Monday, August 2, 2010

Narrative Intent- The Backstory

I started this blog over a year ago with a strong desire to blog my own narratives, things about narratives, things about thinking about narratives, etc. My initial posts were more or less fun experiments to get the hang of this blogging thingy. Then I got swept into the undertow of dissertation research, and all things beyond working on my dissertation and teaching a few classes got shoved into the background. I defended my dissertation June 11, thereby earning the title of PhD. After a monotonous and painful revisions process, I sent my final copies in to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Grad School last Thursday thereby finishing the process. Almost immediately my brain flooded with all the stuff I had wanted to do but put off. This blog was among the first things I remembered, and I knew I wanted to re-boot it. After careful consideration, I realized that I really want to better conceptualize what this blog is about and gear the writing toward that concept.

My change in viewpoint is directly related to two important factors. The first and most important is my dissertation work. The dissertation I just defended analyzed the journal accounts and personal oral narratives of four Cajun women's experiences studying abroad in Italy in Summer of 2008. I met them because I was teaching both of the courses they all took. In all honesty, this was my third choice for a dissertation project. My first, intended to analyze the oral histories and personal experience narratives and folk belief of the people living in the Plaquemines Parish fishing village of Grand Bayou Louisiana, was destroyed right along with the village when Hurricane Katrina made landfall a few miles away in Venice, LA. The second, an analysis of the traditional narratives of the Evangeline story as related by five professional Cajun and Creole storytellers was obliterated by Hurricane Gustav, which displaced all of them as well as inundating the archive where much of the Louisiana-specific and Louisiana-generated Evangeline research and material was collected. Thankfully my students and their journals were interesting and available for research. The dissertation did take a very unexpected departure when it became clear that the study abroad experience actually served as a bona-fide rite of passage for the women, but that none of the current ritual theory currently in place was appropriate for discussing the experience as such. So the bulk of my dissertation actually was taken up with this very theory-heavy excursion into lived experience. When I am ready to foray back into my dissertation topic, I'll analyze their narratives. Until then, I'm working on other narrative stuff.

Nonetheless there is a thread running through all of my dissertation projects and that is the importance of oral narratives of personal experiences. This is as it should be, given that my primary research interest is Folklore, and my primary source-gathering methodology is ethnography. For a lot of people, the word "folklore" conjures some strange and exotic notions. Some imagine elderly rural denizens swapping stories, singing folk songs to a scratchy violin or accordion accompaniment; others think of the fairytale books of the Grimms, Perrault, and Anderson; some remember well-known stories of legendary and tangentially historical figures like Pecos Bill, Mike Fink, and Paul Bunyan; and still others think of folklore in terms of mythology, especially of the Greco-Roman variety. They are all correct. But they literally don't have the whole story. I regard folklore as the culturally-specific, tradition-defined, expressive culture of a specific folk group. This definition includes food, dancing, holidays, artifacts, games, holidays etc. but most importantly, it includes personal experience narratives that would otherwise go under-appreciated and under-recorded because they don't fit the easy and obvious categories of folk songs, myths, legends, and folktales. I am fairly committed to exploring the scope of these narratives and cultural expressions, and this is the factor that all three of my dissertation projects have in common.

On the other hand, I am FASCINATED by narratives of all kinds- books, films, video games, YouTube shorts, television programs, news articles, broadcast news pieces, graphic novels, emails and blogs, etc. to name a few. Which is why I figured my work would be a good fit for the International Society for the Study of Narrative. My convictions were so strong as to compel my attendance at the 2009 International conference held in Birmingham, UK. My work got mixed reception, because apparently I am the first folklorist working with ethnographically- gathered, minimally mediated personal oral narrative. I might as well have flown in from Mars., because almost everyone there was a a hard narratology theorist working with literary/print sources. Fortunately, some people were very curious about me and my work. These people are genre (specifically sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery) scholars, graphic novels/comics scholars, slash and fanfic scholars, music lyrics scholars, and media scholars. These people are studying the things I love most. But I was the only one working on oral narratives of any sort, much less personal narratives. Nobody in the narratology field had any notion of ethnography, nor any idea that ethnography has much to offer formal narratology. To be fair, few in my discipline are aware of the valuable insight that formal narratology can bring to our own studies.

Between my professional activity with personal narratives and my interest in all of the things my colleagues from the narrative conference study, I keenly feel a need to explore all of these things in an informed yet informal forum, so that interested and engaged parties can comment on, and contribute to ideas about narrative. With my dissertation project over and my degree finally won, I am branching out into a deeper exploration of all things narrative. Welcome to Narrative Intent.

1 comment:

  1. The point you raise towards the end of your penultimate paragraph speaks to one of the dangers of over-specialization. We get wrapped up in our disciplinary divisions and forget to look around and see what else is out there. And as a result, our work suffers. Too, it makes the "ivory tower" accusations stick better.