Folklore Studies within American Studies

The Penn State Harrisburg Model

By Simon J. Bronner

[The author is founding director, emeritus, of the PACF. This essay originally appeared in the AFS Review in 2012]

Writing in 1968 as head of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University, Richard M. Dorson bemoaned the lack of opportunities in higher education for studying the “home turf” in America of many budding folklorists. He had been trained in the History of American Civilization at Harvard and had been the first Harvard doctoral candidate to choose folklore as one of five American fields. He considered folklore essential to an understanding of American culture, especially with the folklorist’s eye for discerning theories regarding the function of tradition and methods of field work and working with human and archival sources. He looked around at an upsurge of interest among students scattered among a variety of disciplinary silos investigating ethnic, occupational, regional, and gendered cultures in the United States and predicted, “Among the new generation of students are some co-majors in folklore and American Studies who will master comparative, historical, and critical thinking, and they may produce the sound, perceptive treatments of folklore in American literature or American history that are yet to be written.” He may have been thinking of literature and history because of his orientation derived from his Harvard days (he was an undergraduate major in “history and literature”), but he probably did not fully anticipate the “cultural turn” that embraced American traditions as a specialization with the added tools of ethnography and sociological and psychological analysis and the applications of public folklore, cultural resource management, new media, heritage and museum studies.

Shortly after Dorson’s complaint was aired, a dramatic shift occurred in the view of folklore as a living tradition close to home that enabled American folklore to expand as a field of study. Before 1975, Dorson could cite surveys of folklore coursework in the United States and Canada that showed world folklore and the ballad dominating the American collegiate curriculum. By the 1980s, however, American folklore rose to the top of the list of the most common courses in folklore offered in American universities. One entire major program begun in 1966 in Cooperstown connected to the State University of New York offered a stand-alone M.A. degree in “American Folk Culture” that stood apart from other programs operating at the time at the University of Pennsylvania, Indiana University, University of Texas, and UCLA in its emphasis on material culture, folklife and ethnology, and museum studies in the United States. In the next decade, students could declare “folklife” as a specialization on the way to receiving a Ph.D. in American Studies at George Washington University. At Dorson’s home institution of Indiana University, the American Studies Program allowed students to hold a double major in folklore and American Studies. Beginning as an interdepartmental “curriculum,” the Folklore Program at University of North Carolina moved into the Department of American Studies by century’s end with a commitment to regional folklife, particularly in the South. Although Cooperstown shut down its folklore program in favor of a concentration in history museum studies, a new doctoral program established in 2009 at Penn State Harrisburg compensated for the loss by offering a folk culture subfield with their American Studies Ph.D.

These developments raise questions about the preparation for scholarship and careers in the twenty-first century that focus on the American context for folk traditions, particularly in the educational incubator of the Middle Atlantic Region that had long been viewed as a microcosm of America with its plural ethnic identity, location as source of American cultural movements, and regional “middleness.” The conventional routes into folk cultural study in the twentieth century primarily had been through literature (often in departments of English and languages) and anthropology. The kinds of folklore studied often varied, and were limited, according to the disciplinary focus. Understandably, an emphasis on literature and speech in language departments influenced the consideration of folklore as narrative. Anthropology courses on folk culture primarily presented material on custom and narrative, primarily in non-Western societies. It certainly became possible to take folklore as a major at a few universities, including Dorson’s beloved Harvard, but American material often was a minor segment of the curriculum, in favor of a global, comparative perspective. I recall when I taught at Harvard in 1996-1997, my course offerings in American folklore to my surprise broke new ground, even though they attracted the notice of the Harvard Crimson for being “must-have” electives in an otherwise esoteric curriculum. UCLA couched folklore courses under a World Arts and Culture department and an American folklife course at Indiana University, long a mainstay of the curriculum, disappeared along with Dorson’s own famed course in “Folklore in American Civilization.”

A first question to ask is whether the American focus is too limiting for a boundary-crossing phenomenon like folklore. The answer necessarily takes in the vastness and diversity of the American social and physical landscape. Further the spatialization of folklore with “America” forces analysis of the connection of folklore to national, regional, and local contexts that are often political as well as cultural. Perhaps this tendency is why American Studies has been especially attractive to considerations of public engagement, heritage, and application. That is not to say that transnational connections and global diffusion are excluded. Americanists, well aware of the migrant nature of their subject, also take as a given the necessity of seeking sources and precedents outside the continent for American cultural phenomena. That orientation leads to a twin concern for synchronic and diachronic analysis, that is, using ethnography to document the present and historical chronology and context for precedents. The explanatory goal of American Studies often led to an additional step beyond identification common in folkloristic essays: psychological or cognitive sources of traditions. For its evidence, American Studies is not limited by a discipline to a type or genre. Therefore, material culture, folk arts, beliefs, and bodylore that went overlooked in English, history, and anthropology were avidly picked up to address the issues of an American environment.

A second question is where folklore fits into an intellectual organization by geographic area. The answer to this one is that a natural fit of folklore with American Studies occurs because of the special concern for interpreting the patterns and ideas evident in American culture. Americanists therefore called for looking at interrelations of folk, popular, and elite culture rather than delimiting or excluding material for study. Dorson offered a visual representation of a conventional disciplinary view of culture with bounded boxes piled on top of one another. Folk rested on the bottom and elite sat at the top of the heap. In an Americanist orientation, culture is presented as a series of relationships with folk interacting with popular, mass, and elite. This orientation is one of the reasons, I believe, that the social interactional approach emphasizing the situations and scenes of American everyday life has been an especially important contribution of folklore to American Studies (Bauman and Abrahams 1976: 375-76). Folklore provides expressive evidence of America’s pluralism at the grassroots. As such, area studies have inspired a number of interdisciplinary spinoffs that have the potential to complement cultural area and national work and emphasize folkloristic perspectives: ethnic studies, regional studies, gender studies, cultural studies, religious studies, and cultural sustainability, among others.

If American Studies is so broadly conceived, however, one might worry that folklore would get swallowed up or relegated to the margins of study. A mitigating factor from the intellectual heritage of folkloristics is that a body of scholarship exists covering many groups and genres that have been overlooked by the big disciplines. In the search for cultural coverage in American Studies, folkloristics often gets noticed more than in other disciplinary homes. Additionally, folklorists more than anthropologists have been willing to examine one’s own backyard, so to speak, as a research field to query issues of identity, function, and symbolism. Familiarity with one’s culture did not exclude researchers from taking an objective stance; in fact, “dealing with one’s own” was encouraged. It also often led to an applied aspect where the results of research could lead to social action including education, cultural programming (e.g., preservation projects, exhibitions, festivals), and public policy advocacy.

Although journals abound with calls for linking the evidence of folklore with American Studies, material on devising a curriculum oriented toward folkloristics hardly exists. An intriguing exception is Tremaine McDowell’s description of the efforts by the American Studies program at the University of Minnesota to emphasize folklore “as sources of information concerning America” (McDowell 1948: 44). The alteration he proposed to disciplinary approaches in history and literature to folklore is to emphasize the relationship of folklore to American life rather than letters or events. Formal instruction did exist within the department of history (by Philip Jordan and at least once by Richard Dorson). McDowell was quick to point out that “the student’s work in folklore is done within the frame of reference not of history alone but the much wider frame of American culture as a whole” (1948: 46). The radical statement for its time, however, was that “This broad overview is organized and systematized for seniors in a final proseminar in American Studies” (1948: 46). In other words, folklore is the foundation as well as capstone of students’ American cultural education.

Minnesota did not sustain this orientation that just may have been ahead of its time, although folklorists taught there through the end of the twentieth century. I daresay, however, that Penn State Harrisburg with its new doctoral program is building upon its legacy of undergraduate and graduate education since 1972 is actively working to reframe “American culture as a whole” and self-consciously build a multi-tiered model of folkloristic study for the twenty-first century. Instead of a solitary course on folklore, several exist with different concentrations. Undergraduates can begin with “Introduction to American Folklore” and “Popular Culture and Folklife” at the 100-level and advance to “American Folklore” at the 300 level and “Folktale in American Literature” at the 400 level. Folklore is evident as it was at Minnesota in the capstone experience of “American Themes, American Eras” (491W). Additionally, students have access to a number of applied courses oriented toward public heritage careers such as “Museum Studies,” “Public Heritage,” “Historic Preservation,” “Archives and Records Management,” and “Oral History.” A Center for Pennsylvania Culture supports much of the regional public heritage work and provides research projects. With the passage of time and new areas of inquiry from the foundations of American Studies, new coursework involving folklore is available such as “Americans at Work,” “American Masculinities,” “Ethnicity and the American Experience,” “Ethnography of the United States,” and “American Expressive Forms.” These courses are tied together by an overarching goal, as stated on the program’s website (  “to advance the documentation and interpretation of the American experience, past and present, through research with a variety of evidence, including objects, still and moving images, practices and performances, and oral and written texts.”

The master’s program features coursework, internships, and independent studies in folklore and folklife, including “Topics in Folklore” and “Material Culture and Folklife.” Regularly offered courses in “Ethnography and Society,” “Local and Regional Studies,” “Seminar in Public Heritage,” “Topics in Popular Culture,” and “Field Experience in Americans Studies” conspicuously complement the strong folkloristic component of the program. Special topic graduate courses taught by folklorists have included “Borders in American Culture,” “Media, Performance, and Practice,” “Digital Culture,” “Foodways,” “Public Folklore,” “Folk Art,” “Folk Medicine,” “Folk Music,” “The Amish and the Plain Groups,” and “Festival.” The culminating experience is a thesis or project (including exhibitions, documentaries, catalogues, and creative productions) that allows for alternative forms of scholarship. Many of these projects have been on folklore including published versions on legend trips, Pennsylvania German folklife, folk crafts, vernacular architecture, folklore in education, and children’s.

Many teachers and public heritage professionals may “stumble” upon folklore and then embrace it in their graduate coursework as part of a general plan of study. At the doctoral level, students can declare folk culture as a specialization. Indeed, folk culture has been selected more than any of the other fields by doctoral students going through the program. Other fields that complement it at Penn State Harrisburg are defined as course sequences in “Public Heritage and Museum Studies,” “Interdisciplinary History and Politics,” “Society and Ethnography,” and “Regional, Urban, and Environmental Studies. Doctoral students declare two of these subfields and most budding folklorists claim “Society and Ethnography” or “Public Heritage and Museum Studies” along with folk and popular culture. Even if they do not identify themselves as folklorists, they get a strong dose of folkloristics in their American Studies preparation that serves them for projects that have included food, media, and art studies. Indeed, the first dissertation to come out of the program was on a folkloristic topic of folkloric responses to disaster on the Internet followed by projects on Jewish dress, backpacking narratives, and food recipe transmission. The program is also home to the Eastern American Studies Association which sponsors research conferences involving students and professionals, such as the “Heritage and the State” conference in 2011 co-sponsored with the Middle Atlantic Folklife Association at the State Capitol. Faculty also encourage students with editorial and research projects such as the Jewish Cultural Studies Series, Encyclopedia of American Folklife, Susquehanna Heritage, McCormick Family Papers, International Journal of the History of Sport, and Pennsylvania-German Research Guide. At present, two full-time tenure-track lines are held by folklorists and over seven lecturers, drawn mostly from the doctoral program, teach undergraduate folklore courses. Graduating students often stay in the region to work at the abundant cultural resources, including the Pennsylvania “Dutch Country,” Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Gettysburg Battlefield, Hershey Story, and York County Heritage Trust.

My prediction for the twenty-first century, maybe even bolder than Dorson’s uttered for the twentieth century, is that the new generation of students in the United States desiring to work in folklore will find a home in American Studies and its interdisciplinary spinoffs rather than in the “conventional” disciplines of English, anthropology, and history–and even folklore. And in the process, the face of folklore will contain more folklife, material culture, and public heritage concerns than in years past. The theoretical orientations may also shift, too, with attention to cultural history, everyday life, media and contemporary practices, and folk-popular culture relations. Penn State Harrisburg provides a model of growth.


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