PROFile: Dr. Catherine Tosenberger

Associate Professor, English, University of Winnipeg

Dr. Catherine Tosenberger’s work consists of a surprising blend of both new and old elements, as she mixes traditional folklore and English literature with new-age technological media and fandom culture.

Tosenberger says “I primarily think of myself as a folklorist, and I studied religious studies as an undergrad ... I really got into doing literature in grad school, where I focused on medieval lit and folklore.”

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Upon discovering that she hated medieval Latin, Tosenberger says she developed a passion for European folklore, as it overlaps with the study of children’s literature.

“I wrote my doctorate dissertation on Harry Potter erotic fanfiction on the internet,” she says. “And at that point, internet ethnography was still very new, (and) one of the things I became really interested in was the ethics of doing internet ethnography.”

Internet ethnography, the systematic study of people, culture and cultural phenomena online, was so new at this time that Tosenberger didn’t have a lot of existing frameworks to reference to. She says that “I basically had to invent my own ethical framework for looking at literature that’s posted publicly online but that overlaps with all these different audiences and all these different groups of writers who could be considered vulnerable.”

“A lot of them are minors … and a lot of them are queer and exploring their queerness through (fanfiction), and it’s not always necessarily safe for them to do, so I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t putting anyone in harm’s way.”

Tosenberger currently teaches classes at the University of Winnipeg surrounding children’s literature, fairy tales, folklore and ancient literatures, where she creates a fun atmosphere with the inclusion of memes in her lectures.

She says that “a lot of classic literature and art, formal high culture and art, is widely used on the internet as subjects of memes.”

“The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, obviously known to philosophers and people doing the classics, is a huge meme!”

She gets great joy from the humour of these types of memes and appreciates that they “are an absolute blessing to folklorists, because any time you want to explain repetition plus variation to students, all you have to do is say ‘think about memes!’ and everybody knows immediately what you’re talking about.”

“Folklorists have been (saying) that people have been doing this for as long as there have been people.”

What is your recent favourite book?

“Well, I re-read Mules and Men because I was teaching it, and I loved it!”

What’s something that you learn from your students?

“I really need to be able to listen to students comment on things. I need to be able to listen to what students have to say, otherwise my brain just stagnates ... I need the fresh perspectives!”

What do you do in your spare time?

“I like designing fantasy floorplans, like an imaginary castle! I also like to work creatively. I like to write fiction, sometimes it’s fanfiction, sometimes original ... and I really like being able to think about a house, like a haunted house. I want to map it all out.”

Published in Volume 74, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 14, 2019)

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