The Future of American Folkloristics #FOAF


GMU Folklore students and alums posing with Stith Thompson.                                                           L-R: Chrissy Widmeyer, Kristina Downs, Kim Stryker, Debra Lattanzi Shutika, Stith Thompson, Kaitlyn Kinney, Kerry Kaleba, Citizen Ken

About a year ago, a group of forward-thinking graduate students at Indiana University hatched a plan for a conference. They wanted to bring folklorists at all stages of their careers* together to discuss the future of the discipline. Shortly after, the planning for FOAF began. This week, one hundred plus folklorists converged on Bloomington. From the start is was clear something historic was happening.

The conference had a distinct dynamic. Most panels were headed by women, and the audience members were engaged, enthusiastic, and positive. Ideas where shared. Friendships were forged. The future looks brighter today than it did when I arrived in Bloomington four days ago.

What did this conference accomplish?

The graduate student organizers asked their peers and elders to seriously consider an important issue: where are we going? Amazingly, there was almost none of the customary kvetching that we come to expect when folklorists get together to discuss the field. The kvetching that did come up was mostly in the Twitter feed. I think we all recognized that there will always be folklorists who are envious, discontented and jaundiced. That’s a personal choice that some will always hang onto. At the same time, it was clear that the participants recognized that kvetching doesn’t solve problems. Identifying problems doesn’t either. It might make the kvetcher feel better, but the problems will still be there.

What’s the alternative? In-depth discussions of what folklorists CAN ACTUALLY DO to strengthen the field. Some of the things we discussed included:

  1. Strategies for selling our programs and events to university deans, provosts and presidents directly
  2. How to lobby congress and local representatives (drawing on the efforts of the National Humanities Alliance)
  3. Using the fantastic AFS Advocacy Toolkit
  4. Creating new positions and programs in folklore
  5. Developing folklore leaders to be better prepared to shape the organizations where we work.

We also discussed the realistic limitations of our power. Some problems are structural and not of our making. We can and should work to reshape our workplaces, but we’re not going to be able to fix every injustice.

Finally, I think we also broke through folklore’s 4th wall: moving from a community of problem-identifiers to problem-solvers. We have started to see where our agency, however limited, can be utilized. I expect we’ll have more conversations about how each folklorist can shape our discipline and workplaces for a new future.

*I have purposely not made a distinction between different types of folklorists: applied, public, independent, or academic. We’re ALL folklorists.

Field School Boot Camp


field workers

2016 Field school students conduct observations at the Ft. Barnard Community Garden, Arlington, VA

The field school started on Monday, May 18, 2016. It’s a small group this year,  9 students (the smallest so far) of dedicated students who know what they want to get out of the field school experience. It’s a perfect combination of age, experience, and diversity.This is also the first year that I’ve taught the field school alone–my Library of Congress colleagues were busy celebrating the 4oth Anniversary of the American Folklife Center. Maggie Kruesi joined me on Tuesday, and my Mason colleague Ben Gatling helped with the mock interview, but otherwise, I was on my own.

This is my 5th year teaching the field school. Each year I tinker with the course, trying to hit the sweet spot that gets students ready to do the research effectively, but doesn’t overdue the classroom time. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Students need to work with field equipment early and often

Our field school is fortunate to have had funding to purchase broadcast quality recorders and microphones. The equipment produces amazing quality recordings, but it’s tricky to work with. I’ve found passing out recorders on day one and allowing the students to take them home to practice is the best way to get them comfortable in the field. Everyone is anxious the first time they do an interview. Knowing the equipment means there is one less thing to worry about when the documentation starts.

Teamwork is everything

The stereotypical academic researcher is a loner, toiling independently on her craft. In ethnography this is rarely the case. Fieldwork is best learned through an academic community, and field school boot camp does a great job producing that community. In the classroom students make mistakes and learn to catch them. The professors share stories of “bitter experiences” of losing a fantastic interview or other data. The field school boot camp brings a group of novices together in an intensive academic environment that is perfect for creating cohesive teams.

Make it Real

The most important aspect of the field school is the documentation project itself. I’ve been fortunate to partner with Arlington County Community Gardens this year. The county wants a professional documentation of their gardens that will be archived at the Arlington Central Library’s Regional History Collection. Students know from day one that their work will be part of a historic record, available to future researchers. The fact that they’re doing work for a purpose raises the stakes, and helps ensure they take the work seriously. The field school is more than a 3-credit class. It’s professional training the provides real-world experience.

Lee Ann and Kendra

Field school students Lee Ann Trimreck and Kendra Yount document the Fort Barnard Community Garden in Arlington

On Wednesday, I dismissed the students early with an assignment: go to one of the assigned gardens and do an observation, then write a field note to hand in the next day.  When I sent them out one of the students said, “I feel like a baby bird getting kicked out of the nest.”

Everyone, even old pros, are anxious the first time they head into the field for a new project. In this case, all nine students went off together and were able to support one another.

That first field visit was a great success. Student field notes were richly detailed and well written. Their initial photographs were well composed and document the gardens well.

Now the real work of the field school has begun. Students are out observing, photographing, and collecting oral histories. It’s a great start for the 2016 Field School for Cultural Documentation.

Real Innovation, Not Corporate Modeling

Some VA schools are recreating the idea of the university, not trying to fit it into the corporate model


If your institution has implemented RCM budgeting, you know that one of the main casualties of the model is interdisciplinary studies, especially across colleges. And given that most cutting-edge innovation is coming out of just those kinds of interdisciplinary study, the corporate management model is actually undermining one of the most significant ways in which university research might feed economic development.

Writing for the Roanoke Times, Robby Korth has reported on Virginia Tech’s significant commitment to developing not just interdisciplinary programs but interdisciplinary “areas” of study in which very innovative teaching, learning, research, and scholarship will be fostered. And it is hard to see how this approach will not benefit the more traditional disciplines within the university since most of them will contribute in some way to the work being done within new areas of study.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Korth’s article, describing the major elements of…

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In the Black: A Memoir of Coal Mining


I discovered Gary Bentley’s serialized memoir, In the Black, through the podcast of Inside Appalachia. It’s a deeply moving, often shocking memoir of his work in a deep coal mine in Kentucky. There are few real-life accounts that offer this type of insight into the daily lives of miners. We can only hope that Bentley gets a book deal from the blog–this is the type of account that should be required reading for all Appalachian studies students.

The Latest & Greatest in Ethnography: Evicted by Matthew Desmond


From today’s Book World in The Washington Post

Thank you, Matthew Desmond.

Thank you for writing about destitution in America with astonishing specificity yet without voyeurism or judgment. Thank you for showing it is possible to compose spare, beautiful prose about a complicated policy problem. Thank you for giving flesh and life to our squabbles over inequality, so easily consigned to quintiles and zero-sum percentages. Thank you for proving that the struggle to keep a roof over one’s head is a cause, not just a characteristic, of poverty.

It has been a long time since a book has struck me like Desmond’s “Evicted,”not since Drew Gilpin Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering,” which showed how Americans dealt with their Civil War dead. I suspect the resonance is not coincidental. Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard University, writes about another kind of mass death: The demise of opportunity and of hope that occurs when individuals are forced to leave their homes.

“Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street,” Desmond writes. “It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children. Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts.”

Read the rest of this review here.