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Michael Ann Williams

MICHAEL ANN WILLIAMS, Head, Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology, University Distinguished Professor, Western Kentucky University

PhD, University of Pennsylvania, Folklore and Folklife. I have taught at WKU for twenty-seven years, heading the department since we achieved departmental status in 2004. I have previous experience as a public folklorist, historic preservationist, and museum curator, and continue to be engaged in various forms of cultural resource work. I am the author of Homeplace, Great Smoky Mountain Folklife, and Staging Tradition.

When students first join the discipline they learn that folklore is not endangered or dying; it is emergent, capable of constant re-invention. We need to have the same faith in our profession. Folklore has faced numerous crises. However, our challenges are often part of larger problems—economic recession, attacks on funding for the arts, crises in higher education. As a discipline that celebrates human creativity and communication, we need to dig into our own creative and communicative skills, to reinvent ourselves and communicate our value.

Our profession needs thinkers and activists and critics. We also need program builders and advocates. Through a certain level of stubbornness and perhaps naïve optimism, I have fallen into the last category. For most of the past two decades, I have led the program at WKU, gaining departmental status and working tirelessly for recognition from our administrators and for financial support for our graduate students. Recognizing the need for mutual support, I have initiated discussions of collaborations with other universities and have successfully negotiated the transfer of an endangered public program to our department.

Folklore’s blessing and curse is its size. The small size of our programs (public or academic) makes us especially vulnerable when downsizing occurs. We are too small to dwell on our divisions. Individual program building is useless if we don’t stand together as folklorists. As AFS President, I would emphasize alliances between programs, both academic and public. However, the Society also needs to serve folklorists who do not work in folklore programs. The new membership survey indicates that a third of the respondents only sometimes identify themselves as folklorists and that folklore departments are no longer one of the top three departments of employment for academic folklorists. The most significant question challenging the Society is how can it help folklore maintain its identity as a profession and discipline, and at the same time serve a diverse membership who may or may not identify themselves individually as folklorists?

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American Folklore SocietySister Society: SIEF
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