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AFS Review: Essays

Advice from the Dark Side, Part 1

Wednesday, September 21, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By J. Sanford (Sandy) Rikoon 

--Editors’ Note: “Advice From the Dark Side: University Administrators Help Us Strategize Growth," and AFS-sponsored session at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Santa Fe, featured presentations by four folklorists in positions of university leadership.

This is the first of two of those presentations, by Sandy Rikoon, Professor and Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor, Department of Rural Sociology, and Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, College of Human and Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri.

The second, by Mark Workman of the University of North Florida, will appear next week.

I appreciate being asked to participate on this panel. Of course I have to immediately offer the caveat that I feel able to address this issue only through my direct experience, which is at a large public university, one which has specific characteristics shared by the institutional home of some other folklore programs (e.g., Ohio State, Oregon, Indiana), but certainly not all folklore programs. The reason I bring this up is to help set the stage: The University of Missouri is a research-intensive university, one that is receiving stagnant state support (which now comprises only about 20% of the University’s income), and one that is increasingly concerned with research-related indicators as measures of success. This context is critical both to understanding what I have to say, and to understanding the constraints of generalizing from what I have to say. One thing I do believe is applicable to all programs is this: the problems that we face require institutional and systemic change and response, as well as individual initiative and effort. Future success depends not only on the acts of folklorists and administrators on college campuses, but also on the American Folklore Society, and on the major institutions of our discipline.  

Let me mention the kinds of things I think need to happen for folklore programs to be established, maintained, and to grow at schools like Missouri. And I’ll take an ecological nested view, working from the macro to the micro.

So, first I’ll talk about the American Folklore Society, our national organization, and the confrontation of systemic challenges facing folklore programs at research universities.  I would call on AFS to focus on two things in particular. First, there is the critical need for advocacy for the discipline in those national contexts in which matrices are developed and used for evaluation of higher-education programs. In our case, the University of Missouri is a member of what is called the AAU (Association of American Universities) Research 1 university group of 64 research intensive schools. Again, several folklore PhD programs belong to these universities. Membership in this group is very important to the university administration, and to administrative decision-making concerning the allocation and re-allocation of internal funds, particularly funds garnered through state and federal allocations and tuition. 

The criteria used by the AAU to measure the relative success of its members, as well as the soundness of applicant institutions that would like to join the group, focus primarily on research-related indicators. These include faculty journal citations, competitive external awards received from federal agencies, faculty national awards, and faculty memberships in national honor societies (e.g., National Academy of Sciences). And you know what? No folklore journals, not even our society’s flagship journal, are included in the 1,200 publications whose citations matter to the AAU; not a single AFS prize is recognized as prestigious enough to be on the AAU list. And it’s not that some of our journals and prizes are not competitive enough or good enough. There are a number of journals on this list whose circulation numbers and impact factors are, I am sure, less than that of our own, and prizes for organizations whose memberships are lower in number than AFS. Rather, I suspect that the journals and prizes of our discipline are unknown to the bodies that compile the measures used in these indicators. I would guess no one has suggested to the governing AAU boards that folklore journals and prizes should be included in their indicators.

Second, there is the matter of wedging folklore into the major research programs of government agencies that support research, and here I have in mind groups like the National Science Foundation, National institutes of Health, and Department of Agriculture. This may seem like a stretch. But external dollars from federal competitive programs are a crucial AAU indicator. Not only are NEA and NEH not included on the AAU list, but folklore is never (as far as I know) mentioned in any of the competitive grant programs to which I regularly apply, which is mainly NSF and USDA. There is no reason to hope that folklore would become a category of funding in itself at any of these agencies; however, all of these agencies have programs recognizing culture as a variable in understanding human behavior, whether it be related to dietary patterns or sustainable agriculture. It would seem that this would be a viable task for AFS working in concert with existing folklore program in federal agencies. I recognize that equal to the task of getting our discipline at least mentioned in guidelines is that of getting folklorists to consider themselves relevant to the programs of these agencies (which I’ll touch on in a moment). 

Moving to the level of the university, I want to suggest that the keys to sustainability and growth are alliances and collaborative activity, and alliances across the realms of the university, which today are not only in teaching and research, but also service to communities and economic development. I would also suggest that the alliances crafted will have to be strategic in that they should focus on those areas of the university that are likely to have the largest growth potential. At Missouri, this is not especially within the humanities, although the current fascination with so-called digital humanities and digital storytelling are probably good areas of growth (if folklorists are willing to put up with a lot of misunderstanding of the terminology and concepts we often take for granted).

But honestly, I am not optimistic, at least in the near future, about the humanities constituting a strong growth area at large universities. There is increase, however, in areas like science, technology, and public health. And I believe these provide opportunities. Folklorists have in the past showed great promise in linking what we do with the aims of health professionals across many areas of interest. In my own work, which connects with the environment, agriculture, and food, there are obviously strong folk cultural dimensions to everything from traditional ecological knowledge to sustainable agriculture to food security. Developing these collaborations means learning the language of these topical areas, building connections, and most importantly demonstrating the added value of attaching folklore and the humanities to societal problems and the work in the so-called STEM disciplines. And there is huge potential added-value in what many folklorists do, and in the very way they do it (e.g., increasing university and public attention to community engagement and the scholarship of engagement, which folklorists have practiced for decades).

I can give a brief example. I have been doing a lot of work over the last decade in food security. Most recently, I have been working with the Universities of Western Cape and Pretoria in South Africa on the development of a National Center for Excellence for Food Security, to which the RSA government has pledged a minimum of 100 million rand, or more than 11 million dollars, over the next ten years. In its initial planning, this center was a typical food security center full of biological and physical scientists and a smattering of social scientists. This summer, we worked with humanities faculties in South Africa to develop a humanities component of the center, not as a stand-alone exercise but as a joint venture with people interested in developing urban agriculture, improving the nutritional qualities of traditional foods, and so on. We were successful in getting a grant for nearly 9 million rand ($900,000 US) from the Mellon Foundation to support this work over the next three years. 

My point here is that I cannot believe we can strengthen folklore programs by working in isolation from other programs but instead we must demonstrate a value-added dimension, particularly in regards to pressing social problems. We know that food programs and development programs fail often because of lack of consideration of cultural systems, gender roles, and the like, and so this added value is not difficult to demonstrate. Similarly, even my own limited knowledge about what other folklorists are doing in connection to contemporary social problems (from immigration to health) suggest there is great room for collaboration within our universities. 

We must not only be hatchets able to critique and deconstruct, we have to be seeds as well. And here I would turn to the work of individual folklorists as they demonstrate positive value within their work contexts. I hope “demonstrate value” does not seem too administrative or corporate. I intend it to signify that we are well past the point that any program at a major university will continue simply because it has in the past, or that positions will be filled in the future exactly as they were staffed in the past. Increasingly, one has to make the case for every position, every program. That “x” or “y” was a great teacher and a prolific researcher are important sales points. But I also believe that while our best and more charismatic folklorists can help build a program while they are in a position, their charisma and previous success are no guarantees of continuity following retirements or into the future. Increasingly, universities want to know what a position brings to the university and why scarce resources should be maintained with this position or program. The justification could be as basic as numbers of student credit hours taught, the employment prospects and records of its graduates, and the demonstrated success of students on diverse career paths. Increasingly, I see success deriving from development of a coalition of supporters resulting from interdisciplinary teaching and research, and integrated teaching, research and outreach to communities.  In other words, the best consequences come not from an individual advocating for maintenance of his or her own position, but from a chorus of folks arguing that maintenance of that position contributes synergies and advantage to multiple programs. Again, individuals may certainly do a lot to build a program, but I believe successful alliances keep them going.

I hope these remarks are useful. I do think that the future of folklore programs at large public universities like Missouri can be a good one, but success will require joint efforts linking folklore’s institutional bases in AFS, Washington, DC, and elsewhere with existing programs and the good work so many individuals are doing at universities across the country. AFS cannot be successful without the accomplishments of individuals working in diverse contexts, and programs cannot be sustainable without building alliances and receiving institutional support from AFS. Thank you.

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