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AFS Review: Essays

On Jay Mechling’s “You Can’t Teach Folklore”

Monday, October 8, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rob Vanscoyoc
by Bob Bethke (University of Delaware, retired) --

Editor’s note: The essay by Jay Mechling discussed in the essay below appeared as part of the proceedings of AFS Teagle Foundation Project "Lay and Expert Knowledge in a Complex Society.” The proceedings for the project are at Ohio State Universities Knowledge Bank. Please note that the URL for the Mechling essay is:

Teaching, for some persons,perhaps even many, is a calling, a mission that needs fulfillment. I was fortunate over the years to have some skilled teachers who quite obviously were among this group. I had other teachers, too, for whom teaching seemed more a requisite of employment. Quite a number of teachers,particularly ones in higher education, seem to me to comprise a middle group: some subject matter zeal, some enthusiasm in subject matter presentation, but unlikely to have ever read essays or books on teaching pedagogy, let alone write them. A professional folklorist who taught, I fell into the latter category. I continue to find the subject matter of folklore and folklife fascinating; I was drawn into the profession through the lure of the subject matter, not the lure of classroom teaching.Such is the context of my discovery of Jay Mechling's "You Can't Teach Folklore," which in early 2012 I found posted at the website of the American Folklore Society. Over the years I have held Jay's scholarship in Folklore and American Studies in high esteem, and I recalled reading remarks by him on curricular matters linking the related disciplines,so it was with considerable interest that I encountered his name identified with such a provocative essay title. Having read the essay, I soon got to work on a response to it, the call for which accompanied the AFS posting. I wrote the feedback in the spirit of a colloquium, and wondering if there are others who might share in some of the positioning. That said, I thank Jay for providing an opportunity to reflect on what I did for three decades.

Though it nearly lost me in some of the detail of theoretical grounding, Jay Mechling’s "You Can’t Teach Folklore” certainly accomplished one of its goals: thinking about what I was up to while regularly teaching my version of "Introduction to Folklore and Folklife,” for thirty years, at the University of Delaware. I retired from that endeavor eleven years ago, but as Jay so aptly demonstrates, some distance offers perspectives. My course, an undergraduate elective open to all majors, was offered within a Department of English. Over the years I taught several courses for the university’s American Studies Program, and several cross-listed with Anthropology, and History. All of my folklore-related courses drew a number of undergraduate American Studies concentrators. In fact, some of the brightest and best students I ever had were identified with both the university Honors Program and either the American Studies Program, or the departments of Anthropology and History. Jay and I probably had about the same mix of good, and not so good, students he writes about.

I should stress at the outset that my course was not designed as strictly "American Folklore,” although various genres and representative forms of folklore in America definitely figured into course content; examples of departure would include elements in units on "Folk Belief and Customary Observance,” "Folktales,” "Myths,” and "Ritual, Festival, and Folk Drama,” where selected content drew from beyond America, per se. Neither, as already indicated, was my course specifically oriented within the frame of an American Studies curriculum, nor was the central intent anything like immersed experience in "the ethnography and interpretation of folklore” (though I taught seminars where this way done). These differences, of course, remind one that any approach to "teaching folklore” will have a lot to do with one’s graduate training, the professional disciplinary paradigms within which one operates, and is comfortable, together with what one wishes to accomplish in one semester. Concisely, there are many ways to teach "folklore,” and many decisions to be made about what to include, and what not, for a given course. More on that to follow, but in any case these factors inform a response to Jay’s provocative essay—let alone implications of its wonderfully chosen title.

Since Jay asks for some feedback, I’ll begin with what I see as his highlights, which came across for me most pointedly on pp. 21-26. This is not to dismiss the building blocks for them, notably on the matters of cognitive analytic skills that differentiate individuals, but I was restless to get on with the practical ramifications of his essay title. What Jay encourages is the attempt, indeed the challenge, to "teach the cognitive style and skills necessary to think like a folklorist” (25). For him, this means "figuring out way to teach young adults how to have the reflexive, double consciousness we see as crucial to work in American Studies, folklore, anthropology and related fields….”(26). To achieve this, the teacher must "think about the classroom as the setting for a particular sort of group therapy” (25), this because presumably (or, actually) many students will not have the socio-psychological sophistication of skills that Jay, in the final paragraph, deems critical for nothing less than "survival” (26). I was reminded of reading Kenneth Burke in graduate school and learning about "equipment for living” in a somewhat different, though I think related, way. The final paragraph is where Jay pulls both triggers, if that metaphor is suitable; I suppose he was working one of those projective tests on the reader, to gauge final understanding and appreciation of the leap from teaching (some) folklore to, well, bigger deals.

I seriously doubt that any of us who has spent a career in higher education, or for that student education at any level, can do anything but applaud the overall call of Jay’s essay. At my university, continuing, countless academic committees on curricular development and teaching (and yes, in some cases, reform) dwell on cultivation of the kinds of "skills” that Jay advocates. I believe this is particularly true in the domain of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. The trickle down implications for the classroom teacher, especially teaching in her or his area of professional specialization and knowledge, are just as much about how to pull it off—that is, how to tackle the big and grand missions of which Jay writes, and still be (I emphasize) a teacher of (I emphasize) folklore.

Jay writes, "The teacher must discard the notion of coverage and work toward providing in the short time and framed space of a college course a model of experience of self-discovery through group work” (21). Furthermore, "…we can let the students talk in the natural attitude about some phenomenon familiar to them and then examine closely the words, metaphors, and images in that talk” (25).

While I’m inclined to interpret Jay’s essay title, beyond its rhetorical flourish, as including the message "you can’t teach (just) folklore,” there is enough—or is it not enough?--in his essay to make me uneasy about some implications. At one point, reading along, I hesitated, thinking to myself, "Who needs a graduate-trained folklorist to be doing this sort of thing? Why not just an intellectually bright educator, an American enculturated (or is it enculturated American?) educator who shares with students some experiences, she or he by and large with more nuanced insights? ” Then, finishing the essay, I said to myself, "This call by Jay for classroom emphasis, taken to heart by some administrators, will only further hamper in today’s job market a lot of specialized folklore graduate students from arguing their way into a specialized folklore teaching position.” (For the sake of convenience, I am conflating teaching and research capacities here).

For me, personally, there is another matter, too, and it looms large. I suppose I mainly used for my core folklore course--call it quite selective survey-- the "midwife model” rather than the "banking model,” and thus embraced the "the coverage fallacy.” I often was delivering "product” to my students more than cultivating "process” (14). Done deal. I entered the field, and took graduate courses in cultural anthropology and folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania (1967-1971), largely sustained intellectually because I found the subject matter fascinating—and different, new, previously unexplored—from my American culture upbringing experience. Much was eye-opening and enriching precisely because of the diversity of the coverage. Yes, the coverage of other ways of life, other ways of customs and beliefs, and why they had a place in the world and made sense to participants. To educate me about all this, there were informed teachers, as well as books and articles and movies and such. In part I learned to recognize why certain kinds of structures appear on the American landscape in different regions, why there were bottle trees, why I saw shells on some African American rural gravesites in the coastal South, why likely the intent of the hanging amulet on the rear view mirror of the car in South Philly, and so on. I also thought that at least some of my students might someday travel to Mexico, or perhaps work in south Texas, and find decorated skulls, flowers, and food on alters, or maybe work in New York City and confront Santeria, if not Vodun in Miami. Or travel with children to the American West, and happen onto a Cowboy Poetry Gathering at a dude ranch, or public event. What was this "folklore” all about? And it happened that for thirty years of teaching "Introduction to Folklore and Folklife,” I found that many, many students found these discoveries and information about them also worth the knowing ( or at least they said so in student course evaluations). I had exposed them to "product” via readings, videos, and the usual together with my takes on the substance.

Would Jay have folklore teachers like I was do away with the likes of packet readings and books about traditional folklore genres, particularly the carefully selected readings with insightful analysis and interpretation by others, so as to not impede the processes he wants to generate, and cultivate, in the classroom? I might have been wrong, but for me to teach about folklore, I wanted my students to get a nicely diversified helping of precisely the product. I always felt that the product, together with insights into its whys and wherefores, meant that you could teach folklore and provide some sort of "equipment for living” in doing so. Ok, I probably didn’t cultivate many students in the course ultimately to "think like a folklorist” (though some did, and a few actually became folklorists, or the equivalent). But I did, I think, open some sleepy eyes now and then. I feel very good about that, looking back. Even better would be knowing that students also made their way into a course like Jay writes about.

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