Annual Performance Evaluation Response

At the end of the tedious online performance evaluation process faculty are allowed to make a statement of sorts. Please note that my final evaluation was 4.8 out of 5: I was assessed at 5 for research (55% of my evaluation), 4.5 for teaching (35%), and 5 for service (10%). Here is what I submitted:

Why are we embarked upon a process which the provost himself has described publicly as “inane”? What does it mean for a faculty member to receive a grade of 4.8? Moreover, what’s the point of seeking to distinguish oneself when the only thing at stake is a cost of living adjustment misnamed as a “merit raise”? And this in a year when there will be no adjustments, no raises? Mr. LeBlanc can shake his head in sympathy that my salary will, in effect, be diminished by 3.5%, and maybe the dean will, too, but they both are comfortable in their 6-figure salaries and I have to decide, once again, how much of my savings I will divert to send my child to school, to effect meaningful home repair, and/or offset other expenses which grow each year even as our salaries do not. I am lucky to hold an endowed professorship, but it is only ever temporary, and I know that all I have to do is stumble professionally or annoy the wrong person and that will be taken away and things will be as bad as they are for everyone else in the department. (Or, worse, its removal could be the outcome of an under-considered process possessing no strategic focus nor even a sense of the variance in values of publications to an institution that claims to aspire to higher status.) The evaluation of performance in the absence of any meaningful reward and only the ever-present damoclean threat of punishment is not evaluation but a constant reminder that the administration always holds a knife to faculty’s throat.

Python and PDFs

Real Python has a tutorial on How to Work With a PDF in Python. I subscribe to Real Python because I find their tutorials well-written or, in the case of video tutorials, well-presented. The focus of this tutorial is the PythonPDF module, which can get metadata from a PDF, rotate pages, merge or split a PDF, and/or encrypt it. While the tutorial mentions “extract information” it does not mean PythonPDF can get text from a PDF that does not have a text layer already embedded on its pages — you could argue that the unintuitive nature of PDFs reveals their brokenness but that’s for another time. If you want to get text where there is no text layer, but you still want to use Python, it looks like you have to turn to PDFMiner — though a quick skim of its GH page doesn’t reveal if it has OCR capabilities backed in. Sigh.

AFS 2019 Abstracts

Seymour Chatman’s diagram of narrative

The short abstract (97 words):

With an understanding that no text is composed, or received, in a single “mode of discourse” (description, narration, exposition, etc.), this paper explores the nature of non-narrative elements found within folk narrative, pursuing a path first begun by literary critic Meir Sternberg and linguist Carlota Smith. While Sternberg and Smith used literary texts as the basis for their study, this paper draws, like the previous one, upon folk narratives collected by a number of folklorists, including myself, in order to see if there are consistent structures of discourse present and at what level those structures lie.

The long abstract (492 words):

Save a few exceptions, folklorists have largely approached folk narrative as given, with occasional considerations of non-narrative elements. Our close readings of texts tend to focus on the topical and not the formal, on the contextually meaningful and not the structurally significant. This paper is part of a larger project to understand the nature of the components that make up a folk narrative text in order to explore what structures might emerge, and which, if any, are general and which might be cultural. The project is founded on the work of literary critic Meir Sternberg and linguist Carlota Smith, each of whom pursued parallel paths in trying to discern modes with a given text. Starting in the late seventies and working through the nineties, Sternberg attempted to extend narratological considerations to include non-narrative moments and passages in texts. Pursuing similar research but apparently unaware of Sternberg, Smith developed the notion of “modes of discourse,” based on her own work on temporal aspect, in which she explored how languages encode time and how they encode the way events happen over time. Both Sternberg and Smith, however, draw upon literary sources for the exploration and application of their ideas and methods. What would a consideration of folkloric texts bring to the table, and what role would dialogue—long established as a central feature in oral text-making—play in a possible revision of any typology of discourse modes? This paper only briefly outlines Sternberg’s work, as well as referencing the work of Labov and Waletzky which has had some role in folkloristic considerations of narrative (as outlined in a previous paper), in order to provide a backdrop for a consideration of Smith’s work to folkloristic considerations of text. In a previous paper I argued that folklore studies is as guilty as other domains in proclaiming anything narrative. In this paper, I explore other modes of discourse and then consider just how little the narrative mode has to be present for it to be received as narrative in its entirety. All examples are drawn either from my own fieldwork or from colleagues who have entrusted me with examples from their own work.

Labov, William, and Joshua Waletzky. 1967. Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience. Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, 12–44.

Smith, Carlota S. 2003. Modes of Discourse: The Local Structure of Texts (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics). Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, Meir. 1981. Ordering the Unordered: Time, Space, and Descriptive Coherence. Yale French Studies (61, Towards a Theory of Description): 60–88.

———. 1982. Proteus in Quotation-Land: Mimesis and the Forms of Reported Discourse. Poetics Today 3 (2): 107–56.

———. 1990. Telling in Time (I): Chronology and Narrative Theory. Poetics Today 11 (4, Narratology Revisited II): 901–48.

———. 1992. Telling in Time (II): Chronology, Teleology, Narrativity. Poetics Today 13 (3): 463–541.

———. 2001. How Narrativity Makes a Difference. Narrative 9 (2, Contemporary Narratology): 115–22.

Re-thinking the Business Case Study

Ever since I worked in executive education and was exposed to the role of the business case study in both undergraduate, MBA, and executive education, I have been fascinated by its power to generate insight and blindness. I have followed the re-consideration of the case study, as well as of the MBA in general, over the past few years, but only from a distance. So it was great to come across Lila MacLellan’s review of work by Bridgman, Cummings and McLaughlin on “Restating the Case: How Revisiting the Development of the Case Method Can Help Us Think Differently About the Future of the Business School” (DOI: 10.5465/amle.2015.0291). They note:

years after installing the case method, Donham sincerely believed it was too indifferent to larger societal ills, too insensitive to the labor market, and thus to economic prosperity and equality among workers.

As it turns out, some of that re-consideration may have been prompted by Donham’s long-term friendship with Alfred North Whitehead. MacLellan concludes:

Part of the problem with decision-forcing exercises alone is that they ask students to work within the existing system, without examining its failures. Bridgman’s paper suggests that business professors could use cases to look at how managers think, rather than to teach students how to think like a manager.

There’s apparently also a Youtube animation.

Mystery Ranch 3-Way Briefcase

I got one of those automated prompts from a vendor for a product that I had purchased. I decided to write a review. By the time I was done writing the review, I thought it was substantive enough to post it here: because if you are searching for a bag and about to spend a bit more than you are comfortable doing, you do a lot of web searching first, in hopes that someone will describe the bag sufficiently that you get a better sense of whether it’s worth your time and hard-earned money to buy the thing

I bought an Eagle Creek Convert-a-brief bag in the late 90s, and I used the heck out of that thing, only eventually setting it aside for other bags that offered more functionality in various ways and leaning more and more towards backpacks. I bought the MR 3-way briefcase because I found myself wanting a bag looked more like a briefcase and less like a backpack recently and the old Eagle Creek just does have much left in it. There’s a lot to recommend the MR 3W: it’s compact in height and width and offers a lot of organization. The backpack straps stow neatly. And it looks good.

Would I buy it again? Yes. Do I wish I could change a few things? Yes. Starting from the front: the magnetic buckle seems cool, but then you realize that it often, if not almost always, latches when the front flap falls down, leading a casual inspection to suggest that the bag is closed when it isn’t: things fall out. Given that the things in the front pocket are sometimes really expensive things to lose, like wallets and phones, another zippered pocket would be useful here.

In the middle of the bag, I wish the padding/insert between the laptop and middle pocket were removed: the rest of the bag provides padding and structure enough to protect electronics in the back pocket and the padding/insert only adds undesired weight and thickness — and the bag would only be better if lighter.

Finally, while the padded backpack straps are easy to stow and remove, the lower half of the straps are not, making it difficult, and time-consuming, to switch from backpack mode to briefcase mode. If the bottom of the pack, when the pack is is in backpack mode, were a velcro strip, this problem could be easily solved without otherwise ruining the lines of the 3W.

Buying through Sierra was simple and fast. The bag itself mostly delights, but some of the wonkiness described above does detract from that delight.


As part of our hand editing of the TED talk data we had to retrieve missing information for, luckily, a small subset of the speakers. This meant Kinnaird splitting off two CSVs, one for the TED main event speakers and one for the other TED-sponsored event speakers, and then me trudging row by row and cell by cell, working back and forth between the CSV and a web page. Copy and pasted and two CSVs filled in. Yes.

Then it was time to fold these filled in rows back into the main CSVs from whence they came. Each smaller CSV had between 15 and 20 rows, so it didn’t seem like a task worthy of firing up a Python session and writing something in pandas to replace the rows with missing information with the filled-in rows.

I started doing the work by hand: copy a row from the missing.csv and paste it below the matching row in the speakers.csv and then deleting the matched row. Oi! Sure it was only 17 rows, but, still, there has to be a somewhat faster way!

So I decided to merge the two files using cat and then simply finding the dupes in Easy CSV Editor and deleting the row with missing data. Semi-automated?

Found note

Found with the date 26 July 2016:

Books/master notes for a class on “Folklore and Psychology” as well as, looking backwards, perhaps the same thing for Louisiana Folklore. The idea being that the book would also be interactive with questions and guided experiences as well as case studies.

Why I Hate Moodle

Or at least my university’s implementation of it.

Let me begin with two assertions about what I see as the strengths about the nature of the web, so that people who see things another way do not need to bother themselves with either reading further or in arguing with me.

The first thing I want to note about the web is something I, and thousands of others, have observed in countless other ways and places and that is that the web is the platform without parallel for the delivery of content. Let me emphasize content, which I do over and against the delivery of an experience. The content itself may involve the user (or viewer or reader or listener) in some kind of experience, but the web itself is less about the delivery of experiences.

The second thing I want to observe about the web reveals my age: the web is at its best when it is semantic, when the way content is structured is part and parcel of its meaning. And I mean semantic in a deep sort of way, with UX/UI at the surface but reaching all the way down to <tag>s.

So, let me walk you through the way Moodle is set up at my university and you can begin to understand why I think its anathema to the promise of the web. And we can begin with the way I begin, which is to click on a link to a course that I am teaching in order to manage some aspect of it:

Screen Shot 2019 01 31 at 5 11 49 PM

There are two things that I find difficult to accept with this: first, the content, the actual content of the course, is squashed between a whole lot of navigation and other matters that amount to little more than unnecessary cognitive overhead. Sure, I could customize the interface to get rid of all the extraneous blocks, but I use the default setup because it’s what I see most, if not all, of my students using and their experience of the course is my concern. If I design things based on my tweaked-out setup, and those things do not look the same for them, then I have failed them.

The second thing seems obvious to me: I’m a teacher. I’m coming to Moodle to do things, but in order to do things I have to click a button. And I can’t tell you the number of times I have scrolled down the page to start something only to realize I have to scroll back up, click on the edit button, and, then, scroll back down to the section I want to edit and click on the Add an activity or resource button.

And speaking of too much scrolling and clicking, when you do click on the Add button, you are greeted with the following pop-up:

Screen Shot 2019 01 31 at 5 12 22 PM

Congratulations if you want to add one of a dozen of Moodle’s “activities” designed, one supposed to “enhance the educational experience” — because what undergraduate doesn’t want to use Hangman, or a Hidden Picture!, to learn about speciation or topic modeling? So more scrolling in order to get to ways to add actual content: URLs, pages, files, etc.

Perhaps the most fundamental, the most basic form of content there is is a web page. Setting aside that this web page is a column squished between a whole lot of other material, if you attempt to paste it into a text box, your formatting options look like this:

Screen Shot 2019 01 31 at 5 28 16 PM

Forget meaningful things like H1 headings or passages of code, because you aren’t getting them here. For a while, if you dug deep enough into Moodle’s bowels you could enable a Markdown filter, so that you could write and maintain pages as semantic plain text, but they have moved that switch around so much that it’s clear they don’t want you to write structured prose, just roll back to the 1980s and WordPerfect for DOS and stick to one-off formatting of text.

Moodle is ugly, takes too many clicks to do anything meaningful, and it undoes everything that was once semantic about the web. Which is kind of like Facebook, which I guess makes sense.

David Rumsey Map Collection

The David Rumsey Map Collection is a pretty impressive accomplishment. According to the site, the collections “contains more than 150,000 maps. The collection focuses on rare 16th through 21st century maps of North and South America, as well as maps of the World, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. The collection includes atlases, wall maps, globes, school geographies, pocket maps, books of exploration, maritime charts, and a variety of cartographic materials including pocket, wall, children’s, and manuscript maps. Items range in date from about 1550 to the present.”

24-liter Daypack Comparison

I recently decided to upgrade from my Deuter Speedlite 20 as the backpack I took for day-long outings with my family. The Speedlite has served me well for four years now, and remains my go to back for any number of other purposes, but for longer hikes, especially on warmer days, it clings to my back, collecting heat and sweat. (Thankfully, it dries quickly.) Its one-inch wide hip belt is not terribly comfortable, and its size means I can’t quite pack everything I would like, especially if I’d like to make it possible for a traveling companion to carry nothing. I already have a Deuter Futura 32, and so I know that it is more than I wanted, so I set my sights on something in the mid-twenties, 24 or 26 liters.

As fellow backpackers know, there are at least two categories of bags, if not really three, that occupy the 20 to 30 liter capacity range: the light packs, the standoff packs, and the technical packs. In the light category are Osprey’s Talon series, Deuter’s Speedlite series, and Gregory’s Miwok series. All fine packs, and reasonably comfortable with their various corrugated foam and mesh back panels, but not as comfortable as their slightly heavier cousins in Osprey’s Stratos series and Deuter’s Futura series. (Gregory’s offerings in the 20 liter range are Salvos, and then they shift to the Zulu line.) There are other backpack makers, I know, but I already owned both Osprey and Deuter packs and they have been super reliable for me: I use an Osprey Momentum 22 to commute to work and an Osprey Porter 46 for travel. I was familiar with Gregory, having looked at a Miwok pack before settling on the Osprey Momentum.

Deuter, Gregory, and Osprey also appear to be the only ones focused on making day packs with light metal frames and mesh backs that are comfortable on days you sweat. And so my comparison shopping came down to the Gregory Salvo 24, the Osprey Stratos 24, and the Deuter Futura 24. All good bags, but a couple of them are handicapped by recent design choices. In the case of the Deuter, the hip belt pockets have recently been dropped, and the hip belts themselves somewhat shrunken. In the case of the Osprey, they have gotten ride of the roomy outer stuff pocket in favor of some weird vertical zippered pocket that everyone agrees is useless when the pack is full.

That left the Gregory Salvo 24. It offered everything I wanted: 24 liter capacity, a large central compartment with panel access, a padded hip belt, with pockets, and a stuff pocket on the front. But I was not comfortable making a decision without some comparison, and so I added the Deuter Futura 26 into the mix: it’s a slightly taller bag, and one of the issues here is my torso. As a six foot plus tall man with 34″ legs, I have a longer torso, and finding a pack that gets the straps far enough up my back to reach my shoulders comfortably is unreasonably difficult. The Deuter Futura 26 is built like bigger packs: it has a spindrift collar, a brain, and while it doesn’t have a front stash pocket, it does offer easy access to the main compartment via a zippered panel.

I wore both packs around the house with a gallon bucket of paint stashed inside: its bulky and heavy (and it was handy). Both packs seemed fine. I then took them out to a nearby park, again with the can of paint handy, and walked around with them. While the Deuter was a bit taller, it also felt like it was fighting me a little bit, and the Gregory just seemed more comfortable, which may in part be a function of the pack staying a little closer to my back. (This feature may become a bug, since obviously there will be less air between my back and the pack, but I cannot know that within the window I have to make a decision.)

So, in breaking with a long tradition of only owning Osprey and Deuter packs, with a couple of Timbuk2 shoulder bags, it looks like a Gregory is joining the family. I’ll post a photo from an upcoming hike as soon as I have one.

New Book Thursday

Julia Flanders and Fotis Jannidis. 2018. The Shape of Data in Digital Humanities: Modeling Texts and Text-based Resources. Routledge.

Data and its technologies now play a large and growing role in humanities research and teaching. This book addresses the needs of humanities scholars who seek deeper expertise in the area of data modeling and representation. The authors, all experts in digital humanities, offer a clear explanation of key technical principles, a grounded discussion of case studies, and an exploration of important theoretical concerns. The book opens with an orientation, giving the reader a history of data modeling in the humanities and a grounding in the technical concepts necessary to understand and engage with the second part of the book. The second part of the book is a wide-ranging exploration of topics central for a deeper understanding of data modeling in digital humanities. Chapters cover data modeling standards and the role they play in shaping digital humanities practice, traditional forms of modeling in the humanities and how they have been transformed by digital approaches, ontologies which seek to anchor meaning in digital humanities resources, and how data models inhabit the other analytical tools used in digital humanities research. It concludes with a glossary chapter that explains specific terms and concepts for data modeling in the digital humanities context. This book is a unique and invaluable resource for teaching and practising data modeling in a digital humanities context.

For those of you thinking “Oh, no, Routledge. I can’t afford it. You are correct.” This was not the promise the internet made to knowledge distribution.

AFS 2018

For those who have asked, below are links to the paper I gave at this year’s meeting of the American Folklore Society along with the slides and the handout (which was a version of the slides, so you don’t need both). As I catch up with everything on which I have fallen behind, I will post my notes about the conference itself in some fashion.

Here are: the paper, the slides, and the handout for “It’s about Time: How Folk Narratives Manage Time in Discourse.”

Abstract: Concluding his consideration of “Time in Folk-Narrative,” Bill Nicolaisen noted that the nature of human experience is centrally of time and that what marked genres of folk narrative, perhaps as much, or more, than anything else, was their management of time: “What must be stressed, however, is that in contrast to the concepts and realization of an extended present and of narrated time in the folktale, the dramatic comparisons made in the legend are designed to demonstrate the incompatibility of the two time frames, which exist as parallel systems” (318). Much of Nicolaisen’s efforts are focused on a careful compilation of how time is signaled, and thus managed, within the discourse of ten fairy tales drawn randomly from Thompson’s One Hundred Favorite Folktales. This paper revisits and extends Nicolaisen’s work, taking as its central task the careful attention to words used. Where Nicolaisen focused principally on the folktale, with occasional references to legend, this paper, part of a larger examination of legends in the current moment, uses a number of legends taken, first, from oral discourse, and then a number of legends found online. It follows this examination with a look at, what the paper itself argues, is the adjacent genre of the personal anecdote, sometimes also known as the personal experience narrative, in order to determine how a close examination of the management of time, in discourse, might reveal where the two genres converge or diverge, in hopes of finding a better way to model both and reliable discursive cues. Some of the methodologies deployed are computational in nature, beginning with forms of markup first explored by computer scientists Pustejovsky et alum and followed up by recent attempts to automate temporal signals in texts by David Elson. The current work seeks to re-imagine the pioneering work of Bill Nicolaisen, and before him Benjamin Colby, in light of recent developments in computational modeling of narrative with an especial focus on what that means for the study of genre.

Nicolaisen, William. 1978. Time in Folk-Narrative. In Folklore Studies in the Twentieth Centuries, 314-319. Ed. Venetia Newall. Rowman and Littlefield. (Available as a PDF.)

The Shape of Time in Folk Narrative

Caveats and Qualifications

Those of you familiar with my work in computational folkloristics will be surprised with how I begin, and disappointed with how I end. So, fair warning. Those of you here because I used the phrase “folk narrative” in the title of my paper are going to be disappointed because I don’t talk all that much about narrative. Both of these disappointments reveal that I am really at a far earlier stage in this project than I imagined, a fact brought to life by finally setting aside (not enough) time to write this paper. All that noted, I’ll begin with the following observation from the larger project.

We live in an age of data. Everywhere we turn we are, we are told, counted and measured in ways that mostly escapes our ability to comprehend. Every telephone call we make is logged somewhere. If we are driving, every turn we take is logged somewhere. If we are on-line, every link we follow is logged, and every page we scroll is noted. Much of this is, we are told, is for our benefit. Analysis of call logs allows carriers to understand traffic patterns, to use current facilities to their fullest, and to make better plans for future facilities based on actual needs of actual customers. Analysis of traffic patterns allows applications in our cars to offer us better routes, and, we assume, that such information accumulated as a history must surely contribute to better planning for civil engineering. Analysis of search engine and website usage gives us better results: results that are not only ranked in our likely preference but also of a higher quality. And, too, we get advertisements that our tailored to our interests.

It is this latter dimension, of being measured in order to be sold, that makes us, at least some of us, uncomfortable. It feels like we are no longer in control of ourselves, of our fates. Surveillance in the service of our having a choice in our future is one thing. Surveillance in the service of others choosing our future is another matter altogether.

And so it seems almost inevitable that with the rise of data, and the power it promises, or threatens, to have over our lives, that there would be a perceived need for something to balance that power, to limit it in some fashion. Over and against the granularity, the sandpile of bits of data that our lives would seem to be reduced to when run through the necessary grindstone of computer algorithms, we find ourselves wishing for something that understands us, or at least we understand, as a whole, as something that cannot be taken apart and understood as a sum of its parts.
In this, in what seems like the opening act of the data drama that will shape our lives, and our futures, in ways that we cannot yet anticipate—and yet so many individuals and companies our banking, quite literally, on our anticipation—we seem to have stumbled upon, or fallen back upon (however you prefer to imagine it), the strength of stories.

Stories, yeah! To the parapet folklorists, because we know stories!

Or do we?

Part of what I am going to argue today is that we don’t.

Or, to put that another way, folklorists need to cease once and for all using the word story for every damned text we encounter. A lot of them aren’t stories, and those that are are not necessarily as narrative as we would like to think. So, if this paper is anything, it is an exercise in personal hubris, my own failings as an analyst, blamed on disciplinary hubris.

Time and Narrative

At the very outset of his multi-volume Time and Narrative, Paul Ricouer states that “what is ultimately at stake in the case of the structural identity of the narrative function as well as in that of the truth claim of every narrative work is the temporal character of human experience” (3). Steeped in both Hegelian dialect as well as Heideggerian hermeneutics, Ricoeur’s process is to gather, slowly but steadfastly, all those facets of narrative from which he can draw upon to address what he regards as the necessary question which philosophy must ask and which also must be answered: what should I do? As a folklorist, I am not interested in such ethical questions, but, rather ethnographic questions like: what do people think they should do and how do they know it? To do that, I am going to address neither the dialectical nor the hermeneutical dimensions of Ricoeur’s work, but rather a fundamental assertion he makes in the sentences that follow those above, where he notes that:

The world unfolded by every narrative work is always a temporal world. Or, as will often be repeated in the course of this study: time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience. (3, emphasis added)

Ricoeur is not alone in assuming that “time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative”; his is simply one of the larger and better-known treatments of narrative that founds itself on literary texts and, thus, in the process, misses how time is actually alternately imagined, or contained (if you prefer) in discourse. Folklorists are, by and large, no better, no worse in this regard, despite there being a reasonably compelling tradition of inspecting the contents of texts more closely to understand the relationship between them and time.

Time and Folk Narrative

In “The Structure of Narrated Time in the Folktale,” Bill Nicolaisen noted that folklorists tend to think of the relationship between various genres and time in rather broad terms.1 Such generalizations are themselves not necessarily wrong nor without use. Noting that myths are, in terms William Bascom memorialized, about the time before time or that folktales are about time outside of time provokes our imaginations and the imaginations of the various audiences with which we engage. But when our thinking stops at the provocation, we ignore the very real differences in the way discourse structures time, and thus lose the opportunity to consider how time may or may not be managed differently in different genres, perhaps giving us a better sense not only of the genres themselves but also of how humans imagine time. (And this latter point is especially important when we consider Ricouer’s conflation of time and narrative.) Nicolaisen’s observation is part of his larger turn towards narrative studies in order to understand more precisely how people imagine the places in which they live. As he looked more closely at folktales in particular, with his careful eye for linguistic detail, he realized that “within the outer frame of timelessness, we have an inner frame of sequentially structured time that relies on the day as its basic unit of reference” (417).

Without being familiar with contemporary work in narratology, Nicolaisen constructed a framework for distinguishing between the discourse of a folktale, the actual words used, and the story that the discourse conveys, the events depicted. Focused on matters of time, he noted that there axes at play are narrated time and narration time. Perhaps just as importantly, he observed that rarely are the two times congruous, except when it comes to speech: a match between narrated time and narration time is “most likely to occur in the rendering of dialogue embedded in the story since the storyteller probably takes about as much time narrating it as the characters involved would have taken speaking it” (419-420). In almost all other cases, we will encounter a kind of narrative compression, in which “the time taken to narrate actions [is] much shorter than the actions narrated” (420).2 While certain literary texts may play upon this convention, the convention in oral discourse is fairly well established, and it is a rare text that breaks with our understanding that “the total amount of narration time required to tell a story … is bound to be almost always dis­proportionately shorter than the total time recounted in a story” (420).

With the inclusion of recounted time Nicolaisen introduced a third dimension of time that must be managed in discourse: “the total time encompassed by a story, and this recounted time consists of both narrated and non-narrated por­tions [and] is therefore the sum total of narrated and non-narrated time” (421). To illustrate the relationship, Nicolaisen compares narrated time to recounted time in the first ten texts of Stith Thompson’s One Hundred Favorite Folk­ Tales. (See Figure 1.) His summation of John the Bear (AT 301), the third tale in Thompson, reveals his scheme: “In contrast to a total recounted time of about 16 years, only portions of 19 days are narrated with greatly varying density and detail” (422). That is, the narrated time is the time of those events that are actively, or actually, described in the discourse of the narration. Recounted time includes elapsed time, or compressed time. In some cases this time is specified, but in many cases it is not. Consider for example the unspecified time between two events in Grimms 149, “The Rooster Beam”:

There was once a magician who was standing in the midst of a great crowd of people performing his wonders. He had a rooster brought in, which lifted a heavy beam and carried it as if it were as light as a feather. But a girl was present who had just found a four-leaf clover, and had thus become so wise that she could see through every deception, and she saw that the beam was nothing but a straw. So she called out, “You people, do you not see that it is a straw that the rooster is carrying, and not a beam?” The magic vanished immediately, and the people saw what it was, and drove the sorcerer away in shame and disgrace. He, however, full of inward anger, said, “I will avenge myself.” Some time later the girl’s wedding day arrived. She was all decked out, and went in a great procession across a field to the place where the church was. Suddenly they came to a swollen brook, and there was neither a bridge nor a walkway to cross it. So the bride nimbly lifted up her clothes, and was about to wade through it. She had just stepped into the water when a man near her, and it was the magician, called out mockingly “Aha! What kind of eyes do you have that think they see water?” Then her eyes were opened, and she saw that she was standing with her clothes lifted up in the middle of a field that was blue with flax blossoms. Then all the people saw it too, and they chased her away with ridicule and laughter.

The narrative proceeds through the conjunction of two events separated by an indeterminate, and thus also unimportant to the point of the story, amount of time. All we know is that the wizard has awaited his opportunity to get even. It begins with the kind of frame we expect of folk takes, “there was once”, and having dropped us into that particular temporality, proceeds, as Nicolaisen concluded, in ordinary time. The event concludes with the wizard’s vow, and then with a simple “some time later” we are once again in ordinary time.

But the indeterminacy of time is not necessarily a defining feature of folktales, and it might serve us better to think of it as exaggeration of a more normal discursive move that tellers make in order to move to the focus of a narrative. Across a wide range of oral historical accounts, mostly in the form of anecdotes, but also in a form discussed later, it is quite common foe there to be an initial orientation that then leads to a narrative sequence. The following anecdote is from the Midwest and tells about a particular incident in the life of the teller:

And Joe Natalie was a true old world Italian
And he talked Italian
English, you know, but broken English
And a lot of the kids would go over there and steal an apple or a banana or something, you know, when he wasn’t looking
And I never did think to steal. If I stole something and my grandparents found out, I mean, my butt was … gone
They’d beat me until I couldn’t sit down
So anyway, I was over there looking at bananas and this man came up and grabbed me by the arm
And he said he said you’re the kid who stole the apple
I said I what?
He said you stole an apple. I said I never stole no such thing. He said no last Saturday
I said I have never stole anything in my life
I said if you go ask that man that works over there I usually come up and buy an apple or an orange or something—you’d get a banana for like three cents, an orange for two cents or something

From the opening introduction of a particular historical individual up until the moment the narrator repeats the fact that punishment would certainly follow any wrong-doing on his part, there is no particular series of clauses that are held together by the kind of temporal juncture which Labov and Waletzky define as crucial to a narrative sequence. The phrase “so anyway” acts, and indeed sounds like, “so one day” which is a familiar phrase to anyone who has done fieldwork as a segue into a story. (“So anyway” is familiar as well, but that’s for another time.)

In their pioneering work attending to the strings of clauses that make up any text, Labov and Waletzky distinguish between those clauses that establish the situation, or the current state, as the orientation, and, by and large, they are typically free clauses, clauses that are free to move earlier or later in a sequence of clauses without changing the meaning of the overall sequence. For those familiar with discourse analysis, this is very different from narrative clauses which, by definition within the scope of the kind of simple, mono-episodic personal experience narrative texts which Labov and Waletzky examined, are received as having a one-to-one correspondence with the events they represent. That is, if Action 1 was followed by Action 2 in the representation, then the clauses representing each action occur in the same order in the narration, Clause 1 and Clause 2. While this schema rules out more complicated forms of narration, it covers a surprising range of texts very well.

What the schema leaves out, however, is a rather wide range of materials that are largely under-attended by folklorists, anthropologists, and linguists: those forms of vernacular discourse which seem, from the discourse analysis perspective, to be made up entirely of orientation with no complication. Take for example this attempt to locate an individual mentioned in passing:

You remember Golden’s Market? Let’s say this is the block this is Second Street, this Rogers, this Maple. Well, Golden Market was on this corner and EJ’s bakery was in there, and halfway … there’s a pharmacy in there now, called Value Plus or I don’t know now. But right in there was where that little old lady, in her house, had this little clothing store.

There is literally no narrative in the text. It is all locative, and, if we are honest, a surprising amount of vernacular discourse, even talk about the past, is not, as Ricouer insists, in narrative but in forms better described as locative, expository, or even simply descriptive. (My sense is that place name researchers are very familiar with this.)

In another text that demonstrates how much of talk about the past can be dominated by other modes of discourse, a speaker is in the middle of discussing the many kinds of jobs he has held over the years and is drawn to expand on a particular one:

He was in the excavating business,
so he called me to come up and showed me the job.
And we dug house basements.
And that was when they were remodeling a lot filling stations,
making them super service and that sort of thing,
so I said, yeah, I’ll take it.
So I worked there about two years and a half.
And then we came back to Bloomington.

I would argue that this is rather typical of the many hours of speaking about the past I have recorded in Indiana and in Louisiana. There is narrative, but it is often seemingly limited to sticking together bits of exposition. In the text above, the narrative is really a function of a kind of constructed dialogue: “he called … so I said yeah” which is a fairly widespread narrative trope. If we return to Nicolaisen’s notion of recounted time versus narrative time, we will find that the recounted time is a bit fuzzy, probably something on the order of a little over the time specified in the story itself, which is, according to the second to last clause, two and a half years.

But how are we to understand the narrated time within this text? If we take the dialogue as our narrative kernel or, as Labov and Waletzky would describe it as the narrative N, then how do the other clauses affect our understanding of N? One of the things that becomes quite clear is that those portions of the text that are narrative in nature are, as Nicolaisen observed, within the scope of a day. In the case of the constructed dialogue, the duration is mere seconds. These sharp clear actions are counterposed by long periods of habitual action, which perhaps mimics how the teller himself felt about that period in his life. It’s not entirely clear if recounted time is dimension worth discussing: it would appear that the story specifies that time and leaves it at that. (The same goes for the period of time involved, which would appear to be a kind of general, personal past: that is, “some years ago.”)

One response to these texts might be that they aren’t very good stories to begin with, which seems an odd evaluative perspective for a discipline that attempts to the social science fringe of the humanities. And yet, I would argue, accounts of personal experience are just full of exactly this kind of discourse. In Listening for a Life, Patricia Sawin provides the following account from Bessie Eldreth of her final encounter with a possible revenant. For a long time, she told Sawin, after her husband died there were lights that would flash in her bedroom:

And, uh, it was
For a long time it would kindly
It’d dash me, you know.
But I got till I, when I’d turn off the light I’d close my eyes real tight.
But now, honestly, that light would go down in under the cover with me.
It did.
That light’d
When I’d turn that cover down and after the light was turned off,
That light’d go down under that cover as pretty as I ever saw a light in my life.
And, uh, I had a quilt on my bed that I thought might be the cause of it,
That … that was on his bed when
Before he died.
And I rolled that quilt up and sent it to the dump.
Because I felt like that made that’s the reason.
But I still saw the light.
It didn’t make
It didn’t change a thing.
But the light … for a long time, well for two of three years or longer … probably than that, light would flash up.
But I’ve not seen it now in a good while. (126-127)

If there is a narrative kernel in this text, it is in the two clauses: “I had a quilt on my bed that I thought might be the cause of it … And I rolled that quilt up and sent it to the dump.”

Another example of an encounter with the supernatural, a memorate, this time from my own fieldwork:

One day me and my daddy
My daddy was sick
His stomach kept hurting him, hurting him
Every night he would lay in the bed cramped up so bad
Said there was a big old knot in his stomach
He said he just couldn’t take it
We had to sit on his legs to stretch him out
Stretch his arms out so that cramp would leave his stomach
So mama said one day …
We had an old seventy-one Ford pickup truck
With a purple hood
So one day mama said —
My daddy’s name was Taise —
She said Taise we going to bring you to the treater
I was kind of small
So they brought me with them
And the only thing I can remember, man, is my daddy going in the house with this old lady
And I was still in the truck
Because they wouldn’t let me go in the house
So when he come outside
He throwed up snakes
Out of his stomach
Out of his mouth
I mean six seven eight nine ten
Throwed them up
And when we left from there,
Daddy was fine
Never caught a cramp again.

More than previous examples, the structure of this text is quite clear, with an extensive orientation focused on an ongoing state and then a complication that stutters to begin with two instances of “one day” a bit of constructed dialogue and a digression to remind the audience that the narrator was a child during the time of the narrative. With all that work done, the text transitions into a clear sequence of narrative clauses which actually begin with “And the only thing I remember….”


With little to no time left, I want to point out that, first, clearly Ricoeur was wrong and Nicolaisen was right, but both worked over thirty years ago and we haven’t caught up to the argument they never had. One of the things the emergence of performance studies promised, was a closer look at the texts themselves as manifestations of their context and as manifestations of the intersection between culture and personality. Work by Sawin, by Capps and Ochs, by Shuman, and by Cashman have taken us a certain way down the path but I would argue that it’s time, no pun intended, to roll up our sleeves and “get all linguistic” on texts.

With this small collection of examples, we can first address the fact that while narrative is not the only way that humans account for their temporality. Indeed, even within those texts where it might be considered the structuring modality, it is not necessarily the dominant modality in terms of proportions.


Bascom, William. 1965. The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78(307): 3–20.
Labov, William and Joshua Waletzky. 1967. Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience. In Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts, 12–44. Ed. June Helm. Seattle: American Ethnological Society.
Laudun, John. 2001. Talk About the Past in a Midwestern Town: “It Was There At That Time.” Midwestern Folklore 27 (2): 41–54.
Müller, Günther. 1968. Morphologische Poetik: Gesammelte Aufsätze. Ed. Elena Müller. Tubingen: Niemeyer.
Nicolaisen, William. 1982. The Structure of Narrated Time in the Folktale. Journées d’Études en Littérature Orale: Analyse des contes, problèmes de méthodes 417–36.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1984. Time and Narrative 1. University of Chicago Press.
Sawin, Patricia. 2004. Listening for a Life: A Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth Through Her Songs and Stories. Utah State University Press.


  1. Later in the essay, Nicolaisen himself articulated his own version of this idea of folk narratives negotiating two, or more, time streams: “Narrative time, or more precisely folk-narrative time, is consequently, once it has been appropriately and understand­ ably signaled, “other” time, time outside the chronological frame­ work which we usually impose on the past to make it accessible and recallable; it is not in this sense true timelessness, non-time or time standing still, but an attractively convenient suspension of historical time” (418). 
  2. Nicolaisen seems to have developed his ideas solely based on the work of Günther Müller, who appears to have focused on the idea of narrative tempo (Müller 1968). While Nicolaisen references Propp elsewhere, he does not explicitly do so in this essay.