I regularly get asked in some form or another the question “is folklore studies for me?” It is a natural enough question for newcomers to advanced/graduate studies to ask, and I will try to compile the various answers I have given over the years here as they apply to folklore studies at UL Lafayette, if only because that is the usual context for the question. (I.e., should the questioner come to UL Lafayette to study folklore or how is the program of study at UL Lafayette different from other programs of study.)
Two caveats, both of which regular readers will already have anticipated: first that my use of the word “natural” above should be considered as having quotation marks around it and second, the bulk of my answer really lies in helping questioners discover for themselves what it is about folklore studies that makes them interested. That is, will studying folklore take them where they want to go. (I am consumed by the notion of paths of late: please bear with me.)
The House Analogy
Let me begin with the institutional stuff that usually comes up last but because, as infrastructure, it forms the very fabric upon which our interactions occur, shaping them in obvious ways, I think it is worth addressing the institutional frame upfront.
Folklore studies at UL-Lafayette is a concentration available to graduate students at both the M.A. and Ph.D. levels. At the M.A. level it means you get to take two to three courses in folklore and choose to write a thesis that is itself a folklore study. (For the ethnographically inclined, this is very appealing and we have have had several outstanding M.A. theses based on fieldwork.) At the Ph.D. level it means you get to take three or more classes in folklore, write one of four comprehensive exams in folklore, and write a dissertation that is in folklore studies. With Barry Ancelet in Modern Languages and Ray Brassieur in Anthropology in addition to Marcia Gaudet who is in English with me, you can have a committee for either the M.A. or the Ph.D. that is entirely made up of folklorists. We are also lucky to have linguists and historians who are not only “folklore-friendly” but really, really get it and love this stuff.
That noted, you will spend a fair amount of your time in coursework that is not folklore studies. In some cases, you can write a paper that might advance your thinking in folklore studies. In other cases, no. In any case, at the Ph.D. level you must test in three other areas.
The strength of the English Ph.D. graduate program at UL Lafayette is that it is a generalist program, designed to develop practitioners who are capable of doing independent, substantive research within a given field and also quite capable of teaching a broad spectrum of classes in the regional universities, community colleges, and liberal arts colleges where our graduate typically find work.
A limited number of our graduates have found work in other sectors, but that is more a function of their own experience and entrepreneurship than anything we currently do, to be honest. We try. We have faculty who have done a lot of different kinds of work, from the usual forms of scholarly productivity like books and articles, to the production of CDs, the creation of databases and archives, the engagement with various public spheres, the mounting of museum or gallery exhibits, the production of folklife festivals, consultation with community groups, NGOs, and private businesses. You name it; this faculty has probably done it.
I myself am at work on a book, have a number of articles out and a couple in press, have produced a CD, developed a framework for a CD series, developed a database for accumulating folklore items, worked with the American Folklore Society to develop its new website, consulted with any number and kind of groups, presented papers at scholarly conferences (both folklore and beyond), given public presentations to grade schools and to a standing U.S. Senator … and the list goes on.
The Path Analogy
Advanced study of folklore is, like any graduate work, really only as “good for you” as what you want to do with it. Maybe all you want from it is a little bit of time to think about something. From there you plan to write novels. Or maybe you want to write great nonfiction like Mark Kurlansky or Malcolm Gladwell. (I think Kurlansky is better, by the way.) You can do it. You can even write like that in courses I offer. (And the genre of travel literature is long overdue for a makeover.) Maybe you want to go on to produce documentaries — either in images, audio, or video. You can do that, too, and we will find a way to accommodate you. Every single one of us has consulted on a documentary film, and a couple of us have had a hand in making them.
My own path, in case you were wondering, has taken me through scholarship to my own current attempt to write a book that is more like trade nonfiction (a la Kurlansky above, if must know). I have also “played in the fields” of archives and public folklore and documentary film work. All are fascinating, and incredibly rewarding in the many forms of collaboration they offer, but for now I find myself really interested in the rise of corpus methodologies and network theories. I think there is something really compelling there, something that might allow folklore studies to merge its two great intellectual movements of the twentieth century, the vast collection enterprise and the ethnography of speaking. I can’t quite make out the convergence, and it may prove entirely illusory, but that’s where I’m headed for now.
My friend Donald Braid once responded to the question “Where is folklore going?” by noting “I don’t know where folklore is going, but I know where I want to take it.” That’s the real question. Let’s begin there. What you need to determine is what possibilities you are interested in creating for yourself. We all need to be honest: UL Lafayette occupies a particular place within the larger American academy. There are some resources we simply do not possess. There are other resources we do. In the end, anyone coming for graduate studies here will need to decide if the resources we can and do offer are sufficient for their own particular intellectual and/or career and/or life project.