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Guest Post: On Changes in the American Folklore Society Annual Meeting Program

I am very happy to share this guest post by Tim Lloyd.

The American Folklore Society’s annual meeting is the high point of the professional year for the Society and for many of us this is evidenced by the amount of time we spend discussing present and past meetings and by the intensity of some of those discussions. In the hallways, lobbies, and bars near the rooms in which AFS annual meeting sessions happen, and in living rooms, offices, and coffee shops back home, it’s common for folklorists to discuss, interpret, and rate or rank the most recent annual meeting in light of our experience there, and to compare that experience to our recollections of the way things used to be. Each of us rapidly builds a body of such recollections which, as we know, can form the foundation of professional beliefs.

One of the more frequent beliefs that I have heard about AFS annual meetings is customarily expressed in two parts: one, that in recent decades the number of sessions devoted to academic papers has decreased as a proportion of the program; and two, that paper sessions have been replaced on the program by workshops and forums devoted to public folklore, as that part of the field has grown. But is either of these beliefs supported by the data?

Luckily, there is a rich and easily available source of data to which we can turn to support or challenge these professional beliefs: the American Folklore Society collection in the Indiana University ScholarWorks (IUSW) open online institutional repository (https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/9004). The collection is also accessible through the AFS-IU Library online portal Open Folklore at https://openfolklore.org/

AFS staff and volunteers and Indiana University librarians worked together to create and populate this collection starting in 2009. It contains large back runs of the journals of AFS sections and of AFS newsletters and the more recent AFS Review; a collection of syllabi and teaching resources provided by Society members; reports and other publications from AFS-sponsored professional development consultancies and workshops; AFS annual reports; and indexes to the contents of the Journal of American Folklore from 1889 to 1994.

The first 60 AFS annual meetings, from 1889 to 1948, were reported on—often at length—in the Journal of American Folklore, and all of those annual meeting reports are available in the AFS IUSW collection at https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/13514. In addition, the programs for all AFS annual meetings from the next 70 years, from 1949 to 2019, are available in this collection at https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/13071. Finally, the collection contains more than 70 videos of major AFS annual meeting presentations since 2004 at https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/20238

This means that extensive information about every AFS annual meeting is openly accessible online, offering an important way to track developments in folklore scholarship and public practice—and the timelines along which they first arose, since conference paper and session topics can evidence those trends well before they reach print.

Here is a brief report on a quick survey of just a bit of the annual meeting data contained in this collection. 

Wanting to know more about the ways in which the “shape” of AFS annual meetings—as measured by the types of sessions that make up the program—may have changed in recent decades, I reviewed the programs from five sample meetings (the most recent “normal” one in 2019, plus every ten years before that for 40 years: 2009, 1999, 1989 [the second of the Society’s two centennial meetings], and 1979) and counted up the numbers of various kinds of sessions, in six categories:

  1. Paper sessions
  2. Workshops or forums on non-public folklore subjects (as defined, on the fly, by me)
  3. Workshops or forums on public folklore subjects (ditto)
  4. Media sessions 
  5. Plenary sessions
  6. Sessions to attend to some matter of AFS business

I’ve shown the numbers—and, more importantly, the percentages of each kind of session on that year’s program—in Figure 1, with the most significant percentage increases from the previous decade’s program shown in green and the most significant decreases in red. My tracking excluded all social events and all events held by non-AFS organizations (like university presses). I also did not include section business meetings in my overall tally, though I did count them separately and have included them on the spreadsheet to note the growth in the number of AFS sections over these decades. 

My main takeaways from this quick look?

1. The percentage of paper sessions did decrease by about 22 percentage points during this 40-year period, most notably (I’m assuming for the moment) in the 2000s. (Note: “Paper sessions” includes those on all topics, including a small number—I’d say no more than 10% in any year—of paper sessions on public-folklore topics.)

2. This decrease has been slightly more than offset by increases in the percentage of workshops and forums of all kinds. Contrary to what I understand to be popular belief, since 2000 only a minority of those workshops and forums have covered public folklore subjects; that is, in 2009 and 2019, most of them were devoted to topics outside public folklore.

3. The greatest growth in the public-folklore workshop and forum part of the program, in fact, took place during the 1980s and 1990s. This makes sense, as this was the period when the field’s current public front was undergoing its initial periods of growth and development. (I believe that the first modern-day public folklore forum session at AFS was in Salt Lake City in 1978.) The percentage of these sorts of sessions continued to increase, though at a slower rate, in the 2000s and 2010s.

My smaller takeaways?

4. The percentage of AFS-sponsored or AFS business-related sessions increased most significantly in the 2000s. Having been around (and to some extent responsible) for almost all of those years, I’m not surprised.

5. The numbers suggest that the primary growth era for the AFS section universe was the 1980s.

And two smaller notes: Neither the number of media sessions nor that of plenaries showed much growth or decline during these 40 years. There were also three poster sessions at Boise in 2009, and one diamond session at Baltimore in 2019, but I didn’t include them in the spreadsheet because those numbers didn’t really seem material.

So on the basis of the work described here, it appears clear that over the last 40 years the percentage of the program devoted to sessions of academic papers has significantly decreased. It also appears clear that this decrease has been offset by an increase in the percentage of the program devoted to workshops and forums. But this increase is more complicated than it is widely believed to be, and appears to have two eras: one during the 1980s and 1990s that saw an increase in the number of public-folklore-related workshops and forums, and one that has taken place in the first two decades of the present century that saw an increase in the number of non-public-folklore-related (sorry for this infelicitous name) workshops and forums.

It might be pointed out that these decreases and increases could be attributed to patterns in the selections and choices made by the program committees who review, accept, and reject annual meeting proposals, rather than patterns in what prospective meeting attendees propose in the first place. However, the fact is that for many years the great majority of proposals have been accepted for annual meeting programs, which has the effect of taking those committees’ decisions largely out of this equation.

This is a small project, undertaken quickly with just a few data points from just five years of annual meetings. Please take it in the spirit in which I share it: as indicative rather than definitive. I undertook it because of my curiosity about whether perceptions of changes in the annual meeting over time matched what the programs would tell us, and because I wanted to carry out a small test of the utility of the AFS IUSW annual meeting collection for helping us answer questions about the history of the field.

The data—including abstracts of all AFS annual meeting presentations and sessions for the last several decades—exist in the AFS IUSW collection to support deeper and more extensive research. We could, for example, ask several forms of the “Why?” question about the data I’ve presented here, or examine in greater detail the topics of workshops and forums of all kinds looking for patterns of subject or theme. We could look more closely at the growth or decline over time of particular topics, approaches, sub-fields, or keywords in annual meetings generally. Or we might focus more tightly on every year in a decade to be able to craft a more complete picture of it, perhaps extending it forward, backward, or both (e.g., might there have been a “long 1980s” in folklore studies and if so, what was it and why does it matter?).

Thanks for your attention. I invite your responses and comments, but more emphatically I encourage you to pursue your own investigations using these remarkable, openly accessible online resources. 

Figure 1. Data related to five annual AFS meetings staged over the past five decades.
2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jack Santino #

    Tim, Thanks for this. Regarding “Public Folklore,” and the first panel of said topic in 1978, I’m curious how you factored in “Applied Folklore.” As you know, or as I remember it, the term “Applied Folklore” was essentially replaced by the more inclusive “Public Folklore.” But the Applied Folklore movement began decades earlier. I am just wondering if you took this into account in any way.

    All best–
    Jack

    May 31, 2021
    • Jack,

      Thanks for your comments and question. You’re absolutely correct that the applied folklore movement in our field began about a decade before the 40-year period I’ve been examining, and that we later began including such work under the “public folklore” heading. (Bob Byington tells some of this story in his essay “What Happened to Applied Folklore” in the AFS Centennial publication Time and Temperature, available at https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/9010.) And as you suspected, the 1979-2019 annual meeting sessions I indicated as being about “public folklore” do include presentations about the application of folklore-studies perspectives and insight to the resolution of cultural, economic, or social issues or problems, though because of the semantic inclusion I just mentioned, I didn’t separate them out.

      There are two follow-up investigations I’d like to undertake based on the first step I’ve reported on above. The first will look more closely (that is, at the level of individual presentation titles and abstracts) for the patterns of topic or theme that I can identify in the growing number of workshops and forums focused on academic (i.e., “non-public-folklore”) topics. The second speaks to your question: I’d like to trace the presence of applied folklore presentations in particular over a longer period of time (e.g., from 1970 to the present) in AFS annual meeting programs, while also bearing in mind that some of the most important conference presentations on applied folklore took part outside the AFS annual meeting context, as with the 1971 Point Park conference on applied folklore.

      Best,
      Tim

      June 1, 2021

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