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Voices Spring-Summer, 2001:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Upstate column, “Going...going...gone?” by Varick Chittenden here.
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Volume 27


Upstate My life—my study, my garage, TAUNY—is full of boxes. For the past few months I have been packing and loading and unloading and unpacking 36 years’ worth of professional life in teaching. The Big R officially came in July 2000. I taught a couple of classes in the fall, but in December I finally had to clear out the files, throw out piles of what seemed like treasures at one time, and save the best for the next phase of my life.

In those boxes I have set aside hundreds of student projects, dozens of audio and video tapes, scores of photographs, and who knows what else. A quick calculation tells me that as many as 3,000 students had taken my folklore and rural American studies courses since the mid-1970s, and most of them submitted some kind of field-based research, usually from their hometown or family. It is quite a collection, and until I had to handle it all again, even I had little idea how it illuminated life in our region and the interests of generations of college students.

Their papers are a varied collection: ghost tales from one rural road in Lewis County, a study of outbuildings on a century-old family farm in Franklin County, a discussion of pie-baking techniques in one generation of women in one neighborhood, and documentation of exotic dancers as "a folk group" in Cornwall, Ontario. And there are dozens of collections of drinking games, cures for hangovers, fraternity rituals, hockey players’ superstitions: they were college projects, after all. A few of them are gems, as good as many graduate school papers I’ve seen. Others are not very well written, and sometimes the research techniques are a little questionable.

But what a resource! What a compilation of names and places and stories and leads to an understanding and appreciation of local life! I always told my students that these were no ordinary library research assignments, that they must take these projects very seriously because in many cases, this might be the only time their subjects and their informants would be written about. Occasionally, I have heard that copies of tapes or photos or research essays have ended up as special gifts to family members, to be treasured far into the future.

Years ago, Bruce Buckley, my mentor and folklife teacher in the old Cooperstown program, told me how rewarding teaching folklore in a community college would be. Although SUNY Canton has always been a residential two-year school, most students come from nearby towns and either commute daily or go home for weekends. Most remain very close to their families and small communities while still in college. Most have easier access to the rich variety of local customs and bearers of tradition than many folklorists dream of. I can now say that Bruce was right. If you believe that the study of folklore is more than an academic pursuit of rare texts of narratives or songs or a social science with quantifiable results, try it out on agricultural and technical students—kids learning air-conditioning or veterinary science or culinary arts—and discover its relevance to their lives.

I will never regret that I went into teaching for a career, and I will always be grateful that I found folklore as a field to share with my students. But I leave with one major disappointment: no one is going to replace me or teach my courses in the humanities department or anywhere else at the college. I have heard of similar situations in other places as our generation of professors leaves teaching. Two folklorist colleagues who between them have taught college students for more than 50 years—Dick Lunt at SUNY Potsdam and Bob Bethke at the University of Delaware—have recently retired and discovered no institutional commitment to continuing their work.

Folklore courses for undergraduates should be as basic to a liberal education as Literature 101, Introduction to Psychology, and Calculus. Folklore should be as common at venerable Ivy League schools and small public colleges as at institutions with graduate programs in folklore. In this age, when we require educators at all levels to impart self-esteem and promote cultural diversity, where are the folklorists and their courses? Going, going, gone! I fear that the state of teaching folklore is in crisis, that it is considered—if it is thought about at all by deans and presidents—a frill at best and dispensable at least.

The New York Folklore Society was founded by great teachers like Harold Thompson and Louis Jones. For many years, numerous institutions in the state had at least one or two courses. But now that the prospects for creating tenured positions in folklore are slim at best, I call on my young colleagues with academic credentials in public folklore positions all over to take charge. Petition your local colleges to offer at least one course a year—at night, on weekends, online, by whatever means—so at least some residents in our communities will be introduced in a disciplined way to studying the vitality and diversity of traditional life and culture in our world. If you get lucky enough to teach that course, and do it long enough, you too will have a wonderful collection of resources from parts of the community you might never get to otherwise. And, incidentally, you can look forward to boxes everywhere, too.


Varick A. Chittenden is professor emeritus of English, SUNY Canton College of Technology, and executive director of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY).Varick Chittenden
Photo: Martha Cooper

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 27, Spring-Summer 2001. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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