On the Creation of a Documentary Record

Because someone asked to see it, below is the prompt and my response to the question of data security on our local IRB form.

First, here is the prompt:

> g. Describe your procedures and safeguards for insuring confidentiality or anonymity of the research subjects. (See Guidelines, pgs. 5 and 6) Include how data will be secured, reported, and when identifiable raw data will be destroyed.

And then my response:

> There is no confidentiality or anonymity given to research subjects: those not willing to be a part of the research project are not included. Individuals are made fully aware that the research is intended to lead to a book —they are, in fact, promised a copy of the book. (And they are often shown drafts of sections and/or chapters.)

> Digital data is secured by being downloaded from the relevant media onto a computer secured in the researcher’s office as well as backed up to a drive kept in a separate, and secure, location. The goal here is to avoid destruction of data, not guarantee it. No data is secured without the knowledge and consent of the participating individuals. In some cases, especially in the case of photographs and some audio recordings, participating individuals ask for, and receive, copies that they are in turn free to share with others. This mutual creation of a documentary record is an important part of the ethnographic process as practiced by folklorists.

> Informed consent is given orally, and is usually present in an audio recording at the beginning of a recording, but the value of informed consent relies, in folkloristic ethnographic research, in the relationship between the researcher and the individuals involved. Written, legal-like, documents are perhaps significant in one-off research programs in which the researcher never returns to the community, but the goal of folkloristic research in general, and in this project in particular, is to support the local community.

> As the American Folklore Society notes in its Position Statement on Research With Human Subjects: “Folklorists inform their consultants about the aims and methods of research. The nature of the relationships that folklorists build with their consultants, however, is such that a written, signed, legally effective document would be inimical to the relationship upon which folklore research is based. Folklorists cannot go as guests into people’s homes, build trust and friendships, and then present a legal document for signature.” (See http://www.afsnet.org/?page=HumanSubjects for the complete statement.)

It’s not the best possible response or methodology, but it’s the beginning of something that I think is appropriately framed.


[Why does one language succeed and another one fail?][1] To answer questions like this, Leo Meyerovich and Ari Rabkin are examining sociological aspects of programming language theory: what they call *socio-PLT*.

[1]: http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/~lmeyerov/projects/socioplt/viz/index.html

[The opportunities afforded by the American Research Institute in Turkey](http://www.afsnet.org/networking/opening.asp?id=124331) look very interesting. Perhaps my next project will look there, to the relationship between agriculture and culture in a non-U.S. setting.

Morrill Act

This will perhaps interest no one other than me, but there are two acts of Congress that play a role in my current research: the one which established vocational, especially vocational agriculture, programs in high schools and the Morrill Act, which established land grant universities, and later cooperative extensions.

Syntax Highlighting in Word

I am working on my paper for the computational folkloristics panel at AFS this year. My goal is to apply some of the network theory and visualization methods I learned at the NEH Institute on Networks and Networking in the Humanities do the intellectual history of folklore studies. I thought an interesting phenemonenon to tackle would be the emergence of performance studies as a paradigm. That is, what does a paradigm shift look like from the point of view of a network? What did it look like in folklore studies?

To do this work I am interacting with JSTOR’s *Data for Research* program, and I am trying to keep notes as I go. Because this will eventually be something I want to share with others, I am keeping my notes in Word — if only because I can control the presentation much more readily. For the XML with which I am working to be more readable, it could use some syntax highlighting, a feature I count on in my text editor, Textmate, but which is not available in Word … unless, of course, you happen upon on-line sites which will do the work for you.

One such site is [ToHTML](http://tohtml.com/). [PlanetB](http://www.planetb.ca/2008/11/syntax-highlight-code-in-word-documents/) will also do some syntax highlighting.

Computers and Robots of Old

In the process of wondering in a recent issue of [Asimov’s][1] about what kinds of litigation robots will spawn in the near future, Robert Silverberg provides a terrific, [brief history of fictional robots][2], from Gelula’s “Automaton” of 1931 to AT&T’s Zippy. I began looking around for more histories of robots, and of computers, too, and came across two great lists:

* Joshua Glenn’s [The Coolest Robots of Pre-Golden Age SF](http://io9.com/5126907/the-coolest-robots-of-pre+golden-age-sf), and
* Bruce Franklin’s [Computers in Fiction](http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf/compulit.htm).

I know that Willard McCarty has begun a history of computers and computing in more serious forms of discourse, but his survey may have already encompassed these examples. If not, then there is something to be done here.

[1]: http://www.asimovs.com/
[2]: http://www.asimovs.com/2010_09/ref.shtml

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

Analyzing Video Game Sequels

[Arthur Kabrick’s post at GamrFeed](http://gamrfeed.vgchartz.com/story/83289/how-to-make-a-good-sequel/) is an interesting exercise in data mining. I think it would be interesting to take his idea further and analyze the prose of the reviews as well.

One Next Book: Coding Creativity

As I begin seriously to write _The Makers of Things_, I am already thinking about where I am next headed. Part of me is interested in trying to think about the nature of creativity in the Cajun-Creole music scene; another part of me is interested in attempting something like an ethnography of a coding project. Towards that end, I am starting to keep a list of books I’d like to read:

* Frederick Brooks, _The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering_ (Addison-Wesly 1995).
* Paul Graham, _Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age_ (O’Reilly, 2004).
* Andy Hunt, _The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master_ (Pragmatic Programmers).
* Scott Rosenberg, _Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software_ (Three Rivers Press, 2008).
* Peter Seibel’s _Coders at Work_ (Apress, 2009).
* And of course Joel Spolsky’s books.

Boats That Go on Land and Water

*If you are coming here from another site, welcome! This page has news and information on my current research project — boats that go on land and water and the men who make them. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach me through any of the means listed on the [contact page](http://johnlaudun.org/contact/).*

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 water, too little land. Two years later: National Geographic, a fairly sensitive observer on such matters as people and land, had this to say about New Orleans:

> 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*. (emphases in the original)

The editors of _National Geographic_ seem to be suggesting that Louisiana’s choices are barren landscapes beautiful but devoid of people or landscape full of poor people and thus not worth very much or a landscape which is in fact not land at all.

As a native of Louisiana, I knew my understanding of the world was fundamentally at odds with the way others were describing the world in which I, and others, lived and worked, but how to go about explaining our world to them? Where they see confusion, we see mutability, the opportunity to change one thing into another.

This transformative character of the landscape, and what we do with it and on it, seemed to me central to understanding how people in Louisiana imagine their world. But how to communicate it? As a folklorist, I had access to archives of folktales and folksongs, and they were rich sources of information, but they did not really address the *transformative* nature of the work people in Louisiana do when it comes to working, and imagining, the land.

I remembered a folktale recovered by folklorist George Reinecke and printed in the _Louisiana Folklore Miscellany_ in 1994. The story, which has European origins, appeared in the French-language paper of St. John parish in 1878 under the heading “Contes Negres.” It was printed in its native Creole and it told of a boat that could go on land and sea.

The answer was right in front of me, and it was such an obvious thing of imagination that I almost fell over them, or into them, as it turned out: *boats*. Boats that go on land and water.

Such a boat is surely the stuff of tall tales, folk tales, fairy tales, and yet it exists. It is the product of a limited number of individuals participating in a loose network of ideas, all of which exist within the confines of the very landscape that outsiders perceive as being “in harm’s way.” It is an inspired response to that landscape, and as such it begs for us to understand it as a creative response to a particular context.

Boats that go on land and water are everywhere in south Louisiana, and they are all made right here. While the pirogue is often cited as the first boat that could glide on the dew, there are two modern incarnations of that same idea and not only did they originate in south Louisiana but they originated at around the same moment in time: the shallow water, or surface drive, engine (and boat) and the crawfish boat.

My mission is to chronicle the history of these craft, highlight their makers/inventors, and document the boats and their use as much as possible.

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.

Interview Tips

Collected below are a series of notes and/or prompts to asking better questions while doing documentary/ethnographic research. It assumes the interviewer has at least a notepad in hand as basic recording technology.

An interview is not a dialogue. The whole point of the interview is to get the narrator to tell her story. Limit your own remarks to a few pleasantries to break the ice, then brief questions to guide her along. It is not necessary to give her the details of your great-grandmother’s life growing up in Abbeville in order to get her to tell you about her grandfather’s trip to Texas. Just say, “I understand your grandfather went to Texas during the oil boom. What did he tell you about his time there?”

Ask questions that require more of an answer than “yes” or “no.” Start with “why,” “how,” “where,” “what kind of. . .” instead of “Was Henry Miller a good boss?” ask “What did the drilling crew say about Henry Miller?”

Ask one question at a time. Sometimes interviewers ask a series of questions all at once. Probably the narrator will answer only the first or last one. You will catch this kind of questioning when you listen through the tape after the session, and you can avoid it the next time.

Ask brief questions. We all know the irrepressible speech-maker who, when questions are called for at the end of a lecture, gets up and asks five- minute questions. It is unlikely that the narrator is so dull that it takes more than a sentence or two for her to understand the question.

Start with questions that are not controversial; save the delicate questions, if there are any, until you have become better acquainted. A good place to begin is with the narrator’s youth and background.

Don’t let periods of silence fluster you. Give your narrator a chance to think of what she wants to add before you hustle her along with the next question. Relax, write a few words on your notepad. The sure sign of a beginning interviewer is a tape where every brief pause signals the next question

Don’t worry if your questions are not as beautifully phrased as you would like them to be for posterity. A few fumbled questions will help put your narrator at ease as she realizes that you are not perfect and she need not worry if she isn’t either. It is not necessary to practice fumbling a few questions; most of us are nervous enough to do that naturally.

Don’t interrupt a good story because you have thought of a question, or because your narrator is straying from the planned outline. If the information is pertinent, let her go on, but jot down your questions on your notepad so you will remember to ask it later.

If your narrator does stray into subjects that are not pertinent (the most common problems are to follow some family member’s children or to get into a series of family medical problems), try to pull her back as quickly as possible. “Before we move on, I’d like to find out how the closing of the mine in 1935 affected your family’s finances. Do you remember that?”

It is often hard for a narrator to describe people. An easy way to begin is to ask her to describe the person’s appearance. From there, the narrator is more likely to move into character description.

Try to establish at every important point in the story where the narrator was or what her role was in this event, in order to indicate how much is eye-witness information and how much based on reports of others. “Where were you at the time of the mine disaster?” “Did you talk to any of the survivors later?” Work around these questions carefully, so that you will not appear to be doubting the accuracy of the narrator’s account.

Do not challenge accounts you think might be inaccurate. Instead, try to develop as much information as possible that can be used by later researchers in establishing what probably happened. Your narrator may be telling you quite accurately what she saw. As Walter Lord explained when describing his interviews with survivors of the Titanic, “Every lady I interviewed had left the sinking ship in the last lifeboat. As I later found out from studying the placement of the lifeboats, no group of lifeboats was in view of another and each lady probably was in the last lifeboat she could see leaving the ship.”

Try to avoid “off the record” information–the times when your narrator asks you to turn off the recorder while she tells you a good story. Ask her to let you record the whole things and promise that you will erase that portion if she asks you to after further consideration. You may have to erase it later, or she may not tell you the story at all, but once you allow “off the record” stories, she may continue with more and more, and you will end up with almost no recorded interview at all. “Off the record” information is only useful if you yourself are researching a subject and this is the only way you can get the information. It has no value if your purpose is to collect information for later use by other researchers.

Don’t switch the recorder off and on. It is much better to waste a little tape on irrelevant material than to call attention to the tape recorder by a constant on-off operation. Of course you can turn off the recorder if the telephone rings or if someone interrupts your session.

Interviews, for beginning interviewers, usually work out better if there is no one present except the narrator and the interviewer. Sometimes two or more narrators can be successfully recorded, but usually each one of them would have been better alone.

End the interview at a reasonable time. An hour and a half is probably the maximum. First, you must protect your narrator against over-fatigue; second, you will be tired even if she isn’t. Some narrators tell you very frankly if they are tired, or their spouses will. Otherwise, you must plead fatigue, another appointment, or no more tape.

Don’t use the interview to show off your knowledge, vocabulary, charm, or other abilities. Good interviewers do not shine; only their interviews do.

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.