A Q&A with Elizabeth Tucker

27 November 2018 Written by   Elizabeth Tucker

University Press of Colorado Blog Q&As share the perspectives of scholars working within their disciplines, bringing readers closer to their knowledge, research, and voices. Join us today as we talk with Elizabeth Tucker, Distinguished Service Professor of English at Binghamton University (SUNY) and coeditor, with Lynne McNeill, of Legend Tripping: A Contemporary Legend Casebook.

Why did you decide to work in folklore?

After I graduated from Mount Holyoke College I went to Germany on a Fulbright fellowship and enjoyed a year of study and travel through Europe. At that point I didn’t know what kind of work I should do, but since I had majored in English, I thought it might be useful to get a master’s degree in that field. While taking courses at Buffalo State College and slogging through huge snowdrifts, I heard that Lydia Fish, a popular English professor and folklorist, would be giving a lecture on the Child Ballads. Halfway through Lydia’s lecture, during which she sang ballads and played a guitar, I knew that I wanted to become a folklorist. Lydia’s approach to traditional ballads was so wise, kind, and appreciative of singers’ styles—quite different from the lecturing style of the other English professors I knew. After we met, she became my advisor and suggested that I apply to Indiana University, where she had gotten her PhD in folklore. After finishing my MA program I served in the Peace Corps in the Ivory Coast for two years, then enrolled in the folklore program at Indiana. I am enormously grateful to Lydia for helping me discover the enchanting, rewarding field of folklore.

If you could organize a panel at AFS with guaranteed attendance of everyone you would want to be there, what would the subject of the discussion be?

If I could plan one panel that everyone at AFS would attend, its subject would be how public and academic folklorists can come together to plan programs and projects that help people of diverse backgrounds appreciate each other’s traditions. A great example of a successful project of this kind is Simon Lichman’s “Traditional Creativity through the Schools,” which brings together children, parents, and grandparents from Jewish and Arab school communities in Israel. Through participation in traditional games, children of different cultural and religious backgrounds learn to understand each other’s heritage. There is much potential for folklorists to bring people together in this way. With so many political divisions and misunderstandings in the world today, we desperately need programs of this kind. Folklorists are uniquely capable of helping people learn to appreciate each other’s backgrounds. There isn’t a need for work of this kind just in the Middle East and other areas that are far from the United States; we need to think about building understanding between Republicans and Democrats in our own country.

What’s your favorite field/research anecdote?

As a graduate student at Indiana University, I did various kinds of fieldwork—Girl Scout storytelling, Peace Corps legends, and ballads—but my favorite experience as a student fieldworker involved getting to know a middle-aged woman named BarBara Lee, whose business card identified her as an exorcist. I met BarBara through Linda Dégh, my dissertation director, who had read about BarBara’s work in the Bloomington newspaper. Linda invited me to come on a field trip to Stepp Cemetery with her husband Andrew Vázsonyi, several other graduate students, and BarBara. Near the Warlock’s Seat, a stump on which the ghost of a woman whose child had died was rumored to sit, I watched BarBara try to persuade the woman’s ghost and other spirits to go up to heaven.

Fascinated by BarBara’s devotion to helping sad spirits, I was happy when she asked me to spend a day driving around Bloomington with her. First we went to BarBara’s house, where I admired a portrait of her children. BarBara explained that all of her children had died before birth but were happily pursuing different careers in heaven.

Later we went up to the fourteenth floor of Eigenmann Hall, the graduate dorm where I was a resident assistant, because students there were saying that the spirit of a student who had committed suicide was haunting the stairwell. When we came close to the windows, BarBara flattened herself against the wall and shouted, “Help, Libby! The spirit of the student who committed suicide is here. He’s trying to make me jump out too!” I took her hand and persuaded her to come out of the stairwell. (More details about my fieldwork with BarBara are included in chapter 1 of Legend Tripping: A Contemporary Legend Casebook.) BarBara’s passion for helping spirits helped me understand the strength of folklore of the supernatural, which I continue to study today.

Have you observed that your discipline has had an impact on current events or vice versa?

Since the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment started in 2017, it has been fascinating to see how much progress the movement has made. At Utah State University, my coeditor, Lynne McNeill, and Jeannie Banks Thomas announced that there was a tie for the Digital Trend of the Year: #MeToo and the phenomenon of fake government social media accounts. Elaine J. Lawless has begun an important study of narratives about #MeToo harassment within the field of folklore. At the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting in October 2018, the Women’s Section held a storytelling salon about #MeToo experiences within the field. During the storytelling session we made signs, and then, after the storytelling ended, Kay Turner and I led a Silent Walk through the convention center where the meeting was taking place. All of us were wearing black clothes and carrying signs. Since we were walking silently, our march through the halls, parties, meetings, and music sessions seemed dreamlike. At one point I led everyone up the stairs to the stage, and we marched across it. Perhaps we looked like ghosts of women who had suffered from harassment in past years. We didn’t get many comments from onlookers, but I think we had an impact.

If you had to pick a single question for everyone in your field to attempt to answer going forward, what would it be?

It’s hard to choose just one question! But among all the important potential questions, I’d like to ask this one: how can folklorists work together to support awareness of the need to save our planet from dangers to sustainability of human culture? I'd also like to add a secondary question: how can folklorists help non-folklorists understand the nature of our discipline?

What prospective directions for your discipline most excite you?

There are many directions that offer intriguing potential for the future. As a legend scholar with a strong interest in legend tripping, I keep a close eye on the kinds of trips that excite young people. One of the presenters at my panel at this year’s AFS, Sarah Birns, gave an excellent paper about dark tourism to Chernobyl, where a serious nuclear accident took place in 1986. These days, young people (and perhaps some older ones as well) are taking trips to investigate the site, dressed in protective clothing and carrying Geiger counters. Chernobyl is not a place that I’m eager to visit myself, but I’d like to learn more about its meaning for young legend trippers.

There are also other very interesting subjects. The recent dialogue about folklore in relation to mental health reminds us that our discipline can make an important contribution to destigmatizing mental illness. Legends and legend-related behavior offer insight into this significant subject.

Study of digital folklore illuminates complex communication patterns that are excitingly different from past modes of communication. Why are people so focused on their smartphones these days? I spend too much time checking my own phone, and it’s not just for my research on digital folklore! More study of this subject will help us understand why this kind of communication is keeping us all so busy.

Elizabeth Tucker is Distinguished Service Professor in the English Department at Binghamton University (SUNY), where she teaches folklore, children’s folklore, folklore of the supernatural, folklore and the mass media, and Native American folklore and literature. She is the coeditor of Legend Tripping: A Contemporary Legend Casebook.

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