By Erika Moreno / Delta Staff Writer
Professor Claire Schmidt was awarded the 2019 Americo Paredes Prize on October 17 during the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting, which took place in Baltimore, Maryland.
This award is presented for excellence in integrating scholarship and engagement with the people and communities one studies, or in teaching and encouraging scholars and practitioners to work in their own cultures or communities.
Americo Paredes was a scholar who thought it wouldn’t have been polite if a white folklorist went and found exotic people who have exotic folkways and do research on them.
Paredes thought about how each community should take a look at their people first. He trained culture workers to work within their own communities.
“That is something that has always been very important to me,” Schmidt said. ” “If your going to write about people, you should probably share your work with the people you’re writing about.”
The Society was impressed with everything that Schmidt has worked on including the 2017 book, “If You Don’t Laugh You’ll Cry: The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers,” and especially her commitment to working with local communities and learning about different cultures.
“I won the award mostly because of that book but also because of other articles that I published related to the research that I was doing here,” Schmidt said.
Her book is focused on the ways that different ethnic groups interact and particularly the ways they interact under circumstances of unequal power. The book explores the ways that different groups use humor to talk to each other, to get along with each other, and to acknowledge injustice. As the title implies, the book focuses on white people and the way they use humor.
“Say the situation we find ourselves in is messed up and I’m on one side of the bars and your on the other side of the bars and, like, we both find this really weird but we are here and we are gonna get through this,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt thinks that people within the community that she is from tend to spend a lot more time thinking about issues of race and issues of racism and institutional racism.
“White people tend to self segregate,” she said. “White people tend to marry other white people. White people tend to live in neighborhoods full of white people. White people tend to have fewer people of color within their friend groups.”
This tends to not be the case with other ethnic groups, Schmidt explained.
“When you look at people of color they tend to have a much wider range of experiences with people from different ethnicities by default,” she said.
Schmidt thinks that where she is from, people who do work in prisons have a much more realistic understanding of race and institutional racism than many others. She believes that that’s one of the things the committee was interested in.
Another project Schmidt completed while working at MoVal was a collection of local folklore. While working on this book, Schmidt had discussions about issues with students in class and whatever sparked her interest she would consider putting it in the book.
Former student Christina Bautista helped find folklore from around town and the school. The book was made with help from a few students.
“I think it was a great opportunity for students to see the process of creating a book, especially with research,” Bautista said.
From a very young age she has always been interested in people’s stories. As a child she would always be listening to adults telling stories. Her favorite thing is to sit and listen to people tell stories. She especially loves funny stories and practical jokes.
Schmidt believes that the way that people tell stories reveal so much about people’s behavior. Schmidt says that when you study stories you find out a lot of information about personal experiences including shared group experiences.
“I’m just really interested in people’s cultures, my own culture and other people’s culture it is the most interesting thing in the world,” she said.
Schmidt thinks that if people understand others folklore and the aesthetic of everyday life, people can understand a lot about human conflict.
Elizabeth Holloway is the chair of the Communications, Humanities and Human Services division at Missouri Valley College, of which Schmidt is a member of the faculty.
“Dr. Schmidt is a professional truly dedicated to her craft,” Holloway said. “I have always been impressed that she so skillfully keeps up with her writing along with all the other responsibilities she has.”
Schmidt is currently working on a project with student Jocelyn Linares, who is a Psychology major. Linares is working on an internship with Schmidt as co-investigators studying the ways that mental health workers use humor.
“Working with other people helps you have such a broader understanding,” Schmidt said.
She is also doing a collaboration with a prison librarian from Massachusetts for an article. He has been collecting prison humor for the last 25 years then he sent it to her. Katanna Davis was her research assistant at the time and she digitized all the collection into digital archives.