Learning from the Folklore of Higher Education

My original presentation upon which this and the previous four posts have been based began with an introduction to my own academic, personal, and professional background, and ended by drawing together some of the key themes discussed with reference to these introductory facts. Much of that wouldn’t have translated well to a blog post format for a wider audience; but this, my fifth and final post in this series, does focus specifically on one of my own non-#HigherEd research areas: folklore.

The intention in the presentation – and, indeed the intention here – was and is not to provide an even slightly comprehensive overview of folklore as a discipline or field of study, but rather to select some key texts and pertinent points to highlight how folklore may be able to offer an insight into how to create, enhance, and review our cohesive educational communities. I am using folklore in this instance simply as one of many prisms through which community development can be viewed (and note that all of the references below are at least 27 years old: these are simply some introductory thoughts on this topic, part of what may become a much bigger and more current piece of work).

There is no single agreed definition of folklore as it is academically understood and, over the years, there has been much disagreement regarding folklore’s early fixation on that which is past or that which might be deemed rustic. Over fifty years after he first wrote it, though, Alan Dundes’ list of non-definitive things which are folkloric in nature is a helpful starting point to get people thinking about what might be folklore:

“Folklore includes myths, legends, folktales, jokes, proverbs, riddles, chants, charms, blessings, curses, oaths, insults, retorts, taunts, teases, toasts, tongue-twisters, and greeting and leave-taking formulas (e.g., See you later, alligator). It also includes folk costume, folk dance, folk drama (and mime), folk art, folk belief (or superstition), folk medicine, folk instrumental music (e.g., fiddle tunes), folksongs (e.g., lullabies, ballads), folk speech (e.g., slang), folk similes (e.g., as blind as a bat), folk metaphors (e.g., to paint the town red), and names (nicknames and place names). Folk poetry ranges from oral epics to autograph-book verse, epitaphs, latrinalia (writings on the walls of public bathrooms), limericks, ball-bouncing rhymes, jump-rope rhymes, finger and toe rhymes, dandling rhymes (bouncing children on the knee), counting-out rhymes (to determine who will be ‘it’ in games), and nursery rhymes. The list of folklore forms also contains games; gestures; symbols; prayers (e.g., graces); practical jokes; folk etymologies; food recipes; quilt and embroidery designs; house, barn and fence types; street vendor’s cries; and even the traditional conventional sounds used to summon animals or to give them commands. There are such minor forms as mnemonic devices (e.g., the name Roy G Biv to remember the colors of the spectrum in order), envelope sealers (e.g., SWAK – Sealed With A Kiss), and the traditional comments made after body emissions (e.g., after burps and sneezes). There are such major forms as festivals and special day (or holiday) customs (e.g., Christmas, Halloween, and birthday). This list provides a sampling of the forms of folklore. It does not include all forms.” [1]

In our world of big data and seemingly continuous surveying of staff and students, it can sometimes help to take a step back from datasets which happen to look good in pivot tables and, instead, pay attention to what is being said – and what is not being said – in more organic settings, among the community in question. Comments at social events, reactions in meetings: this isn’t a case of qualitatively surveying members of the community, it’s about observing and listening to how people interact and react on a daily basis. To choose a handful of examples from Dundes’ list, above, everyone who is a member of an educational community should be able to identify at least some of the “myths, legends, folktales, jokes” that exist and are referenced most frequently. Gossip and rumour also has its uses: often there is an element of truth or, at least, an urban legend buried within. Analysing these facts and fictions can throw up some interesting data in its own right.

William Wilson captures some related thoughts on this when considering what makes folklore so important to understanding elements of humanity:

“My argument will be that the performance of folklore – whether it provides us with delight and amusement or causes us to fear and tremble – is one of our most fundamental human activities. The study of folklore, therefore, is not just a pleasant pastime useful primarily for whiling away idle moments. Rather, it is centrally and crucially important in our attempts to understand our own behavior and that of our fellow human beings.” [2]

So who, then, are these folk? It should come as no surprise that I suggest they should be anyone who is a member of the broad cohesive educational communities discussed earlier: whether staff of any grade or persuasion, or student. And it is crucial that we accept this and work together, in partnership, to develop these communities. This means moving past childish soundbites (such as “administrivia”) and put gripes aside in order to address any genuine issues in a constructive and appropriate manner.

Michael Owen Jones outlines the importance of folklore to understanding organisations, discussing Polly Stewart’s research of folklore in an academic administrative setting:

“By contrast, in a recent essay about her experiences as a dean Polly Stewart identifies specific skills of the folklorist that can be applied in an academic administrative setting to improve organizational functioning and life at work. “One important skill is analytical,” helping faculty and administrators “get past the esoteric-exoteric barriers … obviously impeding communication,” she writes. In addition, “a folklorist in the administration can help administrative colleagues understand the power of an institution’s symbology and its effects upon faculty.” Third are interactional skills associated with fieldwork on expressive behavior through the use of which one can uncover organization members’ feelings, attitudes, and perceptions of one another.” [3]

And, once we start to understand – or at least critically analyse – our own organisations and communities, we can then start to consider what kind of community identity we want to share.

“Identity expresses a mutual relationship by connoting both a persistent selfsameness and a persistent sharing of an essential character with other. It is in the area of “essential character with others” that folklorists can contribute something to the understanding of identity.” [4]

So how, then, do we translate these ideas into practical actions without them warranting another tedious data collection exercise or just becoming pointless navel-gazing? I’d suggest that there are some key points that every educational community would benefit from considering. Even better, it’s possible to get a sense of the pulse of underlying concerns and issues starting with anecdotal data and throwaway remarks.

Firstly, what does the observed folklore say about the current perception of the community? What truths and, perhaps more importantly, what untruths, are the kernels around which this folklore grows? It can sometimes be hard to accept that jokes or quips at the expense of certain sub-groups of a community hold some basis in fact, but by being honest rather than defensive about such things, we can consider how to make changes or, at the least, mitigate against such commentary via genuine engagement to get to the bottom of how to challenge such perceptions and, where appropriate, improve reality.

Dundes also wrote that that “if one collects the folklore of a people and then does a content analysis of that folklore, one is very likely to be able to delineate the principal topics of crisis and anxiety among that people”. [5] Such analysis doesn’t need to focus only on the longer-term perception of the community; similar techniques can also be used to analyse immediate concerns related to a merger or a restructure to establish what it is people are most worried about at that moment in time. Much as some memes (that very twenty-first century expression of folklore) are topical almost to the point of being time-sensitive, so too can be those throwaway comments or repeated rumours relating to reorganisations: folklore can be a handy tool for any change manager.

On the flip side, to quote Oscar Wilde, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” It can be worrying if key sub-groups – offices, staff – who perform vital functions are seemingly not recognised at all by the wider community. I recall some former colleagues relaying to me their trip to see a musical by some of their students: throughout the entire (somewhat lengthy) production, which focussed on the students’ studies and was filled with in-jokes and knowing commentary (ripe with folklore!), there was not one mention of any of the School staff, teaching or otherwise, or even the slightest recognition of anything the School had done to support them in and throughout their studies. In all the previous years’ shows, there had been good natured acknowledgement of some of those shared experiences (at times, poking merry fun); but, to this cohort, the role the School played in their studies was minimal. That is arguably much more concerning than being talked about.

Ultimately, educational communities will not thrive until every member of that community accepts and respects, to some degree, the role that each and every member plays in that School, College, or University group or sub-group. Once more with feeling: this includes students as well as staff. Educational communities are more than simply a social aggregate and, as such, it is important that communities are allowed to develop to reflect that which is important to them – not by undertaking and adopting a strategic branding exercise (though there are occasionally successful examples of these), but by analysing what is important to the community members on the ground and embedding this within the community and the way in which it operates. And once we begin to take on board the individual expertise of each member of our communities, teams, and groups – and accept our own, equal role(s) – then we will be able to create educational communities which value and respect everyone, and which make the most of the skills and talent we have available, in order to thrive in an increasingly challenging sector environment.


[1] Dundes, A., 1965. What is Folklore? In A. Dundes, ed. The Study of Folklore. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc, pp. 1–6.

[2] Wilson, W.A., 1981. On Being Human : The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries. In Utah State University Faculty Honor Lectures. p. Paper 60.

[3] Jones, M.O., 1991. Why Folklore and Organization(s)? Western Folklore, 50(1), pp.29–40.

[4] Dundes, A., 1984. Defining Identity through Folklore (Abstract). Journal of Folklore Research, 21(2), pp.149–152.

[5] Dundes, A., 1969. Folklore as a Mirror of Culture. Elementary English, 46(4), pp.471–482.

This post is based on part of a presentation I gave in April 2018: The Role of Professional Services Staff in Higher (Medical) Education. The talk focussed on thoughts and observations about the experiences of, and challenges facing, Professional Services staff in the twenty-first century environment, and their role in Higher Education communities. Seen through the filter of my own academic, personal, and professional experiences, the intention was to offer some food for thought (and discussion) on the role of identity and its importance in building cohesive educational communities which draw on the professional expertise of each and every individual.

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