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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby (University of Kentucky)

Thursday, May 3, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson

By Eleanor Hasken (Indiana University) —

Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby is currently the department chair for Modern & Classical Languages, Literatures, & Cultures and a Professor of Russian Studies and Folklore at the University of Kentucky, where she has been influential in creating the Folklore & Mythology minor within the department.

Above: Interview at the Holy Spring, Lozhok, Russia. Photo credit: Oleg Kamashev.

In our conversation, Jeanmarie and I focused on two major topics: folkloristics within an interdisciplinary department and the future of the discipline. In dealing with departmental politics, particularly as departmental chair, Jeanmarie found that her skills as a folklorist have helped ten-fold. As our talk turned towards the future of the discipline, Jeanmarie urged that we offer insight into political questions that are being asked of other disciplines. Taken together, this interview offers insight into the role of folklorists in maintaining interdisciplinary departments, as well as outside of academia in providing answers to political questions.

Jeanmarie Finds Folklore

As the interview began, we too, started at the beginning. In reflecting on how she became a folklorist, she attributes it to a fascination with Billy Goat’s Gruff. “I was obsessed with Billy Goat's Gruff. And I'm pretty sure—to do my own psychoanalytic analysis—I’m pretty sure I'm obsessed with Billy Goat's Gruff because I have an older brother and an older sister and they picked on me my entire life. … And so, a story where the little goat wins was just the best thing ever. But, ever since I can remember I've loved anything to do with legends and tales. So. it was kind of in my blood."

When Jeanmarie entered graduate school at the University of Virginia she found folklore courses she could pursue under the instruction of Natalie Kononenko and Jan Perkowski. Even though she was excited to take folklore at the graduate level, she found herself second-guessing it as her disciplinary focus. “I knew it was a bad idea to major in folklore. I knew there would be no jobs. So, I did linguistics with a minor in folklore. The minute I got my job, I pretty much retooled myself as a folklorist.”

Turning towards her research areas, Jeanmarie’s first book, Village Values: Negotiating Identity, Gender and Resistance in Urban Russian Life-Cycle Rituals (2008), was the result of ten years of research. Part of the book grew out of a previous project collecting Russian childbirth practices. Village Values covers three different life-cycle rituals—births, weddings, and funerals—and how those practices intersected with Soviet-era institutions, Western imports, and folk traditional knowledge. Her current research is on Holy Springs on former Gulag sites in Western Siberia.

How Folkloristics Aids in Departmental Cohesion

After becoming a professor at the University of Kentucky, she advocated for the department of Modern & Classical Language, Literatures, & Cultures to create a Folklore & Mythology minor. This was driven by a departmental merger that brought together all but one of the languages taught at UK under the MCLLC umbrella. To create interconnections in the newly formed department and help ease the tensions of the merger, a Folklore & Mythology minor was suggested. To create the minor required a combination of new courses and courses that were already being offered, like Germanic Folktales and Russian Folklore. To help bridge more interdisciplinary boundaries, the minor also includes Greek & Roman Mythology, Gender & Sexuality in Antiquity, and Ancient Stories in Modern Films, to name a few.

She’s found that her advocacy has paid off for her students. Particularly, in response to the course she teaches on Russian folklore she reminds students that, “you can study Dostoevsky all you want. You can study the history of the Soviet Union all you want. But, until you have the folklore class you will not be able to cope with Russia. It gives you an insight into Russia in a way that you will never get from anywhere else. And much of what you know about the history and the literature—the so called, high culture—will become clearer as a result." And indeed, students tell her that without her course on Russian folklore they would have been ill equipped to experience Russia on their study abroad trips.

Right: JRW and Father Igor Zatolokin at the Holy Spring, Lozhok, Russia. Photo credit: Oleg Kamashev.

On Being a Departmental Chair

As department chair, her skills as a folklorist have paid off ten-fold, particularly when dealing with departmental politics. "It occurred to me that all of the years of listening to people's stories—patiently—and being empathetic about them have really prepared me to be chair well. Because I can listen to people's stories [which] are usually complaints about other things and …  I can convey my understanding and my empathy even if I don't agree. … This is a very important skill. Their point, while they may be clumsy about getting it across, needs to be heard, right? I'm really good at making sure voices are heard and also negotiating—not being afraid to walk into a room and say, ‘Okay, here are the positions, how are we going to resolve this?’ You know, not all academics are well trained to do that because they spend a lot of their time in libraries not talking to people."

Keeping Folkloristics Relevant

Towards the end of the interview, our conversation shifted to the future of the discipline and the role of folklore in our changing political landscape. She’s hopeful for the future of our discipline, because folkloristics, unlike any other discipline, can engage with contemporary questions about the role of politics in our current cultural climate.

“We have a lot to contribute in terms of belief narratives, in terms of [political] discourse. Nobody ever thinks to ask. They ask political scientists, who don't talk to people, who do statistical stuff. They ask historians who don't talk to people—unless they're oral historians. And anthropologists talk to people, but they're not necessarily talking to them about this kind of question. Maybe sociologists, but it depends on the sociologist. I think we really should be at the forefront of what's going on right now in populist America. And nobody thinks to do it.” Jeanmarie goes on to add that folklore illuminates a myriad of answers to important cultural questions. When the rest of the world is asking “How can this happen?” or “Why are people behaving like this?” folklorists are able to provide answers.

Because we can help answer these questions, she believes it’s important for us to engage with political activism to help keep our discipline relevant. “I think maybe political activism may be a key here. I mean political for the discipline and [in] helping articulate why people are behaving like this. Which seemed so strange [during the election] to so many and I just kept saying, ‘It's not strange.’” As so many of us know, it wasn’t strange. As we move into this new period in American history, folklorists have to be prepared to engage with these politics—whether in academia or the public sector—to help illuminate deeper cultural connections.

Our conversation wrapped up after this political discussion. Before we stood up, the conversation turned to jokes, particularly of the lightbulb variety. Jeanmarie began collecting them many years ago (if you know of any, please send them to her). And it is with a folklore-centric lightbulb joke that I am ending this feature, because hopefully it will make you laugh as I did.

How many folklorists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Ten. One to screw it in and nine to document it.

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