People Collection

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Natalie Kononenko, PhD, MA, BA

Professor & Kule Chair in Ukrainian Ethnography

Arts

Modern Languages and Cultural Studies

About Me

I was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1946.  I came to the United States in 1951 and my family had only $100 which was hidden in the head of my doll.  I grew up in New Jersey and attended University at Cornell, moving on to Radcliffe College and then on to Harvard University for graduate work.  I received my PhD from Harvard University in Slavic and Near Eastern Languages, Literatures, and Folklore.  I performed my PhD research in Eastern Turkey. I taught Russian Language and Slavic Folklore, and served as Assistant Dean and Chair of the Slavic Department at the University of Virginia.  I led some of the first student groups to the USSR in the 1970-1980s.  In 1987 I was one of the first US scholars to be allowed outside of Moscow.  I lived three months in a hotel room in Kyiv doing archival research at the University and at the Academy of Sciences. This research lead to the publication of "Ukrainian Minstrels: And the Blind Shall Sing." Armonk, New York and London, England: M.E. Sharpe, 1998. After the break-up of the USSR I started to do folklore research in rural Ukraine. From 1998 onward I have been  visiting many villages in Central Ukraine. This work resulted in over 200 hours of interviews. This research lead to a soundfile database (see http://www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/UkraineAudio/). It has also produced many articles and will be used in a book on Ukrainian ritual.

In 2004 I was recruited as Professor and Kule Chair in Ukrainian Ethnography, Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, University of Alberta.  In 2007 I published "Slavic Folklore: A Handbook."  Westport and London: Greenwood Press, I served as editor of Folklorica, the Journal of the Slavic and East European Folklore Association for 5 years. This journal was internationally recognized and was instrumental in re-establishing the dialogue between folklore scholars in the former Soviet Union and their colleagues in the West.

Since coming to Canada I have been concentrating on Ukrainian Folklore in Canada (see my research statement below). I have also worked in the Kazakhstan. Ukrainians migrated to the northeast corner of Kazakhstan at about the same time that they came to Canada. Comparing folklore and ritual practices of Ukrainian Canadians to the practices in Kazakhstan offers insight into heritage maintenance and ritual change.


Research

I am currently involved in two big research projects. 

One project documents Byzantine rite sacral heritage on the Canadian prairies.  I've been working with 2 colleagues from history for the past 6 years.  They are John-Paul Himka and Frances Swyripa. My role is to interview people about their religious practices.  I ask about weddings, baptisms, and funerals.  I document how they are celebrated now and how they were celebrated in the past.  I also ask about calendar rituals such as Christmas, Easter, and the annual grave blessing.  I've had the opportunity to do some artist biographies - information about people who embroider, write pysanky, and do wood carving.  The Sanctuary Project received one of the first KIAS (Kule Institute for Advanced Study) Research Cluster grants.  This project has also been supported by Killam, Alberta Heritage, many smaller organizations and by private donations.

The data from the Sanctuary Project is being migrated to the Peel Prairie Provinces Collection at the University of Alberta Libraries and will be made accessible for research and for public use.

This past summer (2017) I attended a conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. My experience there suggests that a good expansion of my Sanctuary Project work would be a joint (Canada, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and possibly also China) study of the role of religion in heritage maintenance. I plan to explore the possibility of SSHRC funding for this project.

The second project is broadly based on the use of technology in education. Students in my courses learn about folklore and then learn to apply this knowledge in their everyday lives and careers. A big component of my undergraduate courses is fieldwork. Many students choose to document their own cultures. Much of the material is then placed on publicly accessible websites: Ukraine Alive, India Alive, China Alive. These are for elementary students. Thus, undergraduates use their cultural knowledge and learn how to convey that knowledge digitally for use in the K-12 classroom. Many of these sites contain interactive components, games, videos, and 3D interactions. In addition to generating sites for elementary education I work with graduate students and programmers to generate informational materials for the general public. These sites provide a wealth of folklore information, including traditional designs, 3-D images of large objects such as houses and rotatable 3-D pysanky or Easter eggs.  One site is a crowd-sourcing effort where people can contribute transcriptions and translations of Ukrainian folklore sound recordings. 



Teaching

I teach folklore classes where I expose students to the study of the art of the everyday. I teach them to look at artistic expression in their daily lives and to understand how this expression teaches attitudes toward the world and is also used to negotiate adaptation and change. Looking at the rich diversity of ethnic communities is a big part of our work and students in the lower level classes get to do a small documentation project in their community.  Needless to say, students in higher level folklore classes do much bigger documentation projects and four such projects won undergraduate research awards in 2014. The most recent price-winner was Jiwon You for best undergraduate research presentation.

I also teach applied folklore. As noted under research, students in my Folklore and the Internet class may chose to generate internet materials for use in K-12 classrooms.  In other words, students can apply their knowledge of folklore to produce educational materials.

The other applied folklore courses that I teach are more passive - I teach Folklore thorugh Film and Folklore and Animation. We look at how film makers have used folklore plots and folk motifs. We study the messages communicated and see what makes for effective communication.

For the past several years I've also taught a research seminar as a overload. Advanced students work in their communities to produce big documentation projects such as videos of important festivals.