In the weeks before UW–Madison’s fall semester began, Christine Garlough was driving around with a giant Rubbermaid tub full of research in the backseat of her car. The new tenure-track professor had yet to be assigned an office in Communication Arts. Still, she was hard at work.
Her goal: turn that mountain of fieldwork about two Midwestern ethnic schools into a book that explores how Indian Americans use folklore to advance larger social goals, such as ethnic identity formation and community building.
“I’m in that stage where I’m trying to pull everything together,” said Garlough, one of three tenure-track professors hired recently as part of a university push to advance scholarship and research by encouraging collaborations among various academic disciplines. Garlough, along with Janet Gilmore in Landscape Architecture and Theresa Schenck in Life Sciences Communication, are “cluster hires” selected for their work with regional folklore and expressive cultures. The three will teach classes within their disciplines as well as in the Folklore Program, the teaching arm of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.
This fall Garlough is teaching two introductory courses in Communication Arts (260) and Folklore (100). In the spring she’ll keep the Comm Arts class and add a graduate-level class (610), “Rhetoric, Culture and Folklore.” It is in 610 that Garlough will really get to explore with students her major research interest — examining how people use folklore to exercise power, resistance, and strategy.
She has studied feminist groups in India to look at how women use folklore to communicate messages. She became particularly interested in Sahiyar, a radical group that used songs and plays to talk about issues such as dowry, rape, and incest.
Her second area of research, and the subject of her current book project, looks at two Indian-American schools— one in Madison and the other in Minneapolis — and how they use folk forms to construct identities and advance varying community goals. “People tend to take a mono-vocal view of ethnic groups,” she said, “but these two (schools) couldn’t be more different.”
Garlough received her Ph.D. in Communication Arts from University of Minnesota with a major in Communication Studies and a minor in Folklore. She has an MA in Liberal Studies from Hamline University in St. Paul, with a minor in South Asian Studies and Women’s Studies. Her undergraduate degree, a BS in secondary education, was from UW–Madison.
Garlough has long had an interest in people and groups that have been underrepresented or misrepresented. And this is the case, she argues, with the newest immigrants to the Upper Midwest. "The source of much recent immigration has been South and East Asia. Much more attention needs to be paid to the ways in which these communities are using cultural resources, like folklore, to overcome the social and psychological difficulties associated with this process. Differences, like working from a collective rather than an individualistic orientation, significantly impact how these groups choose to use folklore to address everyday concerns. These differences deserve more attention if we are to understand these communities and their part in the making of American culture."
Garlough is a qualitative researcher who favors interviewing real people over crunching numbers. And for her, it’s important that she pursues scholarship that can make a difference in people’s lives. “I think it’s really fascinating to ask people what they think,” she said. “I want people to be able to use what I do. It needs to be related to real events, real problems.”
Nicole Saylor, a graduate student in library science and folklore, is a project assistant at the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.