Many IU undergraduates take at least one folklore course to satisfy a gen-ed requirement. These classes span from more general courses, like many of IU’s introductory folklore courses, to more specific courses, like Dr. Dobler’s course on monsters. But what is folklore exactly? According to Dr. Dobler, a folklore lecturer at Indiana University Bloomington, “folklore is the obvious, fairies, quilt-making, and basket weaving, but it is also so much more than that”. Specifically, “Folklore is informal traditional culture”, a definition developed by imminent folklorist Professor Lynne McNeill of Utah State. This definition includes an old wise-tale circulating through your town, your family’s weirdest tradition, and even that SpongeBob meme you saw on the internet. As folklore has such a broad definition, the study and research of folklore can encompass many things, including ghost bikes, witches, and practical jokes!
When you mention the term, “research”, stereotypical images of rat mazes and test tubes often come to mind. However, folklore too has its own forms of research. Folklore research largely involves the scientific description of people, their cultures, traditions, habits, etc. and how these differ and even spread across groups of people. As such, the main method of conducting folklore research involves interviewing people. A folklore researcher may ask why certain people partake in a particular custom, what they get from it, and where they heard of it. However, folklore researchers may also map the locations of observed customs or stories, take pictures or record them, and even compare the practices or stories across different groups of people to gain a scope for various versions. Ultimately, as Dr. Dobler noted in researching folklore, “We try not to speak for people, but give them a platform for which they can speak for themselves”.
Dr. Dobler himself has done much of his research on memorials, which often serve as symbols of a person or an event. One such type of memorial is ghost bikes. Ghost bikes are a form of memorial used to commemorate cyclists who die in motor-accidents. A bike is painted white and often padlocked to a sign or something else located near the site of the accident. Different mementos may be continually left at these sites to commemorate the dead. Although this practice began in St. Louis, Missouri, Dr. Dobler has studied the practice in Oregon and Indiana. Dr. Dobler began by finding ghost bike sites, visiting them, taking pictures of them over time, figuring out who made the memorial, and, if willing, interviewing the creator of the memorial. He often asked the creators about their motivations for making the memorials, how they interpret what they are doing, what they get out of the memorial, and how they heard about the practice. Dr. Dobler looked at ghost bikes as “an adaptation from roadside crosses as a personal response to grief common especially for young people who die suddenly and violently”. Dr. Dobler found that these ghost bikes may represent a way to personalize grief and ‘communicate’ with the deceased. Currently, Dr. Dobler is also researching a separate personalized memorial to the dead: memorial tattoos including those mixed with ashes of the deceased person.
Another Indiana University faculty member, Dr. Marsh, the librarian for folklore, anthropology, and sociology, has conducted folklore research. One of her folklore research topics was the witch figure. Dr. Marsh largely looked at the different images and sources of the witch figure across legends and fairy tales. In folklore, fairy tales represent stories that are told with the idea that they are not true. On the other hand, legends are stories believed to be true. According to Dr. Marsh, “in fairy tales witches live in odd houses in the woods, don’t associate with people, and are very supernatural figures while witches in legends represent figures in history that are much more ordinary people that could be living right next to you, and you wouldn’t even realize it”. Based on Dr. Marsh’s research, “these witch figure legends derive from witch trials in Europe from the 15th to 17th centuries”.
Another topic of research for Dr. Marsh is practical jokes. This practical joke research is considered a form of humor studies. Specifically, Dr. Marsh is interested in “humor that takes place between people on a day-to-day sort of basis” as in “humor that often takes place out of the public eye, within families, among friends, or between workmates”. As this humor is often so localized within personal groups, Dr. Marsh resorted to researching individuals in the form of interviews. She would often ask participants about practical jokes they have heard of, played on others, or have had played on them. As Dr. Marsh mentioned, “Practical jokes are very ephemeral- they are secret until they happen and once they’re over, they’re over- but they become memorialized in one way or another, they turn into stories. So, the joke may be over but the stories are retold sometimes for years afterwards”. These practical jokes and stories then serve as a way of socially grouping people involved in the practical joke or people who know the people involved in the practical joke. According to Dr. Marsh, “these practical jokes are terribly interesting to people involved, but not so interesting to those outside of it. So, they become part of a small group culture”.
Luckily, there are many ways for Indiana University undergraduates to get involved in the study of folklore. Both Dr. Dobler and Dr. Marsh recommended that undergraduates who are interested in folklore research begin by taking some of the introduction to folklore classes offered by their university. Dr. Dobler himself teaches many folklore courses at IU Bloomington including, Monsters of the Monstrous, Forms of Commemoration, Folklore and the Supernatural, Folklore and Disaster, as well as Memes, Trolls, and Digital Fandoms. From there, an undergraduate may consider a major or minor in folklore. However, folklorists often collaborate with various fields including, but not necessarily limited to, anthropology, literature studies, sociology, psychology, and linguistics. Overall, there are many ways for Indiana University undergraduates to explore folklore studies without even minoring or majoring in folklore.
Here is a link to some of the folklore courses offered at Indiana University:
Folklore Research: Ghost Bikes, and Witches, and Practical Jokes, Oh My!
By: Megan Myles
Monday, October 18, 2021