The AFS Folk Belief and Religious Folklife Section awarded the 2021 Don Yoder Prize for the Best Graduate Student Paper in Folk Belief and Religious Folklife to the University of Maine PhD student Minglei Zhang.
Minglei “Hart” Zhang is a PhD student and instructor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine. He received his MA in Communication and Media Studies from Penn State Harrisburg in 2021, where he developed strong interests in folkloristics, especially in religious folklife. During his study in central Pennsylvania, he conducted a three-month-long ethnographic research project on “comfort food during the COVID-19 pandemic” with Dr. Lucy Long at the Center of Food and Culture. Zhang, as primary researcher, also participated in a one-year-long ethnographic research project investigating visitors’ experiences at the Susquehanna Art Museum.
Zhang’s masters’ thesis, on which his Don Yoder Prize-winning essay is based, explored the intersections between folkloristics and mass media studies. By revisiting the 1928 Hex Murder in York, Pennsylvania, the author examined the media representation of “powwowing,” a traditional medical practice (Brauche or Braucherei in Pennsylvania Dutch) and found that the historical media representation inaccurately depicted powwowing as “witchcraft” and hence promoted the pathologization of this community-based belief and identity in social remembrance.
Zhang’s essay shows integration of insights and theories from the disciplines of American Studies, folklore, and communications. One of the judges for this prize wrote, “The author is persuasive in demonstrating the linguistic strategies that the journalists used to construct these events as part of a ‘witchcraft culture.’” Dr. Yoder would have been very interested in this paper since he interviewed many practitioners of powwowing in Pennsylvania and taught generations of his students in religious folklife about this healing tradition.
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