Disciplinary Territory and Popular Audiences

I’ve been a pretty vocal advocate for works geared toward popular audiences. (I even wrote a journal article on the topic.) I think it bears repeating that people without PhDs or research grants or university teaching positions can still be interested in things. Academic training and expertise are important, but I think we get so caught up in the endless battle to justify our existence that we forget that although John Doe here might not have the same credentials, he still has a functioning brain which produces valuable ideas. Even if old Johnny disagrees with us, that in and of itself is important.

This line of thought was prompted by a Twitter exchange earlier tonight (on my blog account) involving several established folklorists, the host of the well-known Lore podcast, and myself. Someone had Tweeted a blurb about an article from 2015 in which Lore’s host, Aaron Mahnke, was quoted as saying that urban legends are not folklore. I don’t particularly care about genre definitions, but I do work with the things popularly called urban legends, and I must admit, it bothered me a bit having someone outside the discipline proclaim that something I studied as a folklorist was not folklore.

But I weighed in on the thread with an eye to advocating for popular engagement. I repeated my old argument that if we didn’t like something popular folklore productions said or did, we needed to step into the popular arena to make our case. I also praised Mahnke for making one particular sliver of folklore available and accessible to popular audiences. Then I noted that urban legends are, in fact, folklore, and suggested that Mahnke and I should talk about this. (I’m not above a shameless plug now and then.)

Mahnke actually responded, and to his credit, he acknowledged his mistake and noted that he’d learned a lot about the study of folklore since that interview took place. So, great, no harm, no foul.

But this all speaks to a problem which I imagine all scholars face to some extent, but which seems especially prevalent in folklore: our work simply isn’t seen outside of academia. While I would never deny that scholarship is valuable for its own sake or suggest that things like book sales should motivate scholarly decisions, there is a practical consideration to be made here too: we need jobs. We need to be able to demonstrate to others that what we do matters. We need to justify our student loans and the years sunk into finishing our dissertations. And, yes, we need to prove that we actually are the experts we claim to be.

We rarely think about this, despite Dorry Noyes’ now-classic, clarion call to recognize–and accept–the “Scarlet F.” We write books aimed at other folklorists. We present our work at conferences attended by other folklorists. We nod and smile and thump each other on the back, and then we get upset when popular audiences equate folklore with scary stories you can download on iTunes. But they’re not wrong. Those things absolutely can be studied from a folkloristic perspective, and many of my friends and colleagues–and I myself–actually do study those things. If we want people to know about the other, non-spooky things we study, it’s on us to get that information out there.

Of course we also study a lot of things that fall more conventionally under the umbrella of cultural and/or linguistic anthropology. (Undoubtedly some folklorists will balk at this, but it’s nevertheless true.) Like our colleagues in anthropology, we also do ethnography, the situated, real-life study of cultures as they are lived; but this often isn’t recognized beyond the walls of our individual departments. In common parlance, “folklore” means “old stories.” If we want to change this, we need to step into the public/popular arena and actually explain why we want to change it, and why people should care.

Recently a number of my colleagues in the discipline have made important steps toward engaging with popular audiences, and that’s encouraging. TEDX talks, introductory textbooks, and active social media use are all good things to do, and I hope people will continue doing them. But I think we need to consider creating longer-form work that answers to what popular audiences are interested in, too.

Digital humanists have been arguing something similar for ages. DH is centrally concerned with moving beyond ordinary print publication, and in that I think they’re really onto something. By no means am I suggesting we abandon books (and neither are DHers). What I’m suggesting is that we might consider writing more books (and blog posts, and TV episodes) that appeal to people besides other scholars. It’s a big ask, with the tenure and promotion system being what it is, and time and resources being so limited; but everything is connected. If folklore were to become a popular field beyond the handful of places where it’s currently offered, there might be more opportunities for folklorists to find gainful employment, to engage in serious scholarship without having to constantly justify it.

Folklore as a discipline has a lot to offer the study of contemporary culture. By embracing platforms with popular appeal, we can better illustrate this. While popular podcasts and TV shows may not get everything right, by our standards, their creators are not wrong to think that their content matters to people. On that level, they can teach us a great a deal.