Should Folklorists Blog?

Should Folklorists Blog? December 31, 2019

The answer, obviously, is yes on some level, because this folklorist is definitely blogging right now, but I want to dig in a bit deeper as to why we might want to blog, or why we might want to abstain, and whom this benefits.

Photo in public domain (I chose it because the content seemed particularly folk-ish). From Unsplash by Priscilla Du Preez.

I recently came across a colleague’s ruminations on the popular appeal of folklore. Jeff Tolbert astutely compares folklore studies to archaeology, noting that while archaeologists must content with the pop culture image of Indiana Jones, folklorists have no such cohesive image to contend against:

Folklorists are generally not portrayed as Nazi-fighters or tomb-raiders. They are generally not pictured within popular culture as white male adventurers because, with few exceptions, they are not generally pictured at all. […] Academic folklore may have no Indy, but it has lots of cool stuff. While popular understandings of what folklore “is” may differ widely from disciplinary ones, folklorists are fortunate to have popular audiences with preexisting interests in their topics (96).

How do we snag the attention of these popular audiences? As Tolbert goes on to point out:

Alternative formats for presenting our materials to non-academics have been little explored by academic folklorists, but these media – television documentaries, blogs, social networking platforms like Facebook – provide ample opportunity for direct engagement with a public eager to learn about our stuff (107).

I have a blog and a Facebook page for it, and so I’m doing what Tolbert recommends…though to what end? Due to my full-time one-year-at-a-time teaching position, I’m not able to spend the time it would take to really monetize my writing, so why am I doing this? Out of the goodness of my heart? Because I like to nerd out about this stuff? Because I can’t stop being an educator even in my downtime? Because I feel I “owe” it to the field, and most especially to my dead mentor Alan Dundes who invested so much time in mentoring me? Some combination of the above?

Hence, I must also ask: whose interests is it in to raise the visibility of a somewhat small academic field that’s centuries old and deals with material contiguous to pretty much every facet of human life? Does learning about folklore actually make people, well, better somehow?

I wish I knew.  I would like to think that the people with the most institutional support (such as tenured or tenure-track professors, and public/applied folklorists with steady jobs) would be leading the charge. However, from conversations with my friends and colleagues occupying these positions, they’re often over-worked and over-burdened already with daily duties, leaving them little time to do public outreach in order to further the field.

I worry, as I stated in my AFS paper this year, that the task of spreading the folklore love falls the heaviest to those who are already marginalized – adjuncts, public folklorists on short-term contracts, and people like me in one-year positions, not to mention those who are trained folklorists who can’t find work in or adjacent to the field right now.

But if a tenure-track professor can’t justify the time doing blogging and other public outreach because it doesn’t count for tenure, and people like me are scrambling to make ends meet because we’re not paid what tenure-track professors are, then who should take up the mantle? And why? What do we actually owe an academic field?

Academia, for those who don’t know, is composed of a series of personal and institutional networks. Not to sound like the mafia, but we remember who owes us favors and we don’t hesitate to call them in, like when you agreed to do a manuscript review for So-and-So and later you ask them for a letter of recommendation for an application. People also form genuine friendships, and mentor each other out of goodwill. The point I’m trying to make here is that there’s little institutional incentive nor personal incentive to do public outreach; it’s not like the mentors I’m indebted to for their letters of rec are leaning on me to be like, “Hey Jeana, we really need more blog posts promoting the field, are you up to it?!” That just…doesn’t happen.

I hate to sound cynical, but what, then, is the incentive for promoting our cool-yet-tiny field to the public, when we can barely afford to make time to counsel our own, and when we certainly don’t need to initiate more students into a discipline that already has more qualified scholars than jobs? Not everyone can or should become a professional folklorist, though that shouldn’t stop people from learning more about who we are and what we do. It’s a bit like art appreciation, I guess; of definite benefit though hard to quantity.

In a way, this answers the question with which I began this blog post: if we blog or do other public outreach, it should be because it pleases us, not because it makes us more marketable or our field more appealing (most claims about academia being a meritocracy are a scam anyway).

And what, indeed, could be more pleasing than combating white supremacy, to return to the Indiana Jones vs. Nazis references with which I began this blog post? As folklorists, we have an ethical obligation to make sure white supremacists do not misuse our materials, as happened to me when that one “volkish folklorist” lady decided to quote me in her thinly-disguised white supremacist-leaning blog posts (which I discuss here; I’m not linking to her original content).

But I’m also not going to tell anyone to turn their web presence into Nazi bait if it’s dangerous for them; nobody deserves to get doxxed over this shit, and unfortunately it’s a real risk. I’m also not going to tell someone with an MA or PhD in folklore who’s barely getting by financially to sink time and energy into Spreading That Good Folklore Word, because that’s obviously exploitative. I mean, everyone needs a hobby and if Spreading That Good Folklore Word is yours, great. We could certainly use more of it, even if I’ve just spent a chunk of this blog post determining that it’s not entirely obvious who reaps the benefits when we do.

Maybe I just want to live in a world where I don’t have to pause and define folklore every time someone asks what I do.  Maybe I want to normalize the ability to both think critically about and enjoy culture (and goodness knows I push my college students to learn this skill set). Maybe I want people to live richer lives, which I think having a basic understanding of folklore helps accomplish.

But there are a lot of unknowns in my life right now, and if the reason I write in the first place is among them, I suspect I’m going to have a tough time trying to blog regularly.

 

References

Tolbert, Jeffrey. “On Folklore’s Appeal: A Personal Essay.” New Directions in Folklore 13, no. 1-2 (2015): 93-113.


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