An Existential Epiphany

As my teaching came to a close this semester, I found myself frustrated by two things: first, that in both my courses I had finally gotten the classes to a point where we really could go and learn something but the semester was over, and, second, that in both cases I had covered material that wasn’t essential to the things I felt students needed to learn.

When I first started teaching the Introduction to Folklore course ten years ago, I taught it the way I thought any/every folklorist should. It was a version of the “groups and genres” approach that lies behind Oring’s text and many others. Slowly, as the years wore away the idea that I am any/every folklorist — revealed in the fact that the class never went as well as I would have liked and students regularly walked away, I felt, with the notion that there were a lot of strange people in the world — I transformed the course into something focused on the human life cycle. I’ve been doing it that way since my daughter was born, and it has worked much better, beginning as we do with things the students themselves have experienced and then slowly working our way through the major milestones of the human experience: birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, senescence, death.

I have, however, successively trimmed the reading back over the past two years, if only because I found that I really wanted to dwell more on the human nature of the experiences in some of the texts we cover. In its original, expansive form, the course includes the following:

  • Sometimes we begin with Toelken’s The Dynamics of Folklore; sometimes we don’t.
  • A series of readings on children’s folklore from various journals.
  • Claire Farrer’s Thunder Rides a Black Horse
  • Keith Basso’s Portraits of “The Whiteman”
  • Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men
  • Henry Glassie’s All Silver and No Brass
  • Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days

I have regularly peeled off Myerhoff’s text, which is brilliant, but sometimes too much for an introductory course. I have also regularly dropped the Glassie text, usually because I am running out of time.

That’s what happened in this last iteration of the class, and, pressed for time, I found myself wanting to write a lecture that would offer students not only some sort of conclusion but also some sort of closure. I wanted the class to mean something to them beside the time they spent in the classroom. They were a good bunch of students, and I wanted to honor their interest. Below is the first part of the lecture I gave, but please note that all the deixis included was actually part of the lecture: I drew a complex diagram on the whiteboard, like some of those I have previously linked to.

No further ados:

This is you.

You are both free and stuck in the world.

You are free because you are fortunate enough — mostly thanks to the hard work of others, but in some cases thanks to some hard work of your own, to be able to choose a number of things in your life.

You are, for example, free to go to university or not. No one required you to enroll, nor did anyone proscribe you from enrolling.

You are free to leave Louisiana the day after the semester is over, just as you are free to stay.

You are free to choose among any number of professions to pursue. You may become a doctor, an entrepreneur, an electrician.

You are stuck because your choices are limited in nature and scope. You are not free to choose anything.

You are, for example, not free to withdraw a million dollars from the bank. It is not money you have.

You are also not free to become anyone because there are a wide range of anyones that you have never encountered: that is, your imagination limits you. And your imagination is limited because your experience is limited, and your experience is limited because you, yourself, are limited in time and space.

You are free and stuck. The future feels free. The past feels sticky.

From there I went on to talk a bit about the psychology of time, but I used the image, or perhaps metaphor, of the past feeling “sticky” to talk about tradition.

And now for my “existential epiphany”: I realized while writing this lecture that I didn’t want it to be my last lecture, but my first lecture, and how I really want to teach the class is a kind of class in existential philosophy. That is, I want to take the promise of performance studies, which is the realization of phenomenology in the social studies, and loop it right back to its origins. That’s the kind of folklorist I am, a philosophical folklorist. I agree that anthropology is an amazing extension, perhaps even displacement, of the philosophical inquiry into human nature, but I still like the meditative, introspective quality of the original project — which I think is also present in some of the great anthropological works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, and Michael Jackson among others.

That introspective nature works really well with undergraduates, who are often at a moment in their lives where they are mostly concerned with themselves and their place in the world. Heck, it works really well with a wide range of audiences. Almost everyone, that is, except fellow folklorists and anthropologists who tend, for all the right reasons, to be a little suspicious of it.

Alas, I am to be suspected. But I am happy to have re-discovered something foundational in my own development that I re-introduce into my work.