The Communication of Folklore

Dr. Susan Davis
Professor; jointly appointed in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science
Joined the department in 2007

Folklore is informal, interpersonal communication through traditions and customs; it is spread by word of mouth and face to face. Dr. Davis, who holds a joint appointment in the Department of Communication and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, studies the preservation of customs as well as the contemporary meaning of folklore. Interested in learning about her current research? Keep reading!

1. How did you become interested in folklore and communication? Why is that topic important to understand?
I became interested in folklore (a special kind of communication) as an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. I got an M.A. in Folklore in 1980, and finished a Ph.D. at Penn in Folklore and Folklife in 1983. There weren't a lot of jobs in the early 1980s (a bad recession, almost as bad as today’s) so I got a job teaching Communication as a specialist in ritual and performance at UC San Diego. I taught there until I came here in 2001. Because I was teaching in a Communication Department, I had to be a kind of communication anthropologist, studying the how and why of what people are doing when they are communicating ritually, musically, customarily, and in stories and other oral face-to-face forms. And, with a long-standing interest in history, I also researched and taught courses on the history of communication, culture and consumption. So folklore let me start with a very complex field -- we sometimes define it as artistic communication in small groups -- and branch out, too, into more areas of culture and communication.

My first book was about parade and demonstration traditions as communication; my second book was a study of the theme park industry, so it focused on popular culture, performance, and mass communication. My forthcoming book on Gershon Legman is a study of an independent folklore scholar at mid-century. University of Illinois Press will bring it out 2015.

2. Why did you choose to study Gershon Legman (1917-1999), social critic, folklorist of sex, and historian of censorship? Have you come across any interesting or surprising information?
Legman’s entire output was surprising information, which he called "erotic folklore," and I think it may make more sense if called "the folklore of sex." By this he meant songs, jokes, stories, ideas, practices, sayings, customs - - that flew beneath the radar of the proper, religious, and staid. He dealt with the folklore of the suppressed, obscene, censored, and he had a great deal of trouble publishing his work due to censorship of the time (1930-1980). Much of what he studied seems tame now, but was not publishable until after the mid-1970s. So his work sheds light on American cultural history. He is also kind of a marginal cultural producer and critic, and so I think his work, which is often angry and polemical about censorship, lets us see cultural critique in the 1950s and 1960s from a new angle.

3. What are the benefits of your joint appointment with the Department of Communication and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science?
A lot - I get to work with very bright students in LIS interested in cultural preservation and archiving, and in deep questions of preservation and dissemination of cultural materials. Of course these are Communication questions, too. I get a lot out of working in Communication because I engage very smart students who are interested in everyday processes of meaning-making.

4. What is one thing you would like undergraduates to know about your research, your findings, or your role as a professor?
I'd like undergrads to know that in my classes they will be asked to do actual folklore analysis to look thoughtfully and critically at the seemingly ordinary, and that this quickly becomes fascinating and revealing of how our world works. I really like to see students doing their own cultural research, especially outside the library -- although I love our library.