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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Robert Dobler (Indiana University)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lorraine Cashman

Robert Dobler

By Eleanor Hasken (Indiana University) — 

In this interview with Robert Dobler, a lecturer at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusciology, Robby and I discuss what brought him to folkloristics and, more importantly, what kept him in the discipline. Robby offers advice to up-and-coming folklorists, who are interested in going into academia post-grad. Robby also broaches conversations where people question his choice of discipline and the utility of the study of folklore, particularly how he responds to people who question his decision. To close, Robby offers tips to aspiring professionals.

Robby’s Background

Eleanor Hasken: Tell me about yourself.

Robby Dobler: I got my English bachelor's at Penn State in Pennsylvania. I then took a couple of years off and worked jobs that I did not like. I decided to go to grad school far, far away from Pennsylvania. So, I ended up in Oregon at Eugene in the folklore department there. I mostly study morbid things. I look at belief as it surrounds death, ritual, and the supernatural. 

EH: How did you find out about [folklore]?

RD: Well, I had been—this is really embarrassing, actually—I had been reading Joseph Campbell on breaks over the summer and I read The Golden Bough by James Frazer and I thought, “this seems interesting”. I thought I could do something like that and started looking around. I always wanted to go to Oregon. That's a thing I've been asked at conferences—what made you choose Oregon over the others? Because it's in Oregon. 

EH: It sounds like you're very place focused. 

RD: I was very place focused. I wanted to get away. I had been working in an industrial crane factory for three years in the Xerox print shop room. I printed out the manuals for the guys who put the cranes together, but I kind of hated it and I wanted to go back to school. I started googling [about] mythology and realized pretty quickly that's actually not what I wanted to do, but I stumbled on Oregon's program. I applied and I will never talk about what my application said I wanted to study. It's bad. 

EH: No?

RD: No. It's bad and not at all what I ended up studying. Actually, when I got there, I decided pretty quickly I was going to study road side attractions, specifically religious themed roadside attractions. World's biggest whatever—bible themed mini-golf. That kind of thing. But, a paper that I wrote for Dan [Wojcik] in his Folklore and Religion class was about Myspace memorials and it got such good feedback, and I got a publication out of it, that it was easier to go where people were happy you were going. And you know, it made sense...all the death stuff. So, I stayed. 

EH: And now you’re here teaching at IU. What are you teaching next year? A general course list is good. 

RD: Urban Legends, Monsters and the Monstrous, Folklore and the Internet, and Death and Popular Belief. I’ve previously taught Forms of Commemoration, Folklore and Disaster, and Death and Expressive Culture.

On Small Talk about Folklore

EH: What has your experience been explaining folklore to people who aren’t students?

RD: My favorite example is if I’m getting my hair cut. I hate small talk. I know people are nice and are trying to have conversations. You’re sitting in front of a mirror and you just want to leave [laugh]. So they ask what I do. And I say, I'm a folklorist. And they'll say, "Oh, what do you study? Like...fairy tales?" And I say, "Death." [both of us laugh] Sometimes they ask more questions, but a lot of the times they say, "Oh." [laughs] and that's kind of it. But if I expand, I say, "The different ways that we remember the dead and the different rituals and customs we have around it. A lot of times, it's more than "What is folklore?" I actually don't get that question a lot. I get, "What can you do with that." It's actually not that different from my experience as an English PhD. 

EH: Really?

RD: Uh huh. People would say, “What are you going to do with that? Teach? And I say, "Yeah. Hopefully!" But with folklore, they say, "What are you going to do? Teach? You teach it?" And I say, "No, I'm going to go door to door." [laughs] But, then I say, "There are a lot of things you can do with it. I know people who have gone into museum work. People that work public advocacy groups. You can be politically active, or you can work in small towns doing local history kinds of things. Or you can teach." I'm sure there's tons of other things that I'm not even aware of that folklorists are doing. But, also, students and people from outside folkloristics generally do have an idea of folklore as old stuff—still. [To them,] it's still mostly verbal things, too. It's mostly folktales and fairytales. Every once and a while you get quilts and some of the material culture stuff. 

EH: Yeah. 

RD: Those are the people that I tell, "I'm teaching a folklore and the internet class." I turn it into ways that we communicate with each other instead of the things. Which is sort of what the trajectory of the discipline has been anyway. I think that does make it more understandable to people.

Advice to Graduate Students

RD: What I love about folklore—having been to the English things, you could write the 10,000th article on an interpretation of Shakespeare or the 10,000th on Ulysses. But, when I did the ghost bike [article], there weren't really other "in-folklore" things written about ghost bikes. It's not like I'm discovering new things—I got it from Publore. It's just that it's such a small field that it's possible to do things that seem kind of new to people. My publications all came, mostly, from people seeing the titles [laughs] of my work at AFS. It's not that they were great titles, it's just that they were interesting, newer things. That's my advice to any graduate students. Go to the conferences. Present at as many of them as you can, because it gets your name out there. It's a small field. It's not super hard to at least have a couple of people know who you are. 

EH: That's good advice. 

RD: And the awards. Most of the sections give out their own [student paper] prizes. I think there have been a number of times where they don't give out some of the prizes because not enough graduate students think that they can get them. I think that they often get just a handful and they want more. 

EH: That’s really good advice for students. Thank you for your time, Robby.

RD: Thank you.

(Photo by Eleanor Hasken)


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