A reasonably complete compilation of my portfolio is available as a GitHub repo.
My work in cultural analytics / folklore studies is focused on understanding the role that discourse plays in the nature and spread of online and offline texts. My principle interest is in narrative texts, in understanding how they are constructed, deployed, and received both because of the ways narrative activates our imaginations and the ways that narrative, as one of many modes of discourse, seems able to make words stick together as they travel across social networks. My focus on the somewhat larger horizon of discourse, as opposed to strictly narrative, is the outcome of years of close examination of actual vernacular texts as they passed between individuals both in face-to-face interaction and online.
While I began this work in folklore studies, I have over the past few years sought to expand the scope of my engagement in order to find those areas of overlap that exist between the humanities, the social sciences, and data and information science in the belief that there is not only strength in diverse perspectives and collaborations but also real opportunity to find tractable insights into larger questions and problems facing the world in which we live and work.
My current research streams converge on the nature of narrative because I am particularly interested in refining our understanding of modes of discourse so that we can more successfully not only distinguish narrative from other kinds of texts but build a better model of narrative itself. Addressing this question draws on work in folklore studies, information science, cognitive science, corpus linguistics (and stylistics), and computational approaches to the humanities and social sciences.
One strand of this work focuses on legends, all of which have long been distributed by traditional (oral) social networks, but many of which first made great leaps in distance via the first information networks constituted by regional, and later international, newspaper networks. While the project to make the historical case is still underway, contemporary manifestations in the 2016 clown legend cascade and the recurring legend of abandoned trucks highlight the ways in which off-line and on-line social networks not only amplify each other but transform the information that passes through them in ways we have not fully documented. This work established the need for closer scrutiny of legend as a form as well as the need to consider alternate methods for evaluating the way legends spread and/or saturate on/off-line social networks.
At the heart of this lies the nature, and status, of narrative itself, a much vaunted but still remarkably not well understood mode of discourse. My efforts here are to understand how individuals use narrative to shape various dimensions of the world as they understand it: time, space, the interactional order. The goal of this work is to build a computational model of narrative such that we can discern narrative from other modes of discourse and begin to understand its place within the larger stream of vernacular discourse, themselves situated within global information flows. One argument, for example, has been that the cognitive mirroring enabled by narrative helps in the spread of fake news and in radicalization processes. And yet the status of legends as narrative within folklore studies has long been subject to discussion, calling into question the narrative nature of those forms which rest upon legend, like fake news. A proper accounting of narrative within legend and fake news would go a long way to clarifying the dynamics of these phenomena.
The relevance of form to our understanding of information flows is at the heart of the collaboration with Katherine Kinnaird of Smith College. Taking TED talks as a corpus upon which we can build a set of methodologies and tests various assumptions, we have, first, established a clean data set available to anyone. Second, we examine the talks as words, performing not only the usual inspections of topics across time and domain but also attending to matters of gender and seeking to understand the relationship between TED talks, often described as “thought leading,” and information flows contemporary with them. In the process, we have uncovered profitable forms of collaboration and dialogue that we are capturing in Me Think Pretty One Day a book focused on collaboration between humanities and the data sciences (under development).
The oldest strand of work that continues to generate some activity began in the wake of the 2005 hurricanes that struck Louisiana, when I embarked upon an exploration of the relationship between culture and landscape. Driven to understand how individuals worked and lived in places dismissed as wetlands, I discovered a tradition of invention that had developed the crawfish boat, an amphibious vehicle that tumbled out of a loose network of Cajun and German farmers and fabricators. Explaining this phenomenon required actor-network theory, and I continue to refine that work as a way of engaging my home discipline of folklore studies in the necessity of re-thinking our work in light of developments in network theory.
One of my goals when I teach folklore studies is to undermine the divide that students seem to think exists between the humanities and the sciences. It helps that the study of vernacular discourse in general, and its traditional forms (i.e., folklore) in particular, has long been pushed to one edge of the divide with literature and the arts occupying the center. Across the divide lies linguistics and those facets of the human sciences that address the individual and the particular. Introducing a focus on data and on step-by-step forms of analysis enables the kind of grounding in scientific and scholarly methods that students not only need but makes it possible for them to participate in ways they have not imagined.
At the heart of any humanities course is a text, but the practice of interpreting texts remains for most a mystic process conducted by hermeneutic priests or impresarios. One way to pull back the curtain on the mystery, and to align work in the humanities with that in the sciences, is to consider texts data and thus available for the kind of “mechanical” breakdown that we expect of cells, chemicals, or algorithms. That is, texts are machines made of words. They produce distinct meanings that can be enumerated based on which words are used and the order in which they occur. It’s that simple. The demystification process can, in advanced classes, take on the use of either established tools, available in a variety of forms (websites or standalone software) or hand-written functions in Python. In lower-level classes, we start with printouts and lots of marking, compile various patterns into spreadsheets, and then enact our insights in a variety of seemingly simple activities that underline for students the effectiveness of such ways of thinking. One such activity assigns each student in a class a page from a text, and then asks them to determine the one sentence on that page that best represents what happens on it. Students then compile their sentences, checking for redundancy and combining for overlap (which also allows them to see the power of revision as well as complex syntax), to generate a summary that everyone can use and driving home the analyzability of texts.
As students move through the various stages of breaking a text into its constituent parts and then re-assembling those parts into useful analytical units, like counts of particular words or a summary of a passage, they themselves move in and out of small groups, individual tasks, and larger, whole-class discussions and activities. One of my concomitant goals is to underline the various dimensions of interaction that make up the practice of science and scholarship, with the utility of sometimes working alone, sometimes with others, and sometimes having to communicate across a larger group necessary, and valuable, parts of the process. Too often students come into the university classroom with ideas of solitary genius or that the only authentic ideas, and productivity, are individual in nature. Getting them to experience ideas coming from different moments and different kinds of interactions for themselves is an integral part of my pedagogy. Given the amount of misinformation about science to which they are exposed — what is a theory (e.g., “evolution is just a theory”) or how peer review works (e.g., “this website proves vaccines cause autism”) — it is important that students enact the process as often and as much as they can for themselves. Practice is everything.
Obviously, one of the chief sources of information for students are the various online milieu through which they seemingly drift as their own bodies drift into and out of classrooms and campus buildings. Their attention spans are a regular admixture of critical concepts and memes, and as a member of a field focused on addressing memes and fake news, one of the advantages I enjoy is delivering concepts and methods for treating memes and fake news as material worthy of serious examination. Combining folklore studies with information science, we examine how offline and online communities, instantiated largely through the texts they exchange, enable certain kinds of ideas and disable others. We draw upon studies of folklore conduits as well as considerations of cascades and virality. The aim in these courses is to prepare students for their own research topics, where they will create small collections of data drawn from online sources and then apply those theoretical frameworks which best address the patterns and dimensions that interest them. Over the iterations of teaching in this way, I have enjoyed the elicitation of the folk critique of YouTube apologies, the careful description of Rh+ conspiracies as mythology, and the Cicada mystery as a nested intertextual nexus mirroring the web itself. These projects typically occupy much of the latter half of a semester, with students working both individually as well as in small “cluster interest” groups, helping each other to discover both primary and secondary sources as well as offering initial critiques of writing.
Because communication in general and writing in particular is such an important skill, we spend time in and out of class often working paragraph by paragraph. This is not new to students in my courses: much of the reading for courses, especially at the upper-level, is drawn from scholarly and scientific publications, both because I want them to practice reading such publications but also because we spend some time within any treatment of a given work examining how it is organized as a document. By the time it is their turn to write, they are familiar with the kinds of paragraphs that constitute such writing and the sections in which it is organized. One of the things regularly featured during such discussions is the observation “Is this great writing? No. Does it get the job done? Yes.” Writing is hard. Whatever it takes to get students to write early and often is one of my central tasks.
Some students will go on to practice reading and writing, analysis and synthesis as part of their daily work lives. Others will, I hope, have practiced it enough in the class that they will recognize when it has occurred and when it has not or when they need to flex a long-unused muscle. Given the spread of unscientific, and even anti-scientific, perspectives, this ability to recognize when a text is likely the result, or not, of the scientific/scholarly process is a critical one for university students to possess as they leave our classrooms and begin their work and lives out in the world.
As part of my commitment to making the world “out there” more familiar with the content and methods that are central to our work in the academy, I am regularly involved in community workshops, interviewed by various publications (including the New York Times once), and give talks to regional organizations. One long-standing relationship is with the Evangeline Council of the Boy Scouts which first approached me about constructing a time capsule. That conversation led to a much larger discussion about what kind of data might be collected by scouts involved in their newly developed Swamp Trek program, and how we might fold such “citizen science” initiatives focused on nature into participatory workshops on regional folk cultures. That program now reaches several hundred scouts from across the nation every year, and driving across the Atchafalaya Basin now reminds me that somewhere a scout is learning about how a toilet flushed in the Plains has an impact on the flora and fauna of the Mississippi Delta and that people have lived on this seemingly confused landscape for hundreds, perhaps, thousands of years.
Growing up in the Deep South, I witnessed first-hand the toll intolerance takes on a society: as a child, I swam in pools that still were “whites only” (with no signs, but the stricture was just as clear), and as a teenager I grieved alone when my grandfather died, because all the black men I had grown up with while at his side didn’t feel comfortable coming to the white funeral home. I grew up benefiting from the cultures of the South having long been porous but their societies being not only fenced but stratified. As much as I would like it all to be different now, it’s not. My goal is to do what I can as a researcher, teacher, and member of my community to make things a bit better here and a bit better there, in the hopes that the bits are a part of that long arc that bends toward justice.
In my past research I have written on African American literature and folklore with the goal of making clear the sophistication behind forms that others have mistaken for simple or inconsequential. One aspect of my current research focuses on online legends and fake news, which are often sites, and acts, that prey on individual fears that can then be collectively harnessed and aimed at inappropriate objects, creating an environment in which it is not only acceptable but forward-thinking to take children from their families and lock them up. (And, if you think online legends and rumors are difficult to accept, you should try doing field research in communities where those narratives circulate.) One possible collaboration moving forward is with Brandeis Marshall who has a robust collection of tweets from Black Twitter: we are interested in seeing if we can take recent advances in sarcasm detection to see if they can reveal uses of African American ways of speaking, and now of tweeting, sometimes known as signifying.
The university where I have taught for some time now has the proud legacy of being one of the first in a deeply Southern state to desegregate and to do so peacefully. Our student population averages about one-third African American, with a small but steady stream of students from Vietnamese and, increasingly, Latin American communities. The joy of being a folklorist is encouraging students to base their projects on things they know from their own communities, however they wish to define it — and it is important to remember that some students, especially those exploring their identities for the first time without close familial supervision, do not necessarily identify in ethnic terms but in other alternate terms that can be just as energizing if we allow them space to do so but also the necessary structure to do so productively. So, yes, I have been there at the birth of projects focused on treasure legends in an all-black town, a study of La Llorona sightings on Youtube, or an examination of cucking on 4chan.
In some cases these students are first-generation, and in others they are from school systems that strain to keep buildings from collapsing, and so one of the things I have learned is important is to assess where students are in order to make adjustments to get them where they need to be in order to do their best work possible. Sometimes this means simply listening, which is a skill I first really learned while doing fieldwork among urban Appalachians in Cincinnati, Ohio and African Americans in southern Indiana. Sometimes listening is the best action we can take.
But addressing students needs is but one task of many at a university, and adjusting curricula to reflect student needs and interests on a departmental committee as well as participating in the oversight of research focused on minority populations as part of the Institutional Review Board are the kinds of activities that begin to address larger, institutional biases and encourage an institution to understand the necessity for highlighting diversity at a variety of levels. The same is true for groups and committees in the scholarly and scientific societies we populate: when tasked with forming a committee, I always sought out a diverse group with the hopes of finding voices that would be critical of everything that we forgot or overlooked or assumed. (The same goes for declining invitations when I felt like a committee already had enough people who were like me: sure I’m aware of the issues, but I don’t live the issues the way others do and they need to be there with that experience and not me with my awareness.)
Finally, we not only work in this world but we also live in it. As a member of a family with readily apparent mixed ethnicities, I feel I have a personal responsibility to do what I can to open the eyes of ordinary people who need to understand that things they take for granted or things of which they are afraid are often based on events that never happened or ideas that do not hold up to closer examination. Part of that commitment is a steady stream of workshops or talks or whatever else is called for at area festivals, schools, libraries, and organizations. I have talked about Creole narrative traditions at the Zydeco Festival in Plaisance and about networked creativity to the Jaycees in Eunice. This is not always easy, given some of the things that happen, but it’s the only way I know that at least doesn’t contribute to making things worse and maybe, just maybe, makes things better.