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American Legends

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.

Course 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.

Course Requirements

There are a total of 100 points in this course: 40 for the semester project, 20 for participation, 10 for the mid-term paper, 10 for a documentary activity of your choosing, and 10 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.

Finally, make sure you have read all of the material about dynamics, emergency evacuation: it is a part of this syllabus.

Course Resources

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.


The agenda for the course is available as a separate document.

This syllabus and other course materials are part of a larger collection of materials designed for my classes.