Loving Place, Culture, and Identity: A Recollection of Another Folklore Conference

Ohio River at Maysville, Kentucky. Photo by author Nic Hartman.

Ohio River at Maysville, Kentucky. Photo by author Nic Hartmann.

Contributor Nic Hartmann recently attended the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society and offers this discussion of two powerful presentations, reminding readers what it means to love the local and the importance of translating conferences addresses into everyday action. 

 Were you at AFS this year? We’d love to hear your thoughts on these talks and more! 

It’s taken me a couple of weeks to get out of “conference mode,” which I would describe as this sort of institutional trance that’s full of hotel food, coffee, book fairs, panels and networking. There is always a high, and then a sudden crash in which you feel difficulty in shifting back to your duties back home. But, gradually, you get back into the swing of things, and the things that continue to stick with you, day by day, are what you carry into your work.

I tried to write this column the day after the end of the American Folklore Society meeting in Providence, but I should know better, because I found myself blocked, stuck and unsure about what to write. (Now that I’m back to work, and seeing things go into my practice as a public scholarship coordinator, it’s an easier process.) The theme for this year’s meeting was “Cultural Sustainability,” and so it seems appropriate to write about the things that sustain themselves in everyday practice after the conference is over.

For me, that came in the form of two talks given by major folklorists. The first, an opening address given by folklorist and cultural sustainability professor Rory Turner, was titled “Digging in the Dirt of the Landscape of Cultural Sustainability,” and challenged the notions that scholars have had about attachment to place and culture. Turner discussed the idea of love and devotion to a place, and to a culture, and that the way to do is not to unconsciously put an academic lens onto culture, but to embrace the idea that we can love a place, as well as a culture. He told a colleague-who was beginning a career at a regional university- to love that region, and embrace it.

I currently work at a regional university that strives for international reach. International reach is a admirable task: things at the university are increasingly diverse, and it opens up a lot of opportunities, such as more language courses, exchanges between foreign universities, and space for intercultural dialogue- all of which are incredible to see.  I also see a lot of students who are dedicated to their home area—around Kentucky, it’s all about the counties—and combined with the commitment of many to the region that this university serves, I am reminded of the necessity for balance between the two. How does global reach affect our idea of the local? How does the local affect our notion of the global? Most importantly, how does loving the place and the culture in which we situate ourselves create space for dialogue and community-building? All of these are questions that cannot be answered in one post, but perhaps an answer will emerge, slowly, as time and experience build.

Diane Goldstein’s talk, though not specifically focused on the idea of loving place and culture, brought forth a similar message. This time, however, it was about loving and embracing one’s identity as a folklorist, and not being afraid of publicly affirming that identity, or the tools that come with it.  Her presidential address at AFS— ironically, the closing address of the conference—was titled “Vernacular Turns: Narrative, Local Knowledge, and the Changing Context of Folklore,” and focused on the role of the vernacular in our work as folklorists. Goldstein’s thoughts that “The power of the personal, and local, make them powerful in cultural institutions,” came with a checklist for the future of our field:

1)     The vernacular term makes our work. Do your work, and call yourself a folklorist.

2)     Publish at least once outside your field, or do a project outside your agency.

3)     Don’t rewrite the vernacular, as it has no positive effects.

4)     Make sure people honor their promise to keep their ear to the ground.

The first task relates to Turner’s notion of love. How can we love the place and culture in which we find ourselves, if we don’t love our field enough to identify as being one of its professionals? What are we doing to our field if we don’t call ourselves folklorists? The second encourages us to get our name out, while the third and fourth remind us to not only embrace our identity as folklorists, but also ensure that people embrace the value of local knowledge, and continue to do so in thought and action. We have to love our work, our identity, and the power of both personal and local knowledge, and that such love is also situated in a specific place and culture.

Between those two talks, the conference created a full circle. Another meeting passed means there will soon be preparation for another, and the cycle continues, only to do so with a stronger sense of knowledge and a stronger sense of love. We have to keep our own ears to the ground in between those meetings, and bring that experience to both the place we love and the field we love.

It is not a cry to battle for those who do not understand, but is a call for embracing the opportunities to share what we do with people, and do so with personal and professional confidence that we have something to contribute to the world with our love for the local.

After all, that’s what brought many of us to it in the first place.

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nic (1)Born and raised in Southern Indiana, Nic Hartmann is a Ph.D. candidate in folklore at Memorial University. He currently serves as the Public Scholarship Coordinator for the Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility (ICSR) at Western Kentucky University, where he mentors graduate students in the Hill House program and teaches courses in cultural diversity and public problem-solving.