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Arts & Entertainment

Family Folklore

Who says games have no place in the classroom?

Illustration by Eric Palma

When Alex Raheb interviewed his grandparents for Tony Barrand’s folklore course, he found out about his grandfather’s childhood knack for shooting marbles. So for his final project, Raheb (SMG’08) bought a bag of marbles, drew a circle on the ground, and taught his classmates how to play.

When students hear the term folklore, says Barrand, a professor in the University Professors Program, they don’t typically think of something as simple as a game of marbles. Instead, they imagine 15th-century European love ballads, fairy tales, and Maypole dances. What they don’t realize, he says, is that folklore exists in present-day America as well. “Simply put,” he says, “folklore refers to the ways in which people express who they are in relation to the places they’re from and the groups to which they belong.”

The purpose of Understanding Folklore and Folklife, an elective course offered through the College of Arts and Sciences, is to appreciate the meaning of the full range of folkloric genres, from holidays and festivals and oral literature to songs and dances and arts and crafts.

Barrand points out that the concept of folklore developed at the turn of the 19th century, largely as a result of the industrial revolution. “As more and more people left the farms for factory work in the cities,” he says, “it was feared that the old social fabric would be destroyed forever. But what people discovered was that factory workers developed their own dances and coal miners sang their own songs. The groups may have changed, but they were still bound by the performance of their folklore.”

Similarly, says Barrand, every family has its own folklore, and the best way for students to learn that folklore is by talking to an older relative. Before the end of the semester, each student is required to interview at least one family member and document the conversation in an archive-ready format. “Students can be as creative as they want,” he says. “Of course, they can write a paper, but many make photo albums or design Web sites instead. Some even write plays or recipe books.”

While students may interview their parents, aunts, or uncles, Barrand recommends a grandparent. “In teaching this class,” he says, “I’ve realized that students don’t know their grandparents. They’re just these people who show up for Thanksgiving and weddings. I’ve also learned that grandparents want to tell their grandchildren their stories, especially if they never told the stories to their own children. They know they’re getting older, and they know that by telling their stories, they expand their own life.”

In addition to archiving their interviews, some students choose to share their projects through class presentations, many of which involve food. Clay Neal (UNI’07) decided to bake a fruit and chocolate cake that originated on his great-great-grandmother’s berry farm in Oregon. “It took forever to make,” he says. “But it’s really good — much better than anything you’d get from a mix.”

And Robert Stern, a student in the Evergreen Program, which allows people 58 and older in the community to take selected undergraduate classes, shared a recipe from his family’s homeland of Hungary. “My parents grew up on a farm, and they had a very simple diet,” he says. “Growing up, my mother often made palacsinta, which is a crepe-like omelet filled with farmers cheese, cream cheese, and salt.”

Lizzy DesRoche (SAR’08), a second-generation Irish Catholic, had a different focus: her family’s perspective on death. “The Irish consider dying to be the ultimate reward for life on earth, and the wake is the farewell party,” she says. “There’s singing and dancing and lots of drinking. My parents have never missed a wake. In fact, my mother once said that if she ever wins the lottery, she wants to open an Irish wake–themed bar.”

Barrand hopes that by the end of the semester, his students will have learned something new about their families — and about themselves. “By preserving their family’s folklore,” he says, “they are asserting their own identity.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.