Good morning. Thank you for coming at a different time than our normal meeting times this semester in order to accommodate my teaching schedule. I appreciate it, and my students appreciate it. (For the record, in the undergraduate class we are continuing our discussion of text types in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men, and in the graduate class we are discussing some case studies of Levi-Strauss’ analysis of myths.)
I am happy to observe that after being here 15 years, there is plenty to see in the binder and more to see in the Dropbox folder. (A lot more.) The most exciting thing, for me, isn’t here yet but arrives five days from now and goes on sale shortly after that, and that’s The Amazing Crawfish Boat. (I do want to note that the title is not mine. My title was taken from the president’s first inaugural address when he called upon “the makers of things” to bring America out of the shadow of the recession. The press re-titled the book The Amazing Crawfish Boat, and, since they seem to think they can sell a good number of the thing with that title — they are printing 800 copies of it in hardback — I decided to let them do what they wanted.)
I want to start with the boat book, as I’ve taken to calling it, because in some ways it allows me to tell a part of the arc of what I came here to do, what I have done (and not done), and what I am doing now and hope to do looking forwards. That is, the boat book is a direct manifestation of my original mission: I was hired into the second folklore slot as a complement to Marcia Gaudet’s focus on folklore and literature. My job was to focus on folklore theory and material culture, in my teaching especially, but also in my research. As some of you may recall I had finally settled on a book project that explored the complexities of Louisiana folk cultures through the lens of gumbo when the storms hit and displaced half the people on my list to interview. And, too, much of the public debate that followed was dispiriting for someone who had hoped to explore how Africanized most Louisiana folk cultures were and are.
As I thought about what to do in the face of such a disaster, I published some pieces of the work in various places—principally in an obscure European volume but also in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture—and decided to focus my efforts on one of the central images in the debates: the image of the Louisiana landscape as always already flooded. Growing up along the Bayou Teche, the Louisiana prairies were not a known entity, and the chance to drive among the rice fields and re-think how I as a folklorist might do useful work was a profound one. I discovered two things: first, it’s not a case of whether land is wet or dry but whether you are pumping water on or pumping water off, depending on your needs. Second, there was a machine that, while relatively new, also revealed that dynamic understanding of the landscape, an understanding that was at least a century old and made up of a number of folk cultural elements.
That became the basis for The Amazing Crawfish Boat, the first attempt at an ethnographic monograph since Lauren Post’s Cajun Sketches published a half century ago. I’m proud of the work that went into that book, which is not to say that I don’t think the book could have been better. It’s done. That’s what matters.
The central question of the boat book was how to inhabitants of this corner of the world imagine, and work, an ambiguous landscape. While my focus in the book is on one particular artifact, I searched for other artifacts as well, especially among the many folklore collections. Few treated the duality of the landscape, except for one genre, the legend, specifically the subgenre of the treasure tale. Having collected a few myself in my years of doing field research, I assembled a larger collection and began to try to find ways to think through them.
At the same time, I had become interested in computational and corpus approaches to texts and the modeling of texts. To some, jumping from guys welding together boats in hot, dark shops to rendering texts into multi-dimensional matrices might seem like leaping out of the middle ages and into some weird scifi future, but I can assure you that the goal for me always the same: an understanding of how humans put ideas together in order to put their world together each and every day.
The work so far has been well received by both legend scholars somewhat suspicious of “counting words” as well as digital humanists somewhat suspicious of folk legends. As can be seen on the vita, the change in topic has also meant a much wider audience, with invited talks at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Library of Congress and invitations to publish in venues as diverse as the Chinese Academy’s Folk Culture Forum, ISCLR’s Contemporary Legend, and The Programming Historian.
The work has been sufficiently well received by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research that I was invited to work with Bill Ellis on a book The Hook legend, something that I now look forward to returning to (with my apologies to Bill for the delay).
As long as we are talking about books, I should also note that I am in dialogue with the Ohio State University Press for a book on The Shape of Small Stories. We are currently at a place where the press, with its focus on narrative studies, is interested in a proposal, and I am awaiting a moment of free time to write one for them.
What I like about this turn in my research is the possibilities it creates for students—so here, then, is the section on teaching. As most of you know, the digital humanities are currently enjoying a bright spot in the marketplace, and I think the department is in good shape with people like Jonathan Goodwin and Clai Rice (and now even Shelley Ingram) working in this area and encouraging students to think about working in this area. Jonathan’s work has especially made inroads into the DH community, and our collaboration is something I hope to revisit now that the boat book is done.
Obviously, I think our students should take advantage of this bright spot in the market as much as they can, and I think that Shelley and I may have the first person in folklore studies to consider a dissertation with some computational dimensions to it. I hope we can see more students at least experimenting and becoming familiar with the possibilities, such that they have a wider range of positions accessible to them.
But it’s not only our graduate students who can benefit here. With my own work now focused, once again, on folk narrative, I find that there are real opportunities for undergraduate students to have a hand in the research process. Over the past few semesters, I have slowly — ack, so slowly (and with lots of stumbles) — begun to build an infrastructure whereby students collect narratives out in the world, come back into the classroom, transcribe them, and begin to mark them up. This semester I may very be approaching the moment where they use TEI — the markup of the Text Encoding Initiative that is a flexible international standard. TEI, like any kind of markup, is a great humanistic tool because it allows you both to get students to read closely—how else will they be able to mark things—and to read distantly, when a bunch of texts are examined by an algorithm.
I am grateful to Clai both for introducing me to TEI in particular and to corpus linguistics in general, and he and I have discussed a possible way to combine this work with the work that he and Wilbur Bennett have been doing on dialect. In addition, Randy Gonzalez and I have been talking about what common infrastructure could serve not only his interests in community research but also those of Thomas Cauvin up in History.
None of us can know where this will lead, but it’s certainly very energizing to have coffee in the library and sketch out possibilities on the back of napkins. At the very least, every conversation has offered me some insight that was useful in the classroom, if not also in my research.
Getting together to compare notes on research and/or teaching is one of the pleasures of our work, and in my service work I hope to have made some small contributions to that as well. Perhaps my most visible effort in this regard was the four years I spent as chair of the graduate faculty. Few of you probably remember, or want to remember, that most of those years we slogged through a revision of the graduate student handbook, something Clai thought was long overdue, and we proceeded to write revision after revision until the committee agreed that we had finally gotten it right.
Following that, and even before my time here on the personnel committee began, Clai and I collaborated on the first of the many rubrics that the university handed down as a requirement with no specifications. It was probably then that I realized that the more we as faculty could have some sway over the increasing quantification of our work, the better chance we had at least of getting it somewhat right. (I also acknowledge that for many quantification and rightness are diametrically opposed—perhaps there is a topological solution to this, I don’t know.)
I found myself simultaneously vice president of our local AAUP chapter—and I hope all of you are members—and on the university faculty grievance committee. What I’ve seen on the committee has been, honestly chilling, and it’s also led me to be an active chapter officer in a perhaps slightly unconventional way: by trying to mediate conflicts between faculty and administrators before they get to the point of a grievance. I’ve handled a few cases, and, so far, things are working out.
Beyond the boundaries of campus, my service work is pretty diverse.
Professionally, I’ve served on a number of committees in the MLA, AFS, and ISCLR. I’ve reviewed manuscripts for the Journal of American Folklore and Digital Humanities Quarterly. I’ve written letters in support of promotion for colleagues at Indiana University and UCLA.
Locally, I regularly answer whatever questions journalists ask about whatever folk thing they think they are writing about. (It gets weird, sometimes.) I have given talks at schools, libraries, Lions Clubs, and, in compiling the portfolio, I realize I gave a talk at LEDA a year or so ago. I moderate panels or give critiques at film festivals and at folklife festivals. My most important contribution in this regard has been working with Evangeline Council of the Boy Scouts to develop a long-range plan for humanistic and scientific content for their Swamp Base and Swamp Trek programs. It’s a lot of meetings, and it’s a lot of bureaucratic prose.
There are plenty of things that don’t fit within the frameworks I’ve discussed here, but I thought it was important, after 16 years of being here, to try to understand where I’ve been and where I think I’m going.