Student Fieldwork Adds Regional Flavor to Folklife Archive

Posted: September 11, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Peggy Yocom
Professor Margaret Yocom’s office is more than that – it’s the home of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive. “We’d love to have people come and read our holdings and make use of them in research,” says Yocom.

By Art Taylor

The filing cabinets in English Professor Margaret Yocom’s office may look ordinary, but they are in fact much more than that. The cabinets are the current repository of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive, which comprises more than 1,600 papers about folklore and folklife from Northern Virginia, the mid-Atlantic region and beyond.

Local legends and ghost stories rank high among the more popular entries, such as the famous Bunny Man Bridge in Clifton, Va., supposedly haunted by an escapee from an insane asylum. But the archive also features information on quilting and other traditional crafts, regional folk remedies, how to make and serve chitlins, roadside memorials for car accident victims and even a few tales and traditions centered on Mason’s Fairfax Campus.

Most of these entries are the product of fieldwork by Mason students in folklore classes taught by Yocom, her colleague, Debra Shutika, and others. One of the central missions of fieldwork studies is not just to record an isolated story or practice, but to chart the variations of that story or the history of that practice; the personal investments and emotional connections that provide the foundation of a specific tradition; and the changes that these stories, practices and traditions have undergone and continue to experience.

Area’s Diversity Creates Rich Source of Folklore

Mason’s diverse student population and the area’s rich cultural diversity make this area an ideal place for studies of such individual stories and shifting traditions.

“Northern Virginia is a lively place to study the hybridity of tradition because we have so many ethnic and international groups and many marriages between ethnic groups and racial groups,” says Yocom. “Any marriage is a combination of two different cultures, containing issues that have to be negotiated.”

In one archive paper, an Asian American student interviewed her friends about their decisions and actions versus their mothers’ advice. The friends talked about the difficulties they faced as children of new immigrants to the United States regarding such issues as holiday traditions and speaking their native language. “Our students negotiate these things all the time,” says Yocom.

While it might seem easy for students simply to write down their experiences, the approach to such stories is far from casual. The folklore courses at Mason are designed to prepare students for serious fieldwork. Textbooks often offer examples of student fieldwork and pair such pieces with guidelines on how to collect similar stories. The books also provide accounts of professional folklorists in action so that students have models from which to conduct their own studies.

Peggy Yocom with artifact
Interesting artifacts are also included in the archive.
Photos by Nicolas Tan

Class discussions might center on fieldwork techniques, or class time might be spent prepping for upcoming interviews or reviewing completed ones. Students also learn about ways to ask for signed permission from their subjects and the need for such permission, along with the various restrictions that can be put on access to the material to protect privacy.

“Some students and their subjects don’t want their materials in the archives because they deem it too private,” says Yocom. “That was the case with one student from El Salvador, a country with a strong tradition of mermaids and mermaid sightings. His father had some wonderful stories about mermaids that he’d seen, but the student didn’t want them in the archives because people had made fun of him when he had told the stories.”

A Repository and a Resource

As much as 70 percent of the fieldwork for any given course might find its way into the archives. Yocom also accepts contributions from the general public: “Occasionally, we’ve had community members who have written autobiographies or something similar that talks about the life of the region, and they’ve been looking for a place to house it. We’re certainly willing to provide that place.”

Several graduate research assistants from the department’s MA and MFA programs have assisted in developing the archive over the years, including Rebecca Knotts, Alyssa Trzeszkowski-Giese and Michael Martinez. Graduate student Shawn Flanagan begins his work as a research assistant this year. The archive has also benefited from the contributions of many student volunteers, including Dan Boland, Aaron Hartman, Bill Nevitsky and Susan Tolchin.

Plans for the archive include possible relocation to University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives and digitization for preservation purposes and easier access. In the meantime, Mason students and the general public can make appointments to visit the archive.

“We’d love to have people come and read our holdings and make use of them in research,” says Yocom. “We welcome creative writers to use our materials in their poems and short stories and creative nonfiction. And we welcome drama and music people who might want to take our stories and create performance pieces of them.”

To view selections from the archives or for more information, visit www.gmu.edu/folklore/nvfa. To arrange a visit, contact Yocom at 703-993-1172 or myocom@gmu.edu.

This article appeared in a slightly different form in Not Just Letters, the English Department newsletter.

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