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Starting My Next Course: Demystifying Culture and Folklore

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Demystifying Culture and Folklore

Shannon Bennett, Student

A good story can captivate the hearts and minds of listeners for years. Sometimes, when you have heard a story repeatedly, you can pick up the little embellishments and the differences that occur as a story develops and changes. Family stories are the same way. They captivated us as children, intrigued us as adults, and are information to be proved as genealogists.

 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The next course I am enrolled in is Demystifying Culture and Folklore. I have to admit that as soon as I saw the title on the course list I knew I wanted to take it. In college I took a folklore class and have been fascinated by mythology from different cultures my whole life. It is one of those odd interests of mine that I love to feed with a good story from time to time.

Judging from the course description, Demystifying Culture and Folklore promises to be a great class. The focus will be on looking at various cultures and how their traditions and folklore shaped the people of today. There will be a module on how a new culture affected immigrants and cultural assimilation. Plus connecting the stories of our ancestors to who we are today.

Of course, you can’t have a class like this without talking about Joseph Campbell. For many people he is the face of modern mythology and folklore research. Lucky for me I have read his series of books “The Mask of God” and “A Hero with a Thousand Faces.” If you are interested in mythos and folklore they should be at the top of your reading list. I will be interested to read what our instructor thinks of him.

I admit that I am intrigued by the assignment teaser given on the introduction page: “students will be encouraged to apply course theory to their own lives and the lives of their forebears in personal application essays.” Oh, I love to write, almost as much as I love to talk, and being able to analyze my family through this lens should produce some amazing results. Or, fingers crossed, I hope it will.

This should be a very interesting class and I am excited to turn the microscope on my family to see what I find. Hope you will join me over the next month as I take this course. It should be a great time!

See you online!



Learning More About Family History and Culture

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Demystifying Culture and Folklore

By Shannon Bennett, Student

Mother And Son Reading A Book . Image courtesy of  /

Mother And Son Reading A Book . Image courtesy of /

Wow!  This course, Demystifying Culture & Folklore started off with a bang.  Lots of information and a page turner to boot.  It’s hard to believe that I am even more excited now than I was before the first day started.  However, if you remember my introduction post to this course, I am a self-confessed myth and folklore geek.

What I liked, and I didn’t get from the undergrad courses I took, is that this is firmly family centered.  How we take those standard terms, throes, and ideas then turn the magnifying glass on ourselves and our family, not another culture.  Well, I guess in some ways we are doing that too since many of us are descendants of immigrants.

From the beginning we were told to examine our family and explore our roots to see:

(c) 2014 The National Institute for Genealogical Studies

(c) 2014 The National Institute for Genealogical Studies

That was a big task, a daunting task some would say.  Honestly it takes a lot of guts to really analyze your family and come to an understanding about what they did and why they did it.

Thankfully the instructor, professional genealogist and folklorist Jean Wilcox Hibben, does not throw you into the deep end.  Each section began with a list of terms and their definitions.  Terms which lead to discussion and understanding of how everything from material goods, unspoken customs, and assumptions affected the lives of our ancestors.

The exercises in these modules worked in conjunction with the new terms I read as well.  Instead of thinking about long dead civilizations and what their symbols meant I found myself dissecting what I knew about my own family.  That was difficult, more difficult than I anticipated.  Fun and educational, but difficult.

I was surprised about what I could pull out of my memories.  The nuances in the way a story was told.  The unwritten norms and mores that I was indoctrinated with as a child.  Plus, how the word sub-culture really isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, I think I count eight sub-cultures that I belong to!

The next two modules should be even more fun as we learn about cultural assimilation and family folklore.


See you online!

The Many Facets of the Family Story

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Demystifying Culture and Folklore

By Shannon Bennett, Student

Have you ever thought about how many points of view there are within one family story? Each person who was there heard, saw, felt, or interpreted the situation differently. Just ask your family about an event from when you were a child. I bet that while similar, they are all different.

Image courtesy of  xedos4/

Image courtesy of xedos4/

These next two modules (Modules 3 and 4 of Demystifying Culture & Folklore ) touched on aspects of this phenomena.  Course author Jean Wilcox Hibben made this point at the beginning of Module 4:

“As genealogists, it is our responsibility to analyze the family story … the truth or falsehood(s) with it.”

Many people want to believe that everything told to them by an ancestor has to be 100% true. You know, it might be, from their point of view. But you have to think about it, who has another side? If it was a story passed down, was the whole story told or only part? Everyone has something to hide, so were facts fudged or exaggerated? Hibben drives these points home through examples of her own family.  Examples that I can see in mine as well.

What I found fascinating was using Bormann’s Theory of Symbolic Convergence to understand my family and its stories better. Jean Wilcox Hibben put it simply: “by studying the paradigm of the communication of a group, a researcher can analyze the history of the unit [family] and assess its dynamics.”  Communication is always key, how did our family groups communicate within the house and even outside of the house. Think about how this could have effected perceptions of them and in turn the stories they told to the next generation.

As an example, my grandfather was career military. He and my grandmother grew up in a small farming community. As soon as she graduated high school they eloped and left. That was 1936. He served in World War II, they traveled the world, and he finally retired in 1965. They decided to move back home and he took up his portion of the family farm.  My mother and her older brother remember it as a horrible time. Even though their parents were accepted back into the fold, mostly, the children were not. My mother and uncle were outsiders.  They were picked on, ostracized, and teased simply because they were not born in the community and did not know the norms and mores that were instilled in the others.  My mom quickly stopped talking about the places she had been as well as speaking in French to her brother (she was fluent from the age of 4 because they lived in Paris several years).

I on the other hand was very different. My mother became career military when I was 8. I grew up in that small town and then was thrust into suburban Washington, D.C.  Talk about culture shock! However, I take more after my father. I didn’t back down to being teased nor did I tolerate anyone saying anything to me that was offensive. Unfortunately those altercations ended in more than one trip to the principal’s office for fighting. Yes, I did conform a bit, I was in elementary school after all, but I didn’t mind being slightly different and held onto the memory of my home and family we left behind.

Those two examples are indicative to how immigrant families felt as well. They made the choice to leave friends and family behind for many reasons. Most were thrown into their new surroundings to sink or swim.  It was up to them. Communication with the surrounding community as well as within their own families shaped the stories that were passed down to us. My mother and her brother have completely different feelings and stories surrounding the move home when they were kids. My parents have differing viewpoints on our move as well. And I can bet you, not everyone is telling the whole truth.  They are each keeping something back.

Now, wonder what I will find out next? See you online!


Your Ancestor the Hero

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Demystifying Culture and Folklore

By Shannon Bennett, Student

Image courtesy of nuttakit/

Image courtesy of nuttakit/

Well I am almost done. Really digging into the meat and potatoes of the Demystifying Culture and Folklore course now. Plus, we discuss one of my favorite mythologists, Joseph Campbell. Ah, hero myths, we should all be familiar with that concept thanks to Star Wars and Harry Potter.

Now, before you go away and start thinking that I am going off the deep end and there is no way we can draw comparisons between family stories and a classic hero myth, let me tell you that you are wrong.  You can. Legends, myths, and folklore don’t have to be old. They also don’t have to be false. You can find them in your own history and this last section of the course shows you how.

We learn that “the hero is one who develops his/her skill, talent, etc. and takes the journey to prove that part of his/her life; then returns to the community (or family) to use the lessons learned to better the group.” I am sure many of you can think of an ancestor who would fall into that description. For myself I can think of several.

Most of my hero ancestors were immigrants or those who left what they knew in a colony and ventured further west into unexplored territories. Think about those people. What they left behind and what they had to overcome. They just didn’t go out there did they? Most of them had a skill or trade that was useful or there was a steep learning curve so they could survive. Those who immigrated usually settled in a community like theirs from where they came from. Those who went first had their community come to them. They lived the hero’s life.

Then those stories were passed onto us, their descendants. They became legends and people in our family folklore. Characters to teach us lessons, show us strength, and influence who we would become.  Think for a minute about stories you were told as a child about your family. How did they shape you? Do you do things now because of the family mythos? I bet if you think hard enough you can find several examples.

For me I think about the few stories I know of my immigrant ancestors. They were German and Irish men and women escaping hard times at home. Many already had family groups here before they sailed.  Some did not. Those who didn’t toiled to make their new country a home in any way possible. Those stories of hard work and perseverance were passed to my parents and were passed to me. Maybe, that is where I get the double dose of stubborn from.

Whew, off to take my exam.  See you online!


Finishing Up Demystifying Culture and Folklore

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Demystifying Culture and Folklore

By Shannon Bennett, Student


Image courtesy of samuiblue/

Image courtesy of samuiblue/


Whoa, what a course. It made me think. It made me analyze my family connections. Most of all it showed me how great of a story my family narrative is! Amazing stuff, and I am so happy that I registered for it.

For those of you who are still not convinced, I am not sure there is much else I could say to sway you.  However, I will do my best. The rest of you who like stories and putting pieces of information together in new ways need to take this course.  Need reasons? Okay, here are a few.

This course makes you think about your family in ways that traditional genealogy may not. While you may have thought, in a roundabout way, about what your ancestors lives may have been like, I bet you didn’t do it like we learned in this class.  Did you ever think about various influences that could affect their decisions? Or how about the cultural cues or biases they had and how that effected their American born children?

My upbringing certainly influenced the ways I raise my children just like the way my parents were raised influenced my childhood.  Going through the stories again and again, listening to different perspectives, and looking at the family through the documents it was easy to see how and why this happened. The immigrant ancestor was still present in many ways; they were still affecting in subtle ways how their descendants behaved decades later.

In this faster paced world where fewer people seem to have the time to sit and chat a while learning about the family mythology is also changing.  I learned about my family from listening to the stories my parents and grandparents told me. My kids, while learning the same stories from me, are also learning about their ancestors through the Internet and other resources.  Which is why I think taking a course on learning about the family myth is so very important. I can pass family stories on in person or via the web, reaching more cousins than I possibly could even 20 years ago.

Combining all these thoughts, lessons, perspectives, and stories together is a good thing in my opinion. It can only make our knowledge of our heritage sounder.  Think of all the amazing information you can discover when looking at something ordinary and mundane in a different light. I bet you will find something new!

Well off to the next course, see you online!

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