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432: American Folklore

America in Legend

English 432: American Folklore, MW 1:00-2:15, HLG 321
Professor John Laudun, HLG 356, MW 11:00-12:00, 2:30-3:30, and Tuesdays by appt.

Course Description

The course is designed to introduce participants to the basics of folklore studies, both through an initial “bootcamp” as well as through ongoing readings – some as a focus for conversation, others as sidebars, and then to explore the way that America is socially constructed through stories we tell, sometimes to cheer ourselves on, and sometimes to scare ourselves silly. As an advanced course for undergraduates and a foundational course for graduate students, this course attempts to address folk materials and dynamics in terms of rhetorical effectiveness, literary/generic structure, and cultural history. Some students will be interested in the theory that will be used, albeit lightly, throughout the course, and non-folklorists interested in American literature and culture will find the historical dimensions critical to understanding certain genres/topics of American fiction.

The goal of this course is to examine online, and offline, legends and understand the sources, both structural and referential, upon which they draw. Social media will be one of our foci, and as such this course highlights that media, first, has always been social, and that, second, the social world has always been mediated. Because of the personal nature of much of social media, participants in this course will need to have an open mind about the nature of meaning, and, just as importantly, about the varieties of human experience and perception. Much of the material in this course reveals the anxieties and fears, the prejudices and blindnesses, that humans too often carry with them and rarely communicate directly, only allowing them to slip out indirectly, in stories and assertions that manifest what are often tangled knots of things thought and/or felt. In some cases, the knots are not pretty.

Course Resources

Required Texts

A great deal of the readings are scholarly in nature and will be available either as links to scholarly databases like JSTOR and Project Muse or through the course’s Moodle site, either as PDFs or as links to sites. In addition to the on-line materials, there are a few books required for this course. Those titles will be given to you within the first few weeks of classes. Expect to purchase between 2 and 4 books, so be sure to set aside a portion of your budget for that expense, in addition to the cost of printing other materials as needed.

Ellis, Bill. 2001. Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. University Press of Mississippi.

A lot of collections of “American folklore” have been published over the years, each with its own assumptions about both “America” and “folklore” as well as what the purpose of such a collection should be. Typical of one kind of collection are those by Charles Skinner, whose Myths and Legends of Our Own Land reaches 9 volumes. A more synthetic, and more contemporary, reference can be found in the American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, edited by Jan Brunvand, a copy of which is available in the university library (Reference GR101.A54). While dated by contemporary scholarly perspectives, the collection of essays in Don Yoder’s American Folklife (GR105.A6) is still quite useful, and foundational in many ways.

In addition to reference works focused on the topic of American folklore, there are a myriad of other specialist reference works, many of which are available either in electronic formats or in the library for your use. Consider the following titles: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore, Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife, the Encyclopedia of Life Writing, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Folklore and Folklife are all the kinds of entry texts, being encyclopedias that will be familiar to your freshman/sophomore self but will also get your junior/senior/graduate self on the road to more serious and substantial work. That is, in addition to a synthesis/summary of a topic from a particular perspective, most scholarly encyclopedias also offer a small number of suggested readings. Please follow through on those readings the way you would a link on a web page.

Course Requirements


There are a total of 300 points in this course: 100 for the semester project, 50 for participation, 30 for the mid-term paper, 20 for a documentary activity of your choosing, and 50 each for the two exams. Both the documentary activity and the mid-term paper may be part of and/or contribute to the semester project. (Sometimes they are the best way to discover what you want, or don’t want, to spend several weeks thinking, researching, and writing about.) Participation can be a source of confusion. Does it mean just showing up? Showing up is understood: an advanced course depends upon all of us being in the room (on time) and being prepared to discuss the topic at hand. A 400-level course in the humanities is not a data dump, but an opportunity to absorb new material, digest it, use it to analyze old and new points of information, and create new forms of knowledge that may be interesting or valuable to no one else but yourself. Active engagement with the materials, the topics, and others is requisite to achieve full marks in participation.


First, all students should read Rob Jenkins’ essay on “Defining the Relationship.” Jenkins is also a professor of English at a regional state university in the south. His approach is similar to mine.

Discussion, completion of assignments, and participation in course activities are an important part of how I structure a course. I prefer not to lecture from any given book so that I can add to our discussion and not repeat material found elsewhere – if repetition is important to you, then this may not be the course for you. It should also be noted that course discussions, by design, are wide-ranging. I regard class meetings in the same light as most professionals: they are necessary and you must take notes no matter who is talking. (And it goes without saying that you deserve everyone else’s respect, and they deserve yours.)

Note-taking is your responsibility, as is keeping up with what is happening or happened in class on a given day or what is due in class following your absence. (Not handing in an assignment because you didn’t know about it because you missed class and did not contact one of your classmates still counts as not handing in the assignment.) Please write down the name and contact information of at least one other member of this class.

The university maintains a strict absence policy. If an absence is at all foreseeable, especially if it falls on a due date, you should let me know as much in advance as you can in order to find a solution. The same goes for arriving late or departing early. If you are more than five minutes late, you will not be admitted to class – unless you have a very good narrative and can perform it with a zeal glimpsed only in performances by Cirque du Soleil or Frank Sinatra.

Turn off all sources of distraction before coming into class. Cell phones must be set to silent and put away, unless you are expecting an emergency telephone call, in which case you should talk to me before class starts and sit near an exit so that you can excuse yourself and step outside to take the telephone call.

Let me state this again: no cell phones. Simon Sinek has a good account of how cell phones satisfy us and, at the same time, keep us from the kinds of actions that lead to long-term things like relationships and satisfaction.

All of you have a copy of the Code of Student Ethics. If you do not, please get one. All forms of academic dishonesty — e.g., cheating on exams, plagiarism in papers — will be taken very seriously in this class. At minimum, you will receive an F on the assignment, but there is also the possibility of receiving an F in the course or being dismissed from the university. I personally do not want to consider the possibility of turning over the design of a bridge that my family will cross to an engineer who cheats nor the diagnosis of a medical condition to a doctor who cheats. Many of you are from Louisiana and remain in Louisiana and thus will remain a part of my world: being surrounded by individuals whom I trust and admire is important to me. Please give me every opportunity to do so.

Institutional Necessities

One day, the University will create a central resource that collects stuff like this, but until then, they ask faculty to include things like this:

Emergency Evacuation Procedures

A map of this floor is posted near the elevator marking the evacuation route and “Designated Rescue Area.” Students who need assistance should identify themselves to the instructor.

Accessibility Services, Disability Services, & Other Helpful People

The university maintains a wide variety of services and centers designed to help students who have either ongoing or emergent needs. Please don’t hesitate to contact any of these folks,, and don’t be embarrassed to talk to me.