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Simple and complex

Who We Are, What We Do: Department of Folklore

Student Life

By Janet Harron

Folklore is the practice of studying the arts and traditions of everyday life.

Things as simple, yet complex, as your mother’s chicken soup. Your great-grandfather’s craftsmanship as a boat-builder. Your neighbour’s ability to sing traditional ballads.

‘Dream discipline’

Recent folklore graduate Blair Kerr chose to come to Memorial from Smiths Falls, Ont., when she read a description of folklore on the department’s website.

“I have always loved talking to people about their lives and once I found out what folklore was and what folklorists do, I knew I had finally found my dream discipline,” said Ms. Kerr, who is starting a master of arts degree in popular culture at Brock University in September. She is currently researching the representation of occupational folklife in different forms of media and has no plans to leave academia anytime soon.

Assistant professor Jillian Gould appears with Ms. Kerr in Who We Are, What We Do: Folklore, the latest in a series of teaser videos produced by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and created by multihyphenate writer/videographer/rapper/producer and recent Memorial graduate Timo Sargent.

Born a folklorist

Like Ms. Kerr, Dr. Gould says she was always doing folklore, she just didn’t know there was a name for it.

“After completing my MA, I was working at a community museum on New York City’s Lower East Side and began to meet and work with professional folklorists and realized that could be me,” said Dr. Gould, who then made a beeline for Memorial, as it is the only English-language university in Canada offering undergraduate, master’s and PhD studies in folklore.

“At the heart of public folklore is the collaboration between folklorists and communities.” –Dr. Jillian Gould

Dr. Gould specializes in public folklore, the work of folklorists who have jobs in public settings and work in collaboration with communities as opposed to solely within universities.

“At the heart of public folklore is the collaboration between folklorists and communities, and how the results of fieldwork—the cultural documentation methods practised by both academic and public folklorists—are presented back to the community,” she said.

Dr. Herbert Halpert

The early life and work of Herbert Halpert, the founder of Memorial’s Department of Folklore, is currently the focus of Dr. Gould’s research. She is examining his New York City Collection (1938-39) and his 1939 South States Recording Expedition, both of which are housed at the American Folklore Centre, Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Halpert specialized in the collection and study of folk songs and narrative and a substantial portion of the collection of the Memorial Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA), which Dr. Halpert founded, relates to song and music.

According to Ms. Kerr, there is something magical about studying stories set to music.

“One of my favourite courses was The Ballad, which deals with the music and words in ballads, as well as the greater context of where and when they are sung, who sings them and so on,” said Ms. Kerr, who adds that Dr. Martin Lovelace, a former student of Dr. Halpert’s, taught the course and often played recordings of songs and stories that he had collected over the years.

Comprehensive department

As the only comprehensive folklore department in the country, Memorial offers programs at the BA, MA and PhD levels. A unique public folklore stream is offered at the MA level, whereby students complete course work as well as two co-operative placements in folklore-related fields.

Public folklorists from the co-operative program can work just about anywhere and in any sector. Students have worked with the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival and the Mummers Festival in St. John’s, travelled around the province to meet with boat-builders as part of a research project with the Wooden Boat Museum and sifted through and documented archival materials for the City of St. John’s, the Cupids Legacy Centre and the Maritime History Archive.

All incoming graduate students participate in a three-week cultural documentation field school that allows students to live in a community and to gain valuable first-hand experience in cultural documentation skills and techniques. Past field schools have taken place in Change Islands, Witless Bay, Quidi Vidi and Keels. This year’s field school will be taught by Dr. Gould and Dr. Diane Tye and will take place in Cupids.

For more information, please visit the folklore degree map or the department’s website.

Who We Are, What We Do is a summer series from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences featuring faculty and students discussing their discipline. The next installment of Who We Are, What We Do: Gender Studies, featuring Dr. Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis and student Jillian Ashick-Stinson, launches July 11.


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