Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Oral Tradition Goes Online

On September 15, the journal Oral Tradition, published out of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri-Columbia by the man who taught me Old English, John Miles Foley, went on line. OT is now twenty years old and has published some of the most interesting work in literary studies (and in anthropology of culture for that matter) in those two decades. I want to encourage you all to investigate the journal, because it publishes first-rate scholarship and it will now be freely available to all users of the web, whether you have an academic affiliation or a subscription or anything. A great democratization of information. We should, I think, support this adventure.

I also have a small ideological point to make. Here at Wheaton we are undergoing a process of "Infusion" as we seek to integrate work (academic, artistic and personal) on race, ethnicity, gender and class throughout the curriculum. I am not entirely on board with the way this project is progressing (though I was one of the people who wrote the langauge that allows the process to be directed by individual professors within disciplines, which is very, very important), but I do think that some good can come out of it if people shift their focus towards the things Oral Tradition studies.

So if you do want to bring under-studied cultures and approaches into the classroom, I can think of no better way to do it than through Oral Traditional Studies. You've got it all: a greater multiplicity of cultures than just about any discipline engages with (maybe the anthropolgists are equal, but they don't deal very much with ancient or extinct culture); the highest culture from these cultures, including masterpieces such as the Iliad, Odyssey and Kalevala as well as some of the most popular culture (and sometimes it isn't a contradiction). And you're working with both "insider" and "outsider" researchers. You're pushing new boundaries in theory and practice. You can get money to do field work, to go off to New Guinea if you want to and collect stories.

I am working up an OT course either for 2007-08 or 08-09 as the culmination of my Prentice Professorship, and I am loving doing the research. Just to give you a taste, here is the table of contents for the last issue of OT:
The How of Literature
by Ruth Finnegan

The Culture of Play: Kabuki and the Production of Texts
by Andrew Gerstle

Performance, Visuality, and Textuality: The Case of Japanese Poetry
by Haruo Shirane

From Oral Performance to Paper-Text to Cyber-Edition
by John Miles Foley

Text and Performance in Africa
by Karen Barber

On the Concept of “Definitive Text” in Somali Poetry
by Martin Orwin

My Mother Has a Television, Does Yours? Transformation and Secularization in an Ewe Funeral Drum Tradition
by James Burns

The Many Shapes of Medieval Chinese Plays: How Texts Are Transformed to Meet the Needs of Actors, Spectators, Censors, and Readers
by Wilt Idema

Textual Representations of the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Drama Yuzan ji (The Jade Hairpin)
by Andrew Lo

Now there is probably no person reading this who has the skill-set (the language skill-set alone, even) to work in all of these traditions. But OT brings this material together, and edits so stringently, as I know from experience, that the articles are readable and enlightening even if they come from outside your tradition.

So I strongly encourage all of you to check out Oral Tradition on line and read some of the many fine papers. And then next month you can check back and read a dreadful paper that somehow snuck through an otherwise totally rigorous process (maybe they felt sorry for me), my little piece "“A Meme-Based Approach to Oral Traditional Theory”; if you would download hundreds of copies and send them to your elderly realives, that would be great, too.

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