Because of its broad nature, FOLK-F 253 Folklore and New Social Problems helps students understand the vast and various social problems while also exploring individual interests within them. Dr. Jason Jackson shares that social issues are often complicated and difficult, but by looking at them in closer ways, students can witness creative and communal responses of people, communities, and groups around the world.
An interview with Dr. Jackson, Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Folklore and Ethnomusicology, is below.
Why is it important for students to take this course?
Dr. Jackson: We live in a time characterized by a diversity of unprecedented problems and complicated debates. Threats to biodiversity, cybersecurity challenges, the risks of artificial intelligence, climate change—ignoring these kinds of issues won’t make them go away or help us be more resilient in response to them, but the College of Arts and Sciences provides students—through its academic coursework and through cocurricular activities like Themester—with the tools to join with others to both better understand and, ultimately, grapple with, and address, such topics.
This course is important because the kinds of issues that student-participants will choose to study will be prominent challenges shaping everyone’s lives in the decades ahead. By learning about them, and how to research and assess them, students are preparing to engage and even reshape with the worlds in which they will live in the years ahead.
What knowledge or skills do you hope they gain?
Dr. Jackson: I hope that students will gain durable research and critical thinking skills that will be of lifelong use. This course is set up in the form of a research team and students will try their hand at learning new things about new global problems and new global debates. The underlying skills cultivated in this course never stop being useful to those who gain them.
What, to you, is the most interesting aspect of this course?
Dr. Jackson: Studied in the abstract, the kinds of new and complicated and vexing problems at issue in the course can be daunting, even discouraging. Happily, we do not just confront issues such as farmer’s rights or pervasive surveillance in the abstract, we learn about them by considering the ways that different groups of people are responding to them. These responses are often communal and frequently also expressive, meaning that people are not just organizing around them but are also often using the arts and creative expression to respond to them. Hope, and certainly interest, can be found in learning about these creative responses to the challenges of our time.
What, if anything, do you learn from teaching it?
Dr. Jackson: I have only taught this course once previously, but that was my single best undergraduate teaching experience. I learned so much because each student in the course was literally discovering interesting and significant things about the complicated and rapidly changing world that we all now share. Teaching is a totally different experience when your students are your research colleagues and they literally are making new discoveries. Last time, students chose research topics in areas such as electronic waste, the disappearance of English dialects, in-vitro meat, urban farming, media concentration, and debates about the trade in human organs. I learned from every student.
Are there any assignments that you are particularly excited about?
Dr. Jackson: At the heart of the course experience are personal passion projects undertaken by the students after a quick group survey of a what I am calling the new social problems. While I am most excited about the results reported in the final course projects, I am really enthusiastic about the way that we do many smaller research tasks along the way, gaining valuable research skills bit-by-bit as we go. This can include very basic research skills that students have just not yet had a chance try. As a teacher, it is really exciting to see students fill their toolboxes permanently with durable skills through these incremental steps. It is important to note that final projects can take many different forms, including podcasts, zines, comics, and short videos, not just classic term papers.
What type of students would you encourage to take this course?
Dr. Jackson: I think that any student who is curious about current global challenges and possible solutions to them would really appreciate the course. While the topics are daunting, the course is lively.
One specific audience that I would particularly like to invite consists of those undergraduates with interests in the arts, humanities, and social sciences who might be feeling a sense of research participation envy. Sometimes such students watch their friends find places for themselves in science labs in fields such as chemistry, brain science, and robotics. I have spoken to such social science, humanities, and arts students and they rightly wonder how to obtain similar opportunities in their own areas of interest. Because this course will function like a research laboratory from the first day, it can provide such students with a chance to jump into the research process and do research that is both “new” and focused on the so-called “real world.” When the semester comes to an end, I will be happy to help students who want to go further to find new opportunities to continue their research journey.
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