Narrative of Research and Teaching Interests

In a number of Western discourse conventions, narratives have beginnings, middles, and ends. More narrowly, we know that the least that can be said about a narrative is that one thing follows another, and the causality is often implied or inferred. And it does not hurt that we folklorists are fond of etiologies, both in terms of the object of our study or in how we came to study folklore.

To embark upon my own etiology would be tell a form of homesick narrative in which our protagonist travels from south Louisiana to central New York for graduate study and suffers a form of climactic-cultural shock wherein he discovers that snow actually occurs — and can occur from October until May — and that not everyone eats rice and seafood as the mainstays of their diet. Which is to say that, like many folklorists, I was studying folklore before I realized it and that my coming to folklore studies was simply a dawn awaiting the right moment to occur.

I left the South for the same reasons that many young Louisianians do: we worry about the future of a state perpetually at the bottom of most rankings and seemingly happy to wallow in such statistical mud. We find our opportunities for intellectual interchange limited and the desire to ignore the South’s “peculiar” legacy, racism in its many forms, just too hard to swallow. I give this bit of origin story for a particular reason: the necessity of grappling with the central tensions of Southern life are at the heart of my research and teaching interests. Like other parts of the nation and of the world, the complex layering of history and people that form Southern folk cultures in general and Louisiana folk cultures in particular can produce some of the most beautiful things and can also reveal human ugliness and cruelty in its worse forms.

Hewing strictly to one side of the story or the other tells neither very well. My current project, Gumbo This: The State of a Dish, focuses on the history and geography of gumbo in Louisiana in an attempt to demonstrate that the rise of recent heritage movements that have stressed either the Cajun or African ancestry of various folk forms in Louisiana ignore the much more interesting history of people sharing ideas and stories across race and class lines. I have organized the book to focus the reader’s attention on various dimensions of history and geography through the ethnographic lens of people living their lives.

This project is really the middle of the story. I began in folklore studies by first traveling to Cincinnati, Ohio in hopes of understanding how urban Appalachians composed themselves in such an urban landscape. If the stereotype of Appalachians was of “Hillbillies” playing banjos on the front porch of a cabin in so far away hollow, what would it mean for them to be living in nineteenth-century row houses pushed up against a six-lane interstate? What I discovered was a radically different use of interior and exterior spaces that meant that many suburban residents, who also formed the core of the city’s political structure, simply mistook urban Appalachian landscapes for dangerous borderlands. (See the essay that appeared in Southern Folklore.)

The conflict of worldviews was also what drove the topic of my dissertation, which set out to examine the folklore surrounding a renowned local event in southern Indiana, the “Quarryhole murders.” The central story involved a black man accidentally coming across a white couple who were, in fact, consummating an affair in an abandoned quarry. The white man apparently sought to kill the black man to keep him from telling and in the struggle was himself killed. The black man, panicking, killed the woman as well. He was eventually captured and tried, in a neighboring county, and sentenced. While the topic was fascinating, I felt that what was equally interesting was the nature of the materials I was collecting as I did my research: a lot of small stories, philosophies about the nature of human action, addresses to the historical record itself, as well as the more usual allusions and elisions. This resulted in the dissertation actually focusing on the nature of oral history itself, examining the propensity for folklorists, historians, and others to prize narratives over other forms of structuring discourse — in effect, it argues for something like oral exposition. (See the Midwestern Folklore for the essay that was one of the chapters of the dissertation.)

Since returning to Louisiana, I have focused my efforts on learning so much of what I never knew about the folk cultures in which I grew up or at least which I grew up next to. I have also spent a fair amount of time trying to begin to give back to the various communities, by volunteering to help directors and docents at various small facilities scattered across the Louisiana landscape to improve their programming as best they can. Along the way, I have worked with a small team of committed volunteers in Washington, Louisiana, to establish a cultural center; provided a typology for a collection of vernacular structures in Opelousas; and struggled alongside the staff of Vermilionville, a local living history museum, to improve the visitor’s experience.

The kind of one-on-one conversation is also the kind of teaching I like best, and I have slowly begun to transform my pedagogy from one focused on lectures to one based on student exploration, not an easy task when you meet twice a week for a little over an hour and yours is one class among four to six a student may be taking.

My teaching interests range from disquieting students in my Louisiana folklore class in what they think is going to be a comforting story about home to giving them a version of home that is truly compelling; from outlining to graduate students our discipline’s rich, and very complex, intellectual history to asking them to think about the tropes we use in our own discourse as folklorists and what impact that has on how we imagine what it is we do. Perhaps one way to sum it up is reflexivity, but I certainly hope that what I provide is not only that valuable ability but also a lot of interesting history and culture along the way.

My current teaching interests lie in trying to find ways to give students the same kinds of learning experiences that students in engineering or business have which require collaboration within the framework of friendly competition between groups. The humanities, I feel, has room both for the reflexive solitude of the research paper as well as the raucous company of the project with multiple dimensions and a deadline. I am still too prone to assign the former and remiss in not allowing the time, and the patience, for the latter. As I get a better handle on the nature of an archives and of a research center, I hope to include my students in more of those projects.

My goal in doing so as a teacher overlaps with my goals as a researcher. I understand that one of my tasks as a folklorist is to add to the archeological-historical record, to get into history people, events, and objects that may not otherwise make it into such accounts. By getting Lou Trahan’s development of a new Mardi Gras mask-making tradition into history, I am also hoping to transform, albeit slowly, the nature of history. As my teacher, and later friend, Henry Glassie is fond of pointing out: getting funky old buildings or cool new inventions like self-crawling crawfish boats into history, be it conventional history or art history, with the addition of an adjective like “folk” isn’t our goal. Remaking (art) history such that it includes those objects and the people who made them by definition is.

Being able to say that, redefining the way we think about the world, and being able to do that in a classroom are two different things, and I feel like I have just started to have enough knowledge, both in terms of pedagogy as well as in terms of content, to begin to do it.

I have enjoyed the opportunities presented to me at both the graduate programs I attended, Syracuse University and Indiana University, as well as here at UL–Lafayette to develop a pedagogy that works well for both me and my students. At Syracuse University, I was able to teach three out of the four courses in the four-year curriculum there. While I struggled at first to master the basic teaching methods, I was later able to team-teach with a more experienced instructor my first wholly student-centered class which focused on what was then the nascent desktop-publishing scene. As a Javits Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education, I missed some opportunities to teach at both Syracuse and Indiana, but when I returned to the classroom late in my studies at Indiana, I witnessed what a difference a brilliant lecturer could make in the course of a class. Assigned to be the lecturer’s teaching assistant, I was charged with helping students work out their own perspective on the texts we read in the Introduction to Black Literature course in light of the lectures.

It’s a kind of gentle rhythm, really. A dance. And I still manage to step on a lot of toes as I nudge my students, under the umbrella of folklore studies, to go out to see the world for themselves and then come back and report on what they have seen. I think fieldwork is one of the greatest gifts we give ourselves and our students. But it is only one gift, and sometimes representing a small piece of world can go seriously awry. In Louisiana, there is a long history of “seriously awry” representations, and I have found them an amazing stepping stone in getting students to think about the conventions, and the clichés, they use when writing about their experiences and their own responses. It only takes one viewing of _The Good Times Are Killing Me_ to get them fired up enough that they themselves vow not to make the same mistakes.

Whether I am out in the field or in my study, in the classroom, or in a meeting with a community group, I find that the clearest message I have to communicate is that folklore studies is the project of discovering how others think their way through the world. Along the way, we discern beauty and intelligence where we did not expect to find it — precisely because we have learned to see things through a different lens, from a different perspective, with a different set of ideas about how the world works. Theory, then, is important, because we all have one. How else could we make our way through the world, without a theory of how it works? That does not mean that you can walk up to someone and ask them for their theory. For most of us, if not all of us, on a day to day basis such a theory lies not at the surface of our attention but rather deep in our doing and our speaking. I take my job as a folklorist to be multi-dimensional in approaching this dynamic of what is done and what is said — since such performances, as we call them, are also at the heart of what is doable, what is sayable and thus have a clear potential impact on the future of any folk culture, including our own. As a researcher, I try to document performances in order to understand the minds at work in them. If I am successful in my documentation and in my analysis, I can communicate not only what I have learned but the process of learning in my teaching. I can, with a great deal of luck and a little bit of wisdom, take what I know about how such processes work in folk cultures and perhaps apply them to the realm of commerce and institutions, bending the frame of my discipline a bit in order to intervene, if only a very little, in the larger world which provides a context for what it is I and others like me do.

It seems to me that a good place to end such a narrative is with the bending of disciplinary frames, or, as the storytellers in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men might say: “I stepped on the frame and the frame bent. And that’s the way the story went.