whether they're transcribing a legend or learning how to join one piece of wood to another. By doing hands-on fieldwork, students in my classes study how their peer groups, their families, and their broader communities enact value and values. I also encourage my students to communicate their own research findings to specific audiences, in class, online, and for local publics.
How did you get interested in the aspect of canning?
As I taught foodways and material culture courses, I noticed that students from diverse backgrounds were increasingly interested in growing and preserving their own food. For some time, I'd been studying the resurgence of handcraft and DIY, and I wanted to know why canning's hipness was on the rise. Most histories of canning are dominated by voices from science and industry, so I spent two summers at the Library of Congress and other archives listening to interviews recorded by folklorists and browsing manuals, posters, photos, and government bulletins. I'm back in Washington until August 2016; as a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress, I'm finishing Freedom from Want: Home Canning in the American Imagination, which looks at the reasons people in the United States have promoted home canning (bottling) over the last century, and why. The ways people talk about canning today—in terms of taste, food safety, frugality, creativity, sustainability, work, and social networks—echo talk from home bottling's beginnings, and these discussions have always mapped onto broader debates about political, economic, and ethical issues.