WSFS 2017: Conference Report

WSFS 2017: Conference Report April 25, 2017

The Western States Folklore Society puts on a great conference, as I discovered over a decade after I last attended one. Or maybe Eugene, OR charmed me.

Me with the conference program and my name badge on my lap (note the button: "Dundites Units").
Me with the conference program and my name badge on my lap (note the button: “Dundites Units”).

WSFS, as we affectionately call the conference (pronounce it Wiss-fiss), is a regional folklore conference. It’s small and accessible, but also attracts big-name scholars. I first began attending it as an undergrad, and was always thrilled to meet people whose work I admired, and to get to interact with them on a personal level. The conference has maintained that same feel, which I think is fantastic.

Here are some highlights from my experience. Other than just, like, being surrounded by other folklorists.

First, the University of Oregon campus was gorgeous. I got to walk through an on-campus graveyard on my way from my Air BnB to the conference one day, and for some reason, I’m a huge fan of those.

The U of O campus is lovely!
The U of O campus is lovely!

My paper on gender and sexuality in 3 contemporary American versions of “Snow White” went well, too. I got some good feedback, which is much needed since this paper is expanding into a book chapter (and I’ll be presenting another facet of it at a conference later in the summer specifically on fairy tales).

Eugene was a fun town; I got to explore some of the local craft breweries, which I really enjoy these days. We had delicious pizza, and pub grub, and catered reception food. It rained on us some, but overall the weather held up pretty well. There was a lot of greenery, which as a SoCal native, I always find novel.

Here’s the strange thing: WSFS was only a two-day conference (opening reception Thursday; papers Friday and Saturday), but I still managed to run myself so damn ragged. Unlike ICFA, which is a four-day extravaganza, where you really have to pace yourself, I just… I don’t know. Maybe part of the problem is that I drove to and from Berkeley, which was 8+ hours each way. That left me fatigued but so did, um, other things.

I basically single-handedly live-tweeted the entire conference, or as much as I could manage. There were a handful of other people on the #WSFS2017 hashtag… but really it was mostly me. I don’t know why I’m such a freak about Twitter. I really enjoy sharing knowledge with people (educator, duh), and I especially like the idea of helping disseminate specialist knowledge to the general public.

Bundled up for my walk to campus on day 1 of the conference.
Bundled up for my walk to campus on day 1 of the conference.

That, actually, was a major theme of the conference. There was a discussion panel about the future of folklore studies, which included discussions of diversity in the field, attracting young folklorists, publicizing our field to those outside the academy more, and advocacy (especially our roles as advocates for those we study).

And… I found it really heart-breaking, and all too personally relevant. I was hooked as a young scholar, and I bring a bit of diversity to the table (queer woman), and yet… there are very few academic folklore jobs. What is the point of attracting young people to the field if we can’t promise them full-time work, in an economy where that increasingly matters for one’s health and life?

So I spent a chunk of the conference dealing with those feels, and live-tweeted a bit more of them than I perhaps should’ve. Ah well.

It felt really good to roll in with the Berkeley posse – almost half a dozen grad students, whom I’ve enjoyed getting to know this semester – and be able to introduce them to the old-school Berkeley mafia, people who were my colleagues and friends over a decade ago. We definitely spent a bunch of time reminiscing about what it was like working in the archive back then, what it was like studying with Alan Dundes, and so on.

Other notable papers and panels included ones on:

  • The Trump resistance (from the Women’s March protest to the neopagan community’s organized spells)
  • What an archivists at the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress believes to be the first recorded joke, possibly in the history of the world!!!
  • The role of gesture as exemplary vs. typical, as in Dorothy Noyes’s excellent Archer Taylor Memorial address
  • Papers on mermaids, monster bridegrooms (specifically the Grimms’ “Hans My Hedgehog” which is a rapey tale if ever there was one), and gender + food in medieval fabliaux
  • Lots of digital stuff! From a suggestion on updating Dundes’ text/texture/context to the digital age, to the Twitter hashtag #CRISPRfacts as form of popular protest, to the #LatinxGradCaps as material culture, and finally the feminist art Wiki edit-a-thons
  • Lots more on the natural world: from ethnographies of the wildtending movement and the raw milk communities to natural psychedelic healing and indigenous ontologies
  • Disturbing stuff, from papers on pop/protest responses to killer clowns to, um, human sacrifice and genetic mutant rural legends and… I was basically tapped out at that point so I pretty much stopped tweeting, which was my form of taking notes

Some intriguing questions came up around the Women’s March: was it a performance of compliant femininity? Does performance create solidarity in ways that challenge gender roles? Similarly, I saw a lot of people raising questions about how we’re supposed to keep resisting when we are constantly fatigued for various reasons as academics (some full-time, some not).

As usual, I found myself thinking about trauma a lot. I missed the one paper on trauma that I’d wanted to see (I think we were presenting at the same time, maybe?) but I emailed the author to ask for a copy. I also found myself thinking about dance and wanting to dance a lot, but I never got that folklore dance-off organized. It would’ve been perfect too, because we were kinda-sorta jointly meeting with a regional public folklore association, and our two groups could’ve totally had a dance-off!

The conference was also very smooth from my perspective; in other words, it ran without a lot of hitches, at least not that I noticed. The tote bag they gave us was quite nice too; as I overheard one participant say, “This one’s not just getting relegated to the market!”

Anyway, I’m exhausted but mostly happy. It was a personally and professionally rewarding time. I sure hope I make it back to WSFS before another decade elapses!

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