I may very well be a relic, or at least a square peg in an increasingly rounded hole. What do age and shape have to do with anything? Let me first tell you a story…
This past Wednesday, in the course on American folklore I am teaching this semester, we were discussing the way that contemporary legends manage to bridge the gap between what is narrated and the moment of narration so effectively. That is, we can imagine two individuals in conversation, A and B, who having proceeded through some sequence of genres — for example, the exchange of pleasantries followed by a few bits of news, then an anecdote or two, perhaps a joke or a bit of gossip, until one of them, let’s say A, suddenly, says, “Hey, that reminds me, did you hear that….” What follows is a legend. Perhaps it is, as we were discussing on Wednesday, a version of “the boyfriend’s death” or perhaps it is a more current-event-focused legend focused on some food contamination or something of that nature. No matter.
A tells B the story using a sequence of words, the narration, that conjures up a narrated world. What is narrated, whether it ever actually happened or not, is a representation of reality, not reality itself. Even if A has just come from running into an old friend at a coffee shop, B has no access to the event except through its representation. How the gap between what happened, or is said to have happened, is crossed from the saying of what happened is what is at stake here.
In the case of many contemporary legends, we can see the bridging/crossing taking place across multiple dimensions: first, legends of this nature tend to draw people into closer proximity, creating a kind of intimacy of narration that is different from other narratives. Let’s call that pragmatic intimacy or pragmatic bridging. Second, it is quite common that the events narrated are said to have happened either to someone the narrator knows, or to someone known by a mutual friend, or, as is the case with other legend genres, the events narrated are said to have happened nearby or just recently. In this semantic bridging, or intimacy, any of a number of permutations are possible: close by relationship, close by location, close by time.
The combined effect of pragmatic and semantic bridging is, of course, the erasure of the gap between the real world, the world in which the story is told, and the tale, or the world told or narrated. Such moments occur regularly in oral discourse, which is an amazing thing when you think about it, and their frequent occurrence plays some role, I believe, in the grip that legends can have on us: we are so used to the invocation of storyworlds as reality in everyday speech that we hardly notice a different kind of shift.
It was this careful distinction between reality and the representation of reality that momentarily confused my students. No one said anything, but every teacher or public speaker reading this knows the slight change in facial expressions that cue you to stop for a moment, to digress from the topic at hand into something that needs fleshing out.
And so I found myself given a mini-lecture on the nature of realism, how standards for realistic representation change over time, such that when we look at old movies, read older novels, or even watch television programming from two generations ago, we wonder how the consumers of those fictions could have ever found them believable. To us, they look at least dated if not downright “hokey.” Silly people of a previous time. What fools they were! Why would you think that a static camera with constant medium shots was at all realistic? Then again, I wonder what folks from previous eras would make of the constant motion of today’s cameras.
I’m happy to say that the mini-lecture on realism got them thinking, and allowed us to have the fuller conversation about legends that I wanted us to have. But, in looking back on the moment, I realized that that teachable moment was, to some degree, a function of the size of the class. English 432: American folklore is, by my university’s standards, under-enrolled with 12 or so students in it. (I had to make an argument to the administration that it would be really wrong for one of the two folklorists in the department not to be teaching a folklore course.) But with that many students, not only do I feel comfortable leaving aside the day’s agenda, I am driven to do so by looking at their faces. And with that number of students, I have already gotten to know their faces. With double that number, the course’s preferred enrollment, I know students less well. I read them less well. I teach them less well. (I can still teach them: it just won’t be as well fitted.)
I got tremendous kudos for the way I teach freshman honors English, but it was a class that I had to leave behind because our department head at the time, like our current dean, preferred quantity to quality.
And that is what makes me a relic. I am sorry for my students, who while they attend a regional public university, still hope for a quality education. I want them to know that many of their faculty still hope to give them such an education. But, increasingly, the odds are, ironically, stacked.