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On Scapegoating Public Folklore

Author(s): Steve Siporin

Reviewed work(s):
Source: The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 113, No. 447 (Winter, 2000), pp. 86-89
Published by: American Folklore Society
Stable URL: .
Accessed: 02/11/2012 22:31
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of American Folklore.


Journalof AmericanFolklore113 (2000)

the schoolyear1996-97 Marylandcollegesand

universitiesgraduated2,591 teachereducation
students.At the sametime, Maryland'spublic
school systemshired4,588 teachers,a 27%increaseover 1995-96. Stateand nationaltrends
indicatea continuingneedformorenew teachersfor a couple of reasons.One is thatthe echo
babyboom is increasingthe school-agedpopulation, and the second is that many teachers
hired in the last baby boom (late 1960s/early
1970s) are retiring.The 1996 National Commissionon TeachingandAmerica'sFutureestimatesa need for two million new teachersby
2006--a figurerepeatedby numeroussources,
including the presidentand Congressin their
If two million new teachers are indeed
needed in the next eight years, folklorists
should attempt to influence some of them.
Hereis agreatopportunityto get awayfromthe
"folkloristas performer"image and to show
studentsthe importanceof folklorefor serious
academicinquiry.How canthisbe done?Itwill
not be easy,but folkloristsor those with some
folkloretrainingin universitieswith education
programsshould attemptto implement folklore into the curriculum.At my universitythe
World Folklorecourseis one thatcan be used
by Englishmajorsin the areathatis called"thematic approaches,diversity,Westernheritage,
global perspectives."World Folklore, as a
lower-divisioncourse,canbe usedby students
fulfilling their "general university requirements," and education majors can use this
course to fill an elective referredto as "one
course in non-Western culture."As a result,
this course is in high demand,and my course
enrollmentsarelimited only by the absenceof
largelecture hallsavailableto the Englishdepartment.
Perhapsnow is the time for those interested
in the futureof folkloreas an academicdiscipline to make a concertedeffortto introduce
thisdisciplineinto the curriculum.It is encouraging to see that the AFS Long-Range Planning Committee'splanrecognizesthe need to
createlinkagesbetween professionalfolklorists
andK-12 folkloreprojectsin variouscommunities.The healthof the disciplinedependsnot
only on the kindof rigorousscholarshipexhibited in a varietyoffolklorejournals,in graduate
programsin folklore, and in the specific and
theoreticalapproachesto folklore at folklore

conferences, but also on the ways in which the

discipline is introduced to those who have the
opportunity to influence students at all levels of
our educational system.

1WhenI printed
were on separate
2Allof thesefigures
Hinkle,deanof the Collegeof Education,
References Cited
Ben-Amos,Dan. 1998. The Name Is the Thing.
Bendix, Regina. 1998. Of Names. Journalof
New York:W. W. Norton.
. 1998. TheStudyofAmerican
New York:W. W. Norton.
Cole,Joanna,ed. 1982.Best-Loved
of the
Barbara.1998. Folklore's
Nights.New York:
On Scapegoating Public Folklore

The call to abandonthe word folkloreas the
name for our discipline has apparentlybeen
abandoned itself-rather like the stories in
which the villainmeetsthe fatehe thoughthad
been preparedfor his enemies.The discussion
was fruitful,even reinvigorating,andalthough
there were no villainsor enemies, there were
severalheroes. Among those heroes, I would
count Dan Ben-Amos,with hisfine essay"The
Name Is the Thing" (1998). In this essay,BenAmos argueslogically and poetically for the


termfolklore as meaningful and central to a field

of inquiry. I learned from this essay, but I was
completely surprised by the scapegoating of
public (or applied) folklore as a major cause of
folklore's current academic troubles.
In spite of all the good in "The Name Is the
Thing," there are misconceptions, unsupported assertions, illogical conclusions, and an
apparent lack of awareness. I believe it would
be a disservice to the entire field of folklore to
let Ben-Amos's commentary on public folklore's history go by without a response. Thus,
in this brief note, I want to identify several errors and criticize them one at a time.
First, Ben-Amos refers to the emergence of
public folklore as "an opportunistic defection
from the university" by "professional folklorists
who have made it [public folklore] their
choice" (1998:264-265). This assertion glosses
over the desperate straits new folklore Ph.D.s
found themselves in during the mid-1970s-a
fact that Ben-Amos is well aware of and compassionate about. But the fact remains that
many of these students who were just finishing
their graduate degrees had to choose between
public folklore and no folklore. It was not a
"defection" (which would require leaving
something), nor was it "opportunistic" (which
has negative, self-serving connotations). This is
not to say that, for many, public folklore was always their worthy aspiration. But for many
others, public folklore was in fact a way to stay
in the game and not defect.
I remember one post-Ph.D. folklore colleague with sterling academic credentials and
ambitious dreams who had begun selling insurance before he was convinced to take ajob as a
temporary fieldworker for a public folklore
project. That project led to other short-term
fieldwork stints, and eventually he became a
permanent folk arts director in his home state.
Reduced to selling insurance-not exactly the
career for which he had spent years completing
his Ph.D.-he had despaired of ever working
in folklore and had to be convinced to take another chance, leaving his insurance job and
signing on for a few weeks of fieldwork in the
West. "This could lead to something else," his
friends said to him. "At least you'll be doing
folklore. At least for a little while."
It is inaccurate and, it seems to me, unjust to
describe this experience in Ben-Amos's terms:
"leaving the academy may be a personal choice


for individual folklorists" (1998:271). Nothing

could be fartherfrom the truth.
This is only one example of many similar
cases; they were hardly "opportunistic defection[s]." If any abandonment was involved, it
would be more accurate to say that the academy
abandoned its vulnerable, new Ph.D.s and not
vice versa. But to criticize folklorists for taking
public jobs when there were no academic jobs
and then to say that in taking those jobs they undermined the academy is, at the very least, to
add insult to injury.
Would the academic dimension of folklore
somehow have been better served if my friend
had kept selling insurance? Would folklore be
in a better position in the academy if these dozens of young folklorists achieving their degrees
in the 1970s and 1980s had taken a solemn oath
not to practice folklore except in academic positions-and then, of course, had quietly disappeared?
Second, according to Ben-Amos, "the creative operations of professional folklorists in regional or ethnic communities do not
contribute to the academic strengthening of
folklore" (1998:271). Surely Ben-Amos is not
referring to establishing academic positions,
occupying department chairs and deanships, or
other examples of the institutional "academic
strengthening of folklore." He could not mean
that because it would be too obvious a statement and not worth making; clearly, public
folklorists cannot fulfill these roles because they
do not work at universities or colleges.
What I take this statement to mean is that
public folklorists do not strengthen academic
folklore because they do not add to the academic discourse by producing new knowledge
about folklore. This statement might be construed by some as generally true only if fieldwork is unimportant. But fieldwork is
important; it is essential. Fieldwork produces
new knowledge, and what we learn in the field
and through the experience of fieldwork contributes to our discourse and, thus, strengthens
folklore academically. A simplified truism of
the field (one that I think is a good counter to
the fashions oftheory) is that theories come and
go, but meticulous fieldwork maintains its
value-perhaps even increases its value-over
time. (I also think it is a little too soon to dismiss
the direct theoretical contributions of public
folklore; see Baron and Spitzer 1992.) The


Journalof AmericanFolklore113 (2000)

enormousamountof fieldworkdone by public

folkloristsin the 1970s and 1980s provides a
magnificentresourceforthe academy,aswell as
for "regionaland ethnic communities."Because so much of this fieldworkwas done by
professionalfolklorists,the standardsaremuch
higher than those of earlierpublic folkloreefforts like the Works ProgressAdministration
(WPA)projectsof the 1930s.I think,though I
haveno hardevidenceto cite here,thatthe subfield of Americanfolk art-which was almost
entirelyneglectedby academicfolkloristsuntil
the 1960s-will relyfordecadesto come on the
exhibition catalogs(andeven more on the archived fieldwork behind those exhibitions)
thatareavailablethanksto publicfolkloristsand
the FolkArtsProgramat the NationalEndowment for the Arts.This is an enduringresource
for theoretical,which is not synonymouswith
academic,discourse-and theoreticaldiscourse
does "contributeto the academicstrengthening offolklore."
Before leavingthis issue, I want to mention
Depression precedent, the programsof the
WPA (1998:264-265). Ben-Amos fails to
mention the SlaveNarrativeCollection,which
is perhapsthe outstandingAmericanfolklore
achievementof the era, in or out of the academy. This protopublicfolklorework hasbeen
cited and used by other disciplines,one of the
Third, one ofBen-Amos'smajorconcernsis
thatotherdisciplinesdo not cite folkloreworks
regularly.As Elliott Oring points out in the
lore,this feeling is just that-a feeling, an impression(1998:329). Nevertheless,even if we
grantthatthe impressionmay be accurate,it is
hard to see how public folklorists'activities
have prevented practitionersof other disciplinesfromreadingandcitingfolklorescholarship. Is it becausepublic folkloristshave spent
theirtime puttingon festivalsand curatingexhibitions ratherthan writing scholarlybooks
and articles?Remember that the choice for
many (I believe most) new folklorePh.D.s of
the 1970sand1980swasnot academicorpublic
folklore;it waspublicfolkloreor no folklore,at
leastforthosewho hadto earnaliving.
The failureof learnedacademiciansin other
fieldsto readfolkloreseemsto me to be largelya
function of their narrow-mindedness-not a

by-product of the existence of folk festivals.

The examplesBen-Amoscites-Smith (1978),
a literarytheorist,on proverbsandPratt(1977),
an anthropologist,on what sounds like performancetheory-really reveala lackofawareof some
ness on theirpart.His characterization
historiansas "problematic"seems more like
"ignorantandarrogant"to me. Thatsome historiansfeel free to characterizea whole era of
folklorescholarshipon the basisof theirbiases
and limitedknowledge (Ben-Amos1998:273)
speakspoorlyforthem,not forus.
What would Ben-Amos have us do? Increaseour advocacyeffortsin the academy?Do
better public relationswith our books? That
soundsoddlylike publicfolklore--and, thus,is
surelydistasteful.I do not meanto be sarcastic;I
realizethatBen-Amoswantsto see the writing
of seriousscholarshipby folklorists--scholarship that other fields will not be able to ignore-as the real solution. But his very
examplesshow thatotherfieldshaverepeatedly
ignored folklore's pathbreakingscholarship
only to reinventit themselvesandthen declare
the discoveryofnew worlds.Isthatreallya failureof the qualityoffolklorescholarship?
Fourth,I assumethatBen-Amoshasbeen to
folk festivalsproducedby folklorists-but his
brief characterizationof today's festivals is
Folklorefestivalshavereplacedthe countryshows
thatexhibitedfreaksof nature.Now thefestivals
on display
recordsin orderto analyze
On the contrary,ifone islookingforthe exotic,
one might well be disappointedby the folk festivals produced by today's public folklorists-festivals that celebrate the local and
displaythe present,not only the past. One's
neighboris amongthefolkartistsone islikelyto
meet attoday'sfolkfestivals.
Nor is it so clear to methat "the urge to preserve and display the past" isn't part of"the activities of the folklorist," academic as well as
public. Didn't earlierleading academic folklorists, like Franz Boas, have a strong urge to


preserve the past, and isn't the content of

Boas's ethnographies one of his major contributions? Doesn't he display the past in his publications? Isn't folklore always displayed when
it appears in books, where it's also analyzed
and interpreted (as it often is in public folklore
projects)? Isn't "the urge to preserve and display" as fundamental to folklore as the urge to
analyze and interpret? I'm not sure I can appreciate what's wrong with that.
Ben-Amos ends his article with a favorite
parable from Hasidic tradition:
Rabbi Zusya said, "In the coming world, they will
not askme: 'Whywere you not Moses?'Theywill ask
me: 'Whywere you not Zusya?'" [1998:247]
In the context of his essay, I understand BenAmos to be applying the parable to mean that
folklorists should be folklorists and should pursue the discipline their own tradition defines
rather than giving up their name in order to try
to be something they are not. They will be
judged as folklorists, not as historians, literary
critics, cultural studies scholars, or whatever
may be concocted next.
But can't this same parable be understood to
apply within the field offolklore? Might it then
be seen to ask if an academician is the only valid


Isthereonlyonewayto contribute? How does Zusya being Zusya detract
from Moses being Moses, or vice versa?To cite
another Hasidic parable:
The rabbiof Zansused to say:"Allzaddikim[saints]
serve, each in his own way, each accordingto his
rung,andwhoeversays:'Only my rabbiis righteous,'

Baron, Robert, and Nicholas R. Spitzer, eds.
1992. Public Folklore. Washington, D.C.:
Ben-Amos, Dan. 1998. The Name Is the Thing.
Buber, Martin. 1948. Tales of the Hasidim: The
New York: Schocken.
Oring, Elliott. 1998. Anti Anti-"Folklore."JournalofAmerican
Pratt,MaryLouise. 1977. Towarda SpeechAct Theory of LiteraryDiscourse.Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.
Smith, BarbaraHermstein. 1978. On theMarginsof
Discourse:The Relationof Literature
to Language.
Chicago: University ofChicago

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