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1 Oct

The safety net – It’s been a rather busy time since the middle of September, and that has resulted in yet another lapse in updates. Rather than crying over spilt milk, though, I’m going to jump right in with today’s entry, which will begin with an explanation of what I’ve been busy with and finish up with what’s been on my mind recently.

“I felt like a fake, a fraud, a philosopher debating lofty ideas that had no basis in reality.”

It seems that there are certain points during the year where the various demands on my time seem to coincide, like a celestial alignment of planets, except with work. I’m at a lull point in one of those alignments right now. The new semester started at the beginning of September, and began with a brief period of limbo where I actually had more time than I had had during the summer (which led to a brief flurry of updates to the site). Then the semester kicked in, a quarterly translation project (that I had forgotten about) came in, I realized that the due date for another project was rapidly approaching, yet more work came in, and I was cajoled into leading a study group with my juniors in the Masters program.

Right now there are five of us in the study group, and we are starting out with “The Study of Folklore,” a collection of essays edited by Alan Dundes. I am the de facto leader of this group because I am the only doctoral student and (more importantly) I am the only one who speaks English as a native language. We began last week with a discussion of the origins of the term “folklore” (the phrase was coined by William Thoms in 1846 as a “good Saxon compound” to replace the Latinate terms “Popular Antiques” and “Popular Literature”), and then discussed what “folklore” actually meant. We of course arrived at no conclusive answers, but it was a good intellectual exercise and a good way to start out a study group on folklore.

Another thing I’m working on these days is an overview of the Journal of American Folklore—basically just a summary of trends in the 100+ years of the Journal’s publication. One thing I have noticed is that each generation of folklorists is preoccupied (at some points, almost obsessed) with defining or redefining folklore. This trend in recent years has taken shape as calls for a new name for the field to replace the 150-year-old “folklore,” as well as the cries of doom-sayers who proclaim that the end (of folklore) is nigh.

When they say that the end of folklore is nigh, of course, they mean that the end of folklore as an academic field is nigh. Those rallying to save folklore are really rallying to save the academic field, thus securing their livelihood. It is quite similar to environmental conservationism—let’s face it, the human race could obliterate itself in any number of ways, and the environment would continue to exist. Those rallying to save the environment are really rallying to save humanity. Not that this isn’t an admirable goal, but we must be careful not to conflate the environment itself with our ultimate goal.

The same goes for folklore. Long after the last folklorist is dead and buried (should such a day ever come), folklore will continue to exist. That being said, the reality of the here-and-now is that there are many folklorists (if there are any that still call themselves that) who are concerned with the viability of their profession. The situation is no different in Korea—here we are examining new directions for our field to take, and new ways we can apply our knowledge in modern society (I suppose I should note here that my major is actually oral literature, which may be considered a subset of folklore, depending on which definition you use).

My direct senior (ie, the person in my major directly above me in terms of seniority), for example, is always thinking of new ways to keep our field vital. The overview of the JAF, in fact, is a presentation I am preparing for a study group organized by this senior. His hope is that after a while we will have come up with enough suitable material to put together a book. My (relatively) recent entry on UFOs was inspired by a paper presented by one of my professors at a meeting of the Korean Oral Literature Society, where he pointed out that UFOs were a possible new direction the field could take. At that same meeting, my advisor (and then-chairman of the Society) mused that perhaps we should remove the “Korean” from the Society’s name, or at least redefine what we meant by it, and begin to broaden our horizons.

I fully agree that new directions and new views need to be researched. I would say “wholeheartedly,” but here I run into a snag, and that is the crux of the matter that is on my mind. The fact is that I sometimes wonder if “halfheartedly” is not more accurate than “wholeheartedly.” I am in a unique position, being the only Western student in my department. There are Chinese and Japanese students in my department who share my experience to some extent, of course, but I don’t think it’s quite the same.

To put it simply, when I graduate and receive my doctorate, I may stay on in Korea for a while, but I will most likely leave the country for a teaching position elsewhere. And when I accept that position, it will not be as a professor of Korean oral literature, or even Korean folklore, but of Korean studies. I could stay in Korea to teach if I wanted to, but again, it would most likely be as a professor of Korean studies at an international graduate school. I could even make a living translating if I failed to get a professorship. The point is that, whatever I end up doing, folklore will not be my sustenance. I will continue to take an interest in it, of course, but I will not be dependent on the field of folklore for my livelihood.

Now, take my classmates. They could, of course, abandon their field and find work elsewhere. It would be difficult, but possible. After the investment they have all made in their studies, though, this will likely be their last choice. During our study group session last week, I could hear it in the voices of my juniors: figuring out what folklore is was not just an academic exercise, it was essential to defining what they wanted to do with their lives. As one of my juniors said, nearing frustration, “What is it, then? Whatever it is, it has an impact on people’s lives, right? That’s why I chose this field of study—because I wanted to be connected to people’s lives.” The unspoken complaint, of course, was that sometimes the reality doesn’t live up to the ideal—or at least it’s sometimes hard to see the ideal through the reality.

At that moment I felt guilty. It wasn’t just a twinge, either. It was a wave of guilt. I felt like a fake, a fraud, a philosopher debating lofty ideas that had no basis in reality. For me, defining folklore was an academic exercise, but when I saw the looks on their faces when they suddenly realized that they didn’t know what exactly folklore was, reality came flooding back in. Not my reality, of course, but their reality.

I sometimes feel like a tightrope walker in a troupe of performers. While my comrades are out there performing stunts high above the ground with no net beneath them, I wait in the wings, knowing that when it’s my turn there will be a nice, big safety net strung out for me. I am exaggerating, of course. I realize that my classmates will not live or die based on the whims of the field, and that they will all manage to get along in one way or another. They are all intelligent people, and I have no doubt they will be successful in whatever they choose to do. But the fact remains that the situation is nowhere near as urgent for me as it is for them.

The important question is, I suppose, whether knowing that I have a safety net beneath me makes me sloppy in my performance. If the answer is no, then I have nothing to worry about and, consequently, nothing to feel guilty about. While I may be Protestant, though, I have somehow been cursed with the guilt of a Catholic. Still, I don’t think I can deny that the safety net has in fact changed my performance. How can it not? A tightrope walker without a net risks death, whereas a tightrope walker with a net risks only a bruised ego. Maybe my situation isn’t quite on the same level, but I think the analogy applies.

It could also be that I’m looking at this the wrong way, that I’m only looking the negative aspect of the situation. On the positive side, I not only get to study folklore, but history, the arts, and every other aspect of Korean culture. I may not be performing in the same ring as my classmates, but I have a responsibility nonetheless—a responsibility to be a bridge between East and West, and that in itself carries enough of a burden.

And, in a way, my fate is tied to the rise and fall of folklore (or, in my case, oral literature) in Korea. After all, that field is where most of my contacts are and where I have the most influence in Korea. So it is in my best interests as well that my field flourishes, and that we find a way to keep the study of folklore new and relevant. There, I think I’m starting to feel better already. I guess I just needed to step back and look at things in a different way—Liminality to the rescue once again.

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