Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

_PLoS Medicine_ has a fascinating article by John P. A. Ioannidis that argues that in an era where all research must establish, almost *a priori*, its “significance,” that we in fact have ended up with research that is insignificant. The problem, as I understand it from my reading, is that too many scientists — and the window onto the scholarly world is open here, I think — are required to be productive in ways that bureaucracies can “measure.” Thus, the race is on *toward* smaller studies that are easily commoditized into publications and *away* from larger studies which either require years to produce results or have too many collaborators for credit to be pieced out in ways that institutions like.

> There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. The probability that a research claim is true may depend on study power and bias, the number of other studies on the same question, and, importantly, the ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed in each scientific field. In this framework, a research finding is less likely to be true when the studies conducted in a field are smaller; when effect sizes are smaller; when there is a greater number and lesser preselection of tested relationships; where there is greater flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes; when there is greater financial and other interest and prejudice; and when more teams are involved in a scientific field in chase of statistical significance. Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias. In this essay, I discuss the implications of these problems for the conduct and interpretation of research.

Here’s the official citation:

Ioannidis JPA (2005) Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Med 2(8): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

Self-Promotion and Academics

It’s interesting to me how one of the facets of the weborati’s “follow your passion and the money/people will follow you” is self-promotion. In some sense, other people have to be there to get you. I get that. And some academics are really good at self-promotion. (Most intellectuals I know really aren’t. Where the line is between academics and intellectuals is something I leave for another time.) Anyway, the times being what they are, as Rosencrantz and Gildenstern say, I have been thinking about the role of self-promotion in professional careers that happen to take place within the framework of the academy.

Virtual Vermilionville

This fall the director of our premiere cultural heritage site, Vermilionville, came to me with an interest in upgrading their inventory systems. As we sketched out various possible uses of such a database, from rich inventory management (by location, by type) to ticketing and tracking of work orders related to inventory, we began to realize that the rich documentation required of such an infrastructure could be used for an entirely different purpose: to create a virtual Vermilionville that would not only allow visitors to view the facility from afar — thus allowing one of the site’s principal users, area teachers, to perform previews and follow-ups with students — but also allow the facility to expand beyond its current scope, since it would be unbounded by its physical constraints: you can only do so much with so many acres containing only so many houses with so many objects. Curation and interpretation are not so limited on-line, where houses can, in a sense, be returned to their original place and curation be addressed by multiple layers with multiple access points. E.g., a classic Cajun house can be returned to its original location, virtually, with its bayou orientation and all its accompaniments no longer simply explained as context but now as full-fledged texts to be examined in and of themselves. Such a virtual facility expansion would also allow Vermilionville to address dimensions of history that it does not currently have room to house: the role of other ethnic groups in the construction of Cajun and Creole cultures, how the changing landscape has changed the social base for these cultures, what happened before as well as after the facility’s current focus on the late nineteenth century.

Our goal is to construct the best possible infrastructure that will allow Vermilionville to continue to “build out”. What we would like to offer up is a detailed description of the facility, its mission, our vision for this project, and our initial sketches of this information architecture in hopes of getting feedback on what we have missed and where we can contribute to the ongoing enterprise of finding the best possible mix of off-line/on-line curation. We hope that such an infrastructure will not only open the village up and out but also the data as well. E.g., We’d like to see Google Earth mashups and re-interpretations of artifacts in SketchUp as well as open up the facility so that visitors can layer their own stories onto the site — we want not only to reach a new generation but in doing so we want them to seek out the older generations and discover the latter’s stories and memories for themselves.

Narrative of Research and Teaching Interests

In a number of Western discourse conventions, narratives have beginnings, middles, and ends. More narrowly, we know that the least that can be said about a narrative is that one thing follows another, and the causality is often implied or inferred. And it does not hurt that we folklorists are fond of etiologies, both in terms of the object of our study or in how we came to study folklore.

To embark upon my own etiology would be tell a form of homesick narrative in which our protagonist travels from south Louisiana to central New York for graduate study and suffers a form of climactic-cultural shock wherein he discovers that snow actually occurs — and can occur from October until May — and that not everyone eats rice and seafood as the mainstays of their diet. Which is to say that, like many folklorists, I was studying folklore before I realized it and that my coming to folklore studies was simply a dawn awaiting the right moment to occur.

I left the South for the same reasons that many young Louisianians do: we worry about the future of a state perpetually at the bottom of most rankings and seemingly happy to wallow in such statistical mud. We find our opportunities for intellectual interchange limited and the desire to ignore the South’s “peculiar” legacy, racism in its many forms, just too hard to swallow. I give this bit of origin story for a particular reason: the necessity of grappling with the central tensions of Southern life are at the heart of my research and teaching interests. Like other parts of the nation and of the world, the complex layering of history and people that form Southern folk cultures in general and Louisiana folk cultures in particular can produce some of the most beautiful things and can also reveal human ugliness and cruelty in its worse forms.

Hewing strictly to one side of the story or the other tells neither very well. My current project, Gumbo This: The State of a Dish, focuses on the history and geography of gumbo in Louisiana in an attempt to demonstrate that the rise of recent heritage movements that have stressed either the Cajun or African ancestry of various folk forms in Louisiana ignore the much more interesting history of people sharing ideas and stories across race and class lines. I have organized the book to focus the reader’s attention on various dimensions of history and geography through the ethnographic lens of people living their lives.

This project is really the middle of the story. I began in folklore studies by first traveling to Cincinnati, Ohio in hopes of understanding how urban Appalachians composed themselves in such an urban landscape. If the stereotype of Appalachians was of “Hillbillies” playing banjos on the front porch of a cabin in so far away hollow, what would it mean for them to be living in nineteenth-century row houses pushed up against a six-lane interstate? What I discovered was a radically different use of interior and exterior spaces that meant that many suburban residents, who also formed the core of the city’s political structure, simply mistook urban Appalachian landscapes for dangerous borderlands. (See the essay that appeared in Southern Folklore.)

The conflict of worldviews was also what drove the topic of my dissertation, which set out to examine the folklore surrounding a renowned local event in southern Indiana, the “Quarryhole murders.” The central story involved a black man accidentally coming across a white couple who were, in fact, consummating an affair in an abandoned quarry. The white man apparently sought to kill the black man to keep him from telling and in the struggle was himself killed. The black man, panicking, killed the woman as well. He was eventually captured and tried, in a neighboring county, and sentenced. While the topic was fascinating, I felt that what was equally interesting was the nature of the materials I was collecting as I did my research: a lot of small stories, philosophies about the nature of human action, addresses to the historical record itself, as well as the more usual allusions and elisions. This resulted in the dissertation actually focusing on the nature of oral history itself, examining the propensity for folklorists, historians, and others to prize narratives over other forms of structuring discourse — in effect, it argues for something like oral exposition. (See the Midwestern Folklore for the essay that was one of the chapters of the dissertation.)

Since returning to Louisiana, I have focused my efforts on learning so much of what I never knew about the folk cultures in which I grew up or at least which I grew up next to. I have also spent a fair amount of time trying to begin to give back to the various communities, by volunteering to help directors and docents at various small facilities scattered across the Louisiana landscape to improve their programming as best they can. Along the way, I have worked with a small team of committed volunteers in Washington, Louisiana, to establish a cultural center; provided a typology for a collection of vernacular structures in Opelousas; and struggled alongside the staff of Vermilionville, a local living history museum, to improve the visitor’s experience.

The kind of one-on-one conversation is also the kind of teaching I like best, and I have slowly begun to transform my pedagogy from one focused on lectures to one based on student exploration, not an easy task when you meet twice a week for a little over an hour and yours is one class among four to six a student may be taking.

My teaching interests range from disquieting students in my Louisiana folklore class in what they think is going to be a comforting story about home to giving them a version of home that is truly compelling; from outlining to graduate students our discipline’s rich, and very complex, intellectual history to asking them to think about the tropes we use in our own discourse as folklorists and what impact that has on how we imagine what it is we do. Perhaps one way to sum it up is reflexivity, but I certainly hope that what I provide is not only that valuable ability but also a lot of interesting history and culture along the way.

My current teaching interests lie in trying to find ways to give students the same kinds of learning experiences that students in engineering or business have which require collaboration within the framework of friendly competition between groups. The humanities, I feel, has room both for the reflexive solitude of the research paper as well as the raucous company of the project with multiple dimensions and a deadline. I am still too prone to assign the former and remiss in not allowing the time, and the patience, for the latter. As I get a better handle on the nature of an archives and of a research center, I hope to include my students in more of those projects.

My goal in doing so as a teacher overlaps with my goals as a researcher. I understand that one of my tasks as a folklorist is to add to the archeological-historical record, to get into history people, events, and objects that may not otherwise make it into such accounts. By getting Lou Trahan’s development of a new Mardi Gras mask-making tradition into history, I am also hoping to transform, albeit slowly, the nature of history. As my teacher, and later friend, Henry Glassie is fond of pointing out: getting funky old buildings or cool new inventions like self-crawling crawfish boats into history, be it conventional history or art history, with the addition of an adjective like “folk” isn’t our goal. Remaking (art) history such that it includes those objects and the people who made them by definition is.

Being able to say that, redefining the way we think about the world, and being able to do that in a classroom are two different things, and I feel like I have just started to have enough knowledge, both in terms of pedagogy as well as in terms of content, to begin to do it.

I have enjoyed the opportunities presented to me at both the graduate programs I attended, Syracuse University and Indiana University, as well as here at UL–Lafayette to develop a pedagogy that works well for both me and my students. At Syracuse University, I was able to teach three out of the four courses in the four-year curriculum there. While I struggled at first to master the basic teaching methods, I was later able to team-teach with a more experienced instructor my first wholly student-centered class which focused on what was then the nascent desktop-publishing scene. As a Javits Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education, I missed some opportunities to teach at both Syracuse and Indiana, but when I returned to the classroom late in my studies at Indiana, I witnessed what a difference a brilliant lecturer could make in the course of a class. Assigned to be the lecturer’s teaching assistant, I was charged with helping students work out their own perspective on the texts we read in the Introduction to Black Literature course in light of the lectures.

It’s a kind of gentle rhythm, really. A dance. And I still manage to step on a lot of toes as I nudge my students, under the umbrella of folklore studies, to go out to see the world for themselves and then come back and report on what they have seen. I think fieldwork is one of the greatest gifts we give ourselves and our students. But it is only one gift, and sometimes representing a small piece of world can go seriously awry. In Louisiana, there is a long history of “seriously awry” representations, and I have found them an amazing stepping stone in getting students to think about the conventions, and the clichés, they use when writing about their experiences and their own responses. It only takes one viewing of _The Good Times Are Killing Me_ to get them fired up enough that they themselves vow not to make the same mistakes.

Whether I am out in the field or in my study, in the classroom, or in a meeting with a community group, I find that the clearest message I have to communicate is that folklore studies is the project of discovering how others think their way through the world. Along the way, we discern beauty and intelligence where we did not expect to find it — precisely because we have learned to see things through a different lens, from a different perspective, with a different set of ideas about how the world works. Theory, then, is important, because we all have one. How else could we make our way through the world, without a theory of how it works? That does not mean that you can walk up to someone and ask them for their theory. For most of us, if not all of us, on a day to day basis such a theory lies not at the surface of our attention but rather deep in our doing and our speaking. I take my job as a folklorist to be multi-dimensional in approaching this dynamic of what is done and what is said — since such performances, as we call them, are also at the heart of what is doable, what is sayable and thus have a clear potential impact on the future of any folk culture, including our own. As a researcher, I try to document performances in order to understand the minds at work in them. If I am successful in my documentation and in my analysis, I can communicate not only what I have learned but the process of learning in my teaching. I can, with a great deal of luck and a little bit of wisdom, take what I know about how such processes work in folk cultures and perhaps apply them to the realm of commerce and institutions, bending the frame of my discipline a bit in order to intervene, if only a very little, in the larger world which provides a context for what it is I and others like me do.

It seems to me that a good place to end such a narrative is with the bending of disciplinary frames, or, as the storytellers in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men might say: “I stepped on the frame and the frame bent. And that’s the way the story went.

My Schedule at the American Folklore Society Meeting

The final draft of the program for the 2009 meeting of the American Folklore Society came out last week and a quick search revealed here’s where I’m going to be:

* On Thursday from 1:30 – 3:30, I will be in the panel “Watery Places” to present my paper “The Ethics of Creativity on the Rice Prairies of Louisiana;
* On Friday from 1:30 – 3:30, I will be in the panel “The Future of Communication in Folklore III: New Media” with old friends Jason Jackson, Jon Kay, and Tom Mould; and, finally,
* Just after the previous session, I will be in the “Meet the Editors” panel with Harry Berger and Giovanna P. del Negro and the super-secret new editor(s) of the _Journal of American Folklore_.

Boats That Go on Land and Water (AFS 2007)

## Introduction

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there ranged a variety of debates and discourses around the nation about the wisdom of rebuilding in the areas struck by the 2005 storms. It makes no sense, many argued, to build a city, especially a modern American city, on land so, well, not land. The same argument has been made before about New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana: Too much risk. Too much water. Too little land.

On the second anniversary of the storms, National Geographic reporting on the current state of things in New Orleans led off with the following:

> The sinking city faces rising seas and stronger hurricanes, protected only by dwindling wetlands and flawed levees. Yet people are trickling back to the place they call home, rebuilding in harm’s way. (Bourne 33; emphases in the original)

Those five adjective-noun pairs — “sinking city,” “rising seas” — build to a kind of apocalyptic inevitability that underlines the absurdity — or, alternately, undermines the actuality — of living on, or in, an ambiguous landscape.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that the residents of Louisiana would come to imagine the relationship between land and water differently. New Orleans after all was established on a portage point between Bayouk Choupique, today Bayou St. John, and the Mississippi River. The city was founded, in other words, on land understood as a bridge between two waterways. Much of the state’s history is caught up in its need to negotiate on a recurring basis what parts are wet and what are dry.

During the colonial period, land grants, which were measured in lengths of river frontage, typically required land holders not only to build roads but also to build and maintain levees. The colonial authorities were right to worry about levees. The general consensus after Katrina is that the storm itself was not the disaster, the levees breaking is what changed everything for everyone. The Seventeenth Street Canal is now famous. Less well known is “Mister Go,” the common nickname for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), which was dug in 1965 by the Army Core of Engineers through the existing land bridge and barrier islands. MRGO is commonly believed to be the ruin of Saint Bernard Parish. It is also, it should be noted, but one of hundreds of canals, locks, damns, weirs, pumps, drains, and other structures and bodies managed by a wide array of local, super-local, state, and federal agencies.

Closer to home, the Vermilion River that passes through Lafayette actually began through a slow process of coastal erosion, making its way up through the marshes, until, reaching Lafayette, where later a wandering distributary of the Bayou Teche would make the Vermilion into a true, flowing river. The Teche — itself a product of a complex geological history — is now fed by the Bayou Courtableau.

Just a few miles north of Krotz Springs, sitting just a football field’s length from the Atchafalaya River, Ralph Castille and his crew of eight men keep watch on the depth of the Bayou Courtableau. The number 17.64 has an almost magical quality for them. 17.64 is the height above sea level of the bayou at a particular point in its course that it is their job to maintain. When the bayou is in flood stage, there are two massive weirs designed to bleed off the excess water, but when the bayou is low, it’s Castille’s job to crank up one to four 1500HP motors and begin pouring water into the Courtableau. The water backs the bayou up to Bayou Fusilier, which in turn floods into the Bayou Teche. The Teche feeds the Vermilion River via Bayou Fusilier north of Lafayette and via the Ruth Canal south of the city. Both outlets are sometimes necessary when farmers like Keith Luquette start pumping their fields either to flood for planting rice or for growing crawfish.

Luquette’s farm is one of hundreds that cover the Louisiana prairies, which, interestingly enough, were first imagined in terms of the sea. Standing on some of the small mounds on the edge of the prairie, stands of trees seemed like îles, or islands. Conversely, when a patch of prairie was surrounded by trees, it was dubbed an anse, or cove. Driving across the prairies today, one passes through places like Anse LeJeune, Anse Maigre, Point Blue, and Pointe Claire.

It is perhaps no wonder then that when Alan Lomax drove across these prairies in search of the country Mardi Gras he imagined that he was in the midsts, or mists, of marshes silvered with fog. In fact, Lomax was, as the sign for Louisiana 13 reveals as it rolls by, on the highway from Eunice to Mamou, driving through fields freshly flooded in preparation for planting rice.

How, then, to go about trying to understand such a mixed-up, mutable landscape as this? More importantly, how does one go about understanding what the residents of the landscape understand? The obvious answer is that we need to turn to the actions of those residents, the things they say and do, in order to begin to understand how it is they structure the raw material of their physical environment into something like a landscape.

The larger project examines a wider swathe of the archeological record, discussing, for example, the few recorded instances where the land and water ship appears in folktales, or, for example, the variety of legends that always place buried treasure at a tree which is almost always located adjacent to a lake or in a swamp. There are also a number of jokes and a few songs that give us glimpses into the minds of Cajuns and Creoles making their way through the watery world of Louisiana’s landscape.

I have included in the handout a version of AT513b that George Reinecke found printed in the pages of Le Meschacébé, a French language weekly of Saint John Parish. This version was printed in 1878 as the last of a series, all in Creole (unlike the rest of the paper), called “Contes Nègres.” Previous stories in the series were all African animal stories, much like those later published by Alcée Fortier and Joel Chandler Harris. This version of the tale, Reinecke observes, “combines the theme of the male Cinderella suitor for the princess’ hand with three others: the king’s insistence on an amphibious ship, the unexpected but deserved help from a disguised supernatural being, and the presence of skillful helpers, each with a special gift, who allow the suitor to comply with the king’s increasingly difficult demands” (20).

The audience handout is in English, but I have inserted the French form of “a boat that would go on both land and sea” in italics.


In reality, there are a number of boats that can perform the folkloric feat of going on la terre com on la mer. The oldest boat imagined to be capable of doing so if, of course, the pirogue, sometimes said to be a boat that can “glide on dew.” Wood pirogues are still being made in Louisiana, sometimes out of venerable cypress planks and sometimes out of plywood, but there are also pirogues made out of fiberglass and out of aluminum. Pirogues and other wooden water craft have been documented by Malcolm Comeaux and Ray Brassieur.

Pirogues are still used for some hunting and some fishing and of course by naturalists, but they are not the preferred craft when you need to cover a great deal of territory, when you need to move quickly, and/or when you need to carry a load. In those situations, most Louisiana residents turn to power boats. The classic bateau with an outboard motor is very popular in south Louisiana. (My family is no exception; we own three vehicles: a car, a truck, and a boat.) The bateau, or john boat as it is sometimes known, traverses water as shallow as a foot, if carefully handled, but nothing less. In those instances, however, it is still possible to use an air boat.

Air boats were invented soon after airplanes, it seems, with the first documented craft being built by Alexander Graham Bell in 1905. By the 1930s, home-made air boats were in use throughout Florida and Louisiana. Air boats solve the power-to-weight problem in one way, by having the propeller out of the water, but it took some time before engines became light enough that a sufficiently powerful but also sufficiently light enough engine could be coupled with a propeller in the water, transforming the mid-century “put-put” boat into the late-century mud boat.

The classic mud boat has the engine mounted amidships with a long shaft running above the hull and through the transom. The mud boats I grew up riding in usually used Volkswagen Beetle engines because they were both light and fairly uncomplicated, both factors being a dimension of their being air-cooled. The mud boat got its name for being able to power its way through water so shallow as to be effectively mud. The introduction of the Go Devil engine in the early 1980s, and the innovations brought about by the Provost brothers of Pro-Drive in the last decade, changed the nature of the mud boat considerably, shifting the balance of production from home-made craft to three regional manufacturers.

Both the air boat and the mud boat are part of the current project, but for now this brief history will have to suffice.

The third boat capable of going on la terre com on la mer is the modern crawfish boat. The particular form that I will be discussing today is known, to those who build it and those who use it, more simply as “the hydraulic boat.” As the demand for crawfish grew through the sixties and seventies, and as rice production alone became less economically sustainable, area rice farmers began to experiment with ways of mechanizing what was still largely a hand and foot operation. That is, crawfishing rice fields was still a matter of a farmer pulling or pushing a pirogue or bateau, and working the traps as he himself stood knee to hip deep in water. (Probably should explain the geology of rice fields here: 4 to 12 inches of top soil on top of a clay pan.)

I should note that the willingness to embrace new technology or to innovate within an extant technological domain is not new to the area or to the industry. As one observer has noted: “Louisiana rice farming gained prominence, and market share, in the post Civil War period precisely because it was mechanized. Where older rice-growing regions in South Carolina and Georgia sought to remain viable, their labor-intensive practices were difficult to continue when workers were no longer enslaved” (ESC: 44-45). I should also note that the shift to rice agriculture seems to have been largely precipitated by an influx of German immigrants from other parts of the U.S. as well as from Europe. They were mostly assimilated by their Cajun neighbors, but there are some interesting ethnic identity issues that deserve a fuller treatment than we have time for here.

Our experimenting farmers — with names like Zaunbrecher, Frugé, Heinen, Richard, LeJeune, and Frey — tried a a variety of engines, gearings, and forms of power delivery — shafts, belts, chains — in an effort to harness small engines, which operate best at high RPM, to the task of moving a boat slowly through the water. Farmers were modifying standard bateaus in various ways so that they would “crawl” through a rice field/crawfish pond. There seem to have been a number of attempts at various mechanical configurations, almost all of which are only recalled in terms of their “contraption”-like nature. The arrangement that seems to have eventuated out of all of this experimentation involved mounting a small Briggs and Stratton or Honda engine to a Montgomery Ward tiller transmission on the transom of a boat and then transferring the power, usually with a shaft, to a driving wheel — the cleated wheel seems to have been part of the overall configuration from close to the beginning of the craft’s history.

Part bateau, part paddle wheel, part processing plant, the modern crawfish boat is both amazing to behold as an object and a thing of grace when operated by an experienced crawfisherman. The boat’s engine drives a hydraulic pump that turns the great wheel, lifts the wheel boom, turns the boat left and right, and controls the boat’s speed. Sitting behind a tray with sorting holes leading to mesh bags, the crawfisherman dances a water-born, cyborg ballet. Man and machine arc in and out along the line of crawfish traps, with each trap in turn being pulled, dumped, sorted, and rebaited just in time to replace the next trap which is in turn pulled, dumped, sorted, and rebaited.

The dance travels along the line of traps until a section of field is completed. The boat then reveals its amphibian nature as the powerful propelling wheel pushes the craft up a field levee until it noses back down into the next section. When a field is complete, the crawfish boat crawls up onto land and motors its way down the road to the next field, rolling both on the back wheel and on wheels tucked into the front of the hull.


Credit for the invention of the hydraulic boat is usually given to Gerard Olinger of Robert’s Cove. Olinger defers credit to a local farmer who first had the idea of using hydraulics as the only form of power delivery that would survive being immersed in water. Olinger made his first boats in 1983, and they quickly became the standard by which all others were judged. Over the next five years, he was joined by a number of makers.

Kurt Venable in Rayne, Mike Richard in Richey, Dale Hughes in Welch, and Jimmy Abshire in Kaplan, along with Olinger, are the five major makers of the hydraulic boat. (There are a few other builders still building boats and a few others who have come and gone, but that’s for another time.)

Kurt Venable is central both in terms of his location and in terms of being the most prolific of the makers, assembling something on the order of 40 boats a year. Mike Richard makes about 20 boats a year. Dale Hughes about a dozen. Jimmy Abshire and Jared Olinger about a half dozen each.


Each maker has his own “style” of boat, but the basic form of the crawfish boat, since Olinger introduced the front wheels, is fairly well established: the hull has the typical scow bow, flat bottom, square stern, and moderately flared sides of the traditional Louisiana bateau. Indeed, as I have already noted, the first crawfish boats were simply modified versions of the boats most commonly used for inland fishing. However the four-foot wide hulls of the widely available commercial hulls had a tendency to swamp when the boat turned. An immediate adaptation was to raise the sides of the boat near the stern. [I should note that the boat builders and the farmers and operators who are their clients do not use nautical terminology when discussing these craft. There are no sterns, nor transoms, nor keels. There are backs and bottoms.] It was a short-lived modification. Having wearied of reinforcing the commercial hulls which did not hold up well to the weight and thrust of the wheeled drive unit, the boat builders had already begun to build their own hulls, which led to the current hull form which is based on a five-foot wide sheet of aluminum that flares out to the craft’s six foot width. (The overall length of the boat has held constant at fourteen to fifteen feet.)

At the front of the hull, usually about four feet back, are a pair of wheels — typically the kind used on small utility trailers. On a Venable boat, the wheels are set inside wells in the hull. Olinger places his wheels in a bay, giving the front of his boats a very car-like appearance. Hughes and Richard mount their wheels outside the hull with an axle connecting them running through the interior of the hull, with the axle also acting as a stiffener. Both Venable and Olinger prefer to place decks in their boats, with the supports for the deck stiffening the hull.

At the back of the hull sits the massive drive unit, an articulated steel arm that raises and lowers, swings left and right, and holds a cleated steel wheel two to three feet in diameter and usually about one foot wide. Like the hulls, almost every facet of the drive units are fabricated “in shop.” The boat builders buy the following stock items: • the forward wheels (as noted above) • the gasoline engine (usually a Honda or Kohler)1 the battery the two rams, or pistons the hydraulic system components (pump, motor, valves, and hoses — the reservoir, however, is handmade)

Everything else is hand-made through careful combining of pieces of stock aluminum and steel materials. In addition to being available in sheets of various thicknesses, widths, lengths, and finishes aluminum and steel are also available in lengths of various shapes — like angles, channels, and beams — and in lengths of various pipe/tubing configurations — described in terms of shape (round or rectangular), thickness, and hardness.

The two basic parts of the hydraulic crawfish boat are closely denoted by the metals of which they consist: aluminum hulls and steel drive units. Where the two meet is where power gets transfered. This means not only securing the drive unit to the rear, or transom, of the boat, but also making sure that, once secured to the back of the boat, it doesn’t literally rip the back of the boat as it pushes. Mike Richard uses two sets of braces, interestingly one aluminum and one steel, welded or bolted to bars welded to the bottom of the boat.

The steel platform stretched across the boat is where everything, except the battery, that has to do with powering and operating the boat, are housed: the engine and hydraulic pump, the oil reservoir, the valves, and the driver’s seat. Richard is, in fact, known for the openness of his design.


When I first began approaching the boatmakers to ask them about their work, I admit that one of my concerns was how much they would be willing to tell me about their work. My concern was based in part on my experiences with the builder who, it turns out, is most known for his curmudgeonly presentation of self. He was simply the first one I encountered. As I began to work with the other builders, however, I realized that my concern was ill-founded. While each man is fairly certain that he builds the best boat, they all have worked on other’s boats, repairing or modifying them as customers’ needs, wants, and understandings change. And, it turns out, the farmers who are their customers are not only a source of and feedback, as well as their own ideas (which are variously received by the boatmakers) but also a conduit for information about developments by other builders. (Farmers talk. A lot. E.g., Dale Olinger’s “Cove News Network.”)

Front wheels were first put on boats by Jerry Olinger in the early nineties. Olinger had the idea when he realized that the reason hulls were wearing out so fast because farmers were driving the boats from field to field. He placed the wheels so they wold not to interfere with levee crossings — the hull needs to slide over the dirt ridges — but to be useful for riding down the road.

Sometimes the solution to one problem actually solves another problem. One of the complaints about the rear wheels is that they create trenches in the fields — they can create one foot or more drops in the bottom of a field. This has largely seemed an intractable (pardon the pun) problem with various solutions proffered — Olinger has gone to two six-inch wide wheels set two feet apart. About three years ago, Kurt Venable began to weld steel bars onto the edges of his wheels’ cleats. The problem he was trying to solve was how quickly a piece of three-eighths inch thick piece of steels four inches long can get worn down to a nub, sometimes, depending upon the composition of a farmer’s soil, in a single season. It turns out, however, that the reinforced cleats ride a little better on field bottoms and dig a little less. This was, all the builders agree, an unexpected bonus.

The more academic question I am hoping to address in doing this research, apart from having an answer to the question posed by the National Geographic quotation at the start of this essay, is to understand the nature of creativity, especially understanding creativity not in terms of an individual but in terms of a system, a network of individuals. There seems to be a gap in current research into creativity between human science studies that focus on fields and domains and humanistic studies that focus on the exceptional individual. My hope is that this handful of boatmakers will allow me to understand how creativity can be both dispersed and focused within a field, such that all participants are both part of the system and exceptions to it. My hope, in short, is to build a boat … of a kind.

Louisiana Folk Masters

Below is the prospectus I originally wrote for Louisiana Folk Masters in 2003. It’s an interesting historical document, and I am surprised that in a few short years I had actually done two out of the three things listed here:

### Prospectus

Housed in the Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, the **Louisiana Folk Masters** series spotlights individuals from around the state who represent the very best of what Louisiana’s diverse folk cultures have to offer. While initially focused on the CD series, the project’s larger goal is a portfolio of offerings that will give a wide-range of audiences access to quality, humanities content through the rubric of getting to know particular practitioners of various traditions.

* The *Louisiana Folk Masters CD Series* draws from the extensive collections of the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore, which houses thousands of recordings, representing the collecting and preservation activities of several generations of folklorists, ethnomusicologists, linguists and other cultural resource management professionals. The oldest recordings contained in the collection are on wax cylinders and the newest were collected with the latest in high-quality digital recording techniques. Recordings are as intimate as a living room in Mamou to the stage of the American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.
* The *Louisiana Folk Masters in Profile Series* is a planned cooperative effort with the local press, the Daily Advertiser being the first, to feature individuals drawn from the community who are practitioners of folkways of either already established interest or deserving interest. Reporters will work with Research Associates from the Center who will act not only as field guides but appear as experts within the piece. (We would eventually like to extend this model to other media, such as television.)
* The *Louisiana Folk Masters Publication Series* encourages writers to extend the treatment individuals receive in the profile series. The medium for doing so are a series of books, each of which will be a compilation of individuals based either on region, tradition, or group. Such a publication series can, on a smaller level, be produced through the Center itself; larger projects will be handled by a press.

The Louisiana Folk Masters project reflects the Center’s vision that all of us necessarily create the future out of the past here in the present and that our best resource in guiding us to our creation of the future is each other. We encourage all inquiries.