Proseminar in Folklore Theory

ENGL 632-001, MW 1:00 PM - 2:15 PM, HLG 321

Pr. John Laudun
HLG 356, Tuesdays 9-12 and by appointment


This course is a survey of key concepts, problems, and perspectives in folklore theory and method, focusing on key moments, ideas, and texts in the evolution of folklore studies in order to acquire a “feel” for the foundations of the discipline. For the purposes of this course, the field is conceived fairly broadly and includes work done in adjacent fields like anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, and literary studies. As much as it is possible, the readings are chronological, allowing us to follow the interactive dimensions of intellectual history, wherein one theory arises as a response to (extension of, corrective of, or refutation of) another theory. Mileage in such a chronology must vary, however, as some texts (usually those that awaited translation) are considered in the context of those texts they most influenced.

The purpose of any proseminar is to acquaint students with the core texts or theories of a particular field of inquiry. Folklore’s diverse beginnings and many interrelations make it particularly difficult to gather all such materials into a semester of study. The aim of this course, then, is to familiarize you with those texts, thinkers, and ideas that seem central in light of recent developments in the discipline and to acquaint you with other texts, thinkers, and ideas so that you may begin to see these complex webs for yourself. A proseminar assumes you have an interest in a field or discipline as a profession, not necessarily as a professional practicing within the field, but as someone interested in the history and nature of the practices of the field as it has developed over time and through various institutions. We will, then, spend the semester reading from folklore’s intellectual history and discussing the implications (those) ideas have for our understanding and uses of folklore.

Speaking of the field, we will not in this course address directly, in the sense of how-to, the topic of fieldwork, though we will on a regular occasion be concerned with methodology as it is implicated in various theories. That does not lessen the importance of fieldwork, and I encourage, but do not require, all those trying to understand the discipline of folklore studies to do some kind of fieldwork. Extended fieldwork, in the sense of lasting beyond the first interview, is an experience that no one with an investment in the discipline should be without. A more extensive treatment of fieldwork theories and methods is to be found in the folklore fieldwork course.

Finally, there are some methods and skills which any competent “knowledge worker” — more on the use of this term during the semester — should have in this day and age. Some of them have long been within the purview of folklore studies Specifically, folklorists have always, in some ways, engaged the collection and sorting of data that today’s databases make, in many ways, trivial. We will talk about this and other matters throughout the semester, but you should also feel free to bring such topics and concerns up as part of our ongoing conversation.

The goal of this course is to familiarize you with an intellectual history, and in some ways landscape, of a particular discipline, folklore studies, in order for you to begin to map out where your own interests lie. I hope that the materials we cover, and their attendant bibliographies and references, will begin to suggest possibilities for you, but there are always more books and journals than can be scribbled down here. Your real job is to go out and find that territory which interests you.


In addition to the obvious requirement that everyone come to class with the reading done, with at least two to three questions or comments prepared, and the willingness to engage in a discussion, seminar participants are, this semester, required to write a literature review on a topic, or topics, of her choosing as well as leading a seminar or sequence of seminars on a topic. (All such topics are to be established in dialogue with the instructor.)


A full quarter of your grade is based on that ever-slippery notion of “participation.” I leave it up to you to concretize it in a way that manifests the sublimity of your wit, the substance of your thought, and the grace of your presence. Nota bene: I take participation very seriously in all my classes, but most especially in seminars. (45%)


This is a seminar. Everyone is responsible for its success, not just the instructor. As a seminar participant, each of you will be responsible for leading the class at various moments throughout the semester. Each presentation will be based on a different infrastructure: an abstract, an outline, a series of slides with text, a series of slides with only graphics, etc. (15%)

In the past, I have encouraged or required participants to profile a journal or to review a book. The description of those assignments is included here for your information: it should be noted that writing a book review is an easy way to get published, and it was once seen as part of the overall functioning of a scholarly domain.

Journal Profile

In parallel with books, the record of any discipline is to be found in its journals. They are also the places where young scholars have their best opportunity to see their ideas in print. I encourage all graduate students to join their respective disciplinary organizations, especially while student rates apply, but I also require that participants in this seminar acquaint themselves with the journals available to them as resources and outlets for their work.

Book Review

You will write one book review, following the JAF format, on a text of your choosing. Please see me if you are having any difficulty in deciding upon a book. (Book reviews are also a great way to get published.) Both the reviews and the profiles above will be compiled into a seminar publication.

Literature Review

Because of the nature of this course, I forego the most familiar of all course assignment genres, the seminar paper, and instead ask you to imagine a project, of a size and scope to be decided, and to sketch out what resources you will need. (40%)