Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Using folklore to examine backward thinking

Steve Siporin, director of USU's folklore program, teaches
students to examine folklore for traditional wisdom.
I teach in USU’s Folklore Program, so it is no surprise that during office hours, my students and I discuss folklore.  They quickly and adeptly get beyond such misconceptions of folklore as being merely colorful superstitions of ignorant Ozark hillbillies, “dancing with your elbows out,” and the fakelore of Paul Bunyan. 

Rather, in discussions, my students join me in trying to understand what a Navajo story means to Navajos, what an Arab folktale means within its own culture, or why hazing won’t disappear. We decode the time-tested solutions to humankind’s enduring problems that folklore’s traditional wisdom offers.  And we marvel at the creativity and ingeniousness of supposedly backward thinking.
 I find myself hoping that students will not just learn about folklore but that they will carry its wisdom and creative thinking into their own lives.  These lessons are too valuable to be left in the classroom.  Even the most cliched of traditional English and American proverbs, like, for instance, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” has value in students’ demanding lives.
But it’s not just our students who could benefit from serious attention to common sense and traditional proverbs.  Most of us at USU have been suffering (like the rest of the country) from a sustained financial crisis for several years now.  Yet if you look around—literally look around—you might think we’re in the middle of an economic boom.  New construction on campus appears to be at an all-time high.  But when resources are so limited, is the choice to build really in the best interests of students who have come here to learn?
Compared to 5 years ago, most students walk into larger classes (more students, less faculty, resulting in less individual attention) and most professors and staff earn lower salaries (because of no raises coupled with inflation).  We have lost experienced faculty, operating budgets, and funding for special programs and lectures.  Key enriching elements in USU’s intellectual life—humanities graduate programs and the USU Press—remain under siege.  Departments are cutting back on the requirements for majors, and while pedagogical arguments rationalize these reductions, such arguments sound like so many versions of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  We know that the reason we are compelled to cut back is because we don’t have the faculty to provide the courses.  This “reform” is fiscally, not pedagogically, driven.
At the same time there is a building boom on campus, and money flows to buy furniture, paint, art for the hallway walls, as well as to maintain the lawns and flower beds.  Common sense says that such expenditures are secondary to the purpose of a university.  Surely administrators are tired of explaining to seemingly thickheaded professors that these items come from different budgets and that funds cannot be transferred from one budget to another.
But something else cannot be denied:  when there are no raises year after year, yet large, expensive buildings can be funded throughout the campus, and when our classrooms and offices are often unnecessarily fixed-up with new carpets, paint, and artwork annually, students, faculty, and staff can’t help but feel devalued, and morale can’t help but decline.  That is common sense, too.  Today there is nowhere on campus one can go without seeing a new building emerging, as if to say “this campus is a construction project, not an educational institution.”
Something is very wrong, and to say that that’s just the way budgets work is to accept what needs to be challenged.  I don’t have the answers, but I know we need more creative thinking and creative problem solving.  What we claim to teach our students needs to be practiced by our leaders and by us.
No university ever thinks it has enough funding, and choices always have to be made.  I remember a research visit I made a number of years ago to Stanford University, where I’d been an undergraduate.  Since I was going there to work in the library for one week, and it was summer, I asked if I could stay in a dorm to save on my expenses.  As it turned out, I got to stay in the same dorm I’d lived in as a student—more than 20 years earlier.  At first I was shocked at how rundown my old dorm had become.
It seemed as if only minimal maintenance had been carried out over all those years:  the furnishings, the lamps, even the worn-out mattress in the old iron frame bed, appeared to be the same objects that weren’t new even twenty years earlier.  Yet this was Stanford!  A university of enormous wealth!  But of course, Stanford is known for its academic excellence, not its accommodations.  Budget choices had to be made, even at one of the country’s richest universities.
And then I recently saw an article about Dr. Hussam Haik, a young Arab Israeli molecular biologist who conducts research at the Technion in Haifa, Israel.  He and his 26-member team are well on their way to perfecting a small, inexpensive mobile device that can detect cancer in its early stages through olfactory analysis of a person’s breath.  What a breakthrough this is going to be.
Haik contradicts stereotypes in a most delightful way:  he is an Arab doing cutting-edge research in Israel, and he turned down opportunities in the United States in order to work in Israel, which he considers his home.  Dr. Haik says, “Israeli universities all suffer from shortages in funds.  But the Technion spends its budget in a very effective manner.  While some universities splurge on beautiful buildings and facilities, Technion invests in a young, dynamic, and prestigious staff.  This is an investment which will surely pay off.”
In spite of arguments about the separateness of state budgets, Utah laws cannot be as immutable as the biological laws that lead to cancer.  If we can find success in redirecting those unyielding natural forces, why can’t we be more creative with the institutions that we ourselves have made?  Common sense says this challenge can’t be as difficult as cancer.  Folk wisdom says “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  I ask, “Is there a will?”
 - Steve Siporin, Director Folklore Program


  1. Dr. Siporin,

    Here, Here! I appreciate your bold assessment and hope it resonates with administration. As time passes and we suffer from "same old, same old," that hope seems hollow. But what are we without hope?

    Incidentally, my husband Phil, who is being treated for stage 4 colon cancer at Huntsman, has become good friends with Dov. "Hope" is Dov's commodity and he delivers it well! We admire him tremendously and pray for him and your family daily.

    Best wishes,

    Lou Mueller, USU Extension Associate Professor, San Juan County, Utah

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