Anthony Bak Buccitelli

Featured Folklorist, Folklore Works
Anthony Bak Buccitelli
Photo courtesy of Anthony Bak Buccitelli

Anthony Buccitelli is Associate Professor of American Studies and Communications in the School of Humanities at The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, and serves as Director of Penn State’s Pennsylvania Center for Folklore.

Buccitelli became a member of the American Folklore Society in 2004 when he was an MA student in Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, and he attended his first annual meeting that year in Salt Lake City, UT. Since then, Buccitelli has attended almost every annual meeting, and is now sharing the leadership of the Planning Committee for the 2021 Annual Meeting in Harrisburg. He also served a term on the AFS Publications committee and has been involved with several interest sections, especially the History and Folklore Section. Buccitelli took part in an exchange program in 2013 that was sponsored by AFS and the China Folklore Society. He stated that the exchange program with was a fantastic opportunity to learn about the important work being done by his colleagues in the People’s Republic of China.

Briefly describe your career history, paying special attention to how you got from your very first folklore job to your current position. Did you expect to be doing what you are now doing when you entered the field? 

I have been very privileged—or to put it another way, lucky—in my career. First and foremost, I have benefited tremendously from wonderful mentors since I first entered my graduate studies, and this mentorship and support has continued into my post-graduate professional life as well.

One other way I have been fortunate is to have been able to teach folklore courses almost since the beginning of my graduate studies. I often did so by taking non-folklore courses and finding ways to make them about folklore. When I was at Berkeley, for example, I found a job teaching a basic research and writing course in the Celtic Studies Program. Within their set framework, I was able to teach the course with a focus on Northern European folklore.

When I moved to Boston University for my doctorate, I brought this course with me into BU’s writing program. This took some doing, however. When I first arrived, I was assigned as a teaching assistant and later instructor for US history survey courses. It wasn’t until a few years later that I had a chance to go back to teaching writing. And I was turned down on my first try!  But with the help of a one of the best teaching mentors I’ve had, Joe Bizup, I was able to bring my folklore course into BU’s writing program. Working with Joe and learning from his approaches probably taught me more about how to be a successful teacher than any other experience. Later, I was also able to create a similar course, focused on immigrant and ethnic folklore in the United States.

In a similar way, in the last two years of my doctoral study, I took a job in a community college system, teaching a course on world religion. Much to my surprise, there were other folklorists on the faculty there, including Laura Ruberto and Dylan Eret, both of whom were wonderful and supportive colleagues. With their help, I eventually took over the teaching of an introductory folklore course they had on the books.

In many small ways like this, I gradually built up a decent record of teaching in the areas of folklore, history, and humanities. As it turned out, my somewhat eclectic—or perhaps, bizarre—mixture of teaching worked in my favor, since the program at Penn State that I was eventually hired into was looking for someone who could teach in a wide variety of areas, including folklore. While I was always looking toward a career in a university setting teaching folklore, I had no idea how I was actually going to end up where I did! So, it’s only in retrospect that one thing seems to build on another.

I was also extremely fortunate to have found a great tenure-track job directly out of graduate school. So, after wrapping up my doctorate in the spring of 2012, I moved to Pennsylvania to take up a position at Penn State that fall. The tenure-track can be a pretty grueling experience, as you are trying to establish a roster of courses to teach and get publications out the door at the same time. I was also living as a single parent with a young child at the time, so that made it even more complicated to balance with my family life. But it was also a process through which I learned a lot—again, mainly as the result of great mentorship from my Penn State colleagues, especially Simon Bronner—about how to function effectively as a research scholar at a high level.

I received tenure and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2018, which was obviously a relief. I remember that just afterwards my friend and colleague Juwen Zhang made the wise comment that it can take at least three years to shift from early to mid-career ways of thinking, so maybe I’m not quite there yet. But I have definitely shifted gears in some ways. I have ended up doing a lot more service after tenure, so the singular focus on research has evolved a bit, but I also have the luxury of more time to think about the bigger picture of the field and my own research, so that’s gratifying.

Around the same time, I took on my role as director of the Pennsylvania Center for Folklore, a small research center at Penn State. It’s a challenge to find ways to manage the Center’s activities on a very tight budget, but I also feel very fortunate that we have one of the very few academic centers in the United States that is entirely focused on the study of folklore.

And although certainly it can be a lot of work at times, I also feel very fortunate that we have rich graduate programs within American Studies that allow students the leeway to work on folklore-related research. We offer an integrated undergraduate/MA degree, an MA, and PhD in American studies, all of which can be done with folklore coursework and research. We also offer graduate certificates in Folklore and Ethnography and in Public Heritage and Museum Studies. So, what this means for me as a faculty member, is that I have the tremendous privilege to be able to teach graduate seminars in folklore studies.  I also have the chance to work with all of our wonderful graduate students on their individual research. As a folklorist, it’s hard to think of a job that could offer much more than this!

What goals drive your work? What kinds of impact do you hope to achieve?

I think my big picture goal is to try to help folklore find ways to make connections to other academic fields. At times, I think we do a bit too much handwringing about the marginalization of folklore studies in the academy; in many ways I think our research is both valued and valuable. Certainly, I have seen excellent folklore research cited and discussed in the work of scholars in many other disciplines, and I have also found that there is much more receptiveness to what we have to offer than we often give ourselves credit for. And we are extremely lucky as well that our subject of study—the folklore itself—is literally everywhere, all around us, all the time. So, our work is unlimited in scope and provides insights into some of the most basic and vital aspects of everyday human life. To my mind, folklorists have a different and, I think, deeper understanding of the dynamics of cultural expression that any other discipline. That may be our primary way to contribute to the larger academic discourse.

I should also add that I think the public engagement side of our field is extremely important, so I don’t intend my focus on forging academic connections to in any way diminish the other important connections our colleagues are building. I am decidedly academic in my orientation, though. It’s just my personality, I guess.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

Balancing expansive work with limited resources. As I said, we like to talk about ourselves as a small field, but if you look at it in terms of subject area, we are huge. Sure, there are many works of literature that an English professor might study, but our subject is literally everywhere and every day.

We have to take all of that in with the resources of not just a humanities field, which is marginal enough, but one that is numerically much smaller than other disciplines. Yet, in a certain odd way that’s our strength as well. Folklorists are often found, like me, hiding out in departments or units of other fields, whether it’s anthropology, English, or anything else. So, we have these great networks of colleagues out there to help us do the kind of work we are all passionate about.

Speaking personally, I think the most challenging part of my work is simply finding the time and energy to do everything I would like to do. For better or worse, I have pretty wide-ranging interests, both in research and in teaching or service. Right now, for example, I am working on a book on digital technologies and the performance of folklore, researching some little-known writing that early sociologist Jane Addams did on gender and a supernatural legend, teaching a new graduate course on folk narrative, and trying to begin a large digitization project of the archival materials in our folklore center. My wonderful colleague Jeff Tolbert and I have also been working on integrating ethnographic research into a “smart home” technologies project that Penn State Harrisburg is launching. It seems like a great way to help our student learn to do ethnographic research and, at the same time, find a role for folklore studies in a largely science and engineering-focused research project. I would love to do something similar in the future with our medical school, but, as you can see, this is where I start to run into trouble in the time and energy department. No complaints though; I feel very fortunate to have so many exciting possibilities in front of me.

If you had unlimited time and resources available to develop a research project or public program, how would you use them? What would you hope to accomplish?

This may sound strange, but I would love to do something as ambitious as Thompson’s Motif-Index. I don’t think motif indexing is my forte, but I would love to develop some grand project like that which would take a decade to complete.

More concretely though, I have been giving some thought to trying to organize a team-based field project on mobile media and folklore for my next major research project. I’d like to do a broad-based study of the way people use mobile phones in the day-to-day performance of folklore, looking at a large number of subjects who cut across groups. Sometimes I think we’ve become too restricted in working only with small groups; it would be great to find a way to do the kind of nuanced ethnographic study of communicative practices that we’ve pioneered, but on a larger scale. Although it would have to be adapted to our needs as folklorists, projects like The Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Aging, developed through the University College London and the European Research Council, or the Matsutake Worlds Research Group, developed through the University of California, Santa Cruz offer important models for us to consider. To do something like this in folklore studies will take a lot of organizing and funds, but I like to think big!

How did you discover folklore? Why did you pursue it?

I discovered folklore through J.R.R Tolkien and China. Sounds strange, right? I guess like everything else, it mostly makes sense only in retrospect. When I was in college, I studied philosophy and enjoyed the engagement with big ideas, but never really connected that well with the discipline.

After I graduated, I spent a few months working for a trash company in Portland, OR, before following some friends over t0 Southwestern China, where I lived and taught English for about fifteen months. It was my first time living abroad. I expected that culture shock would mean that I would be bowled over by the differences of Chinese culture. Instead, I spent most of my time thinking about American culture; it had been brought into relief. So that put the idea of everyday culture front and center in my mind.

I have also been a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books since I was a teenager, even the less narrative ones that dwell heavily on historical episodes in Middle Earth. The complexity of the legends, beliefs, myths, and folk histories he developed for his imaginary worlds were a big part of what I enjoyed so much. When I was in China, I just happened to be reading a lot of the historical texts- The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, for example—for the first time. So, as I was also thinking about culture more broadly, I began to wonder if there was a way to study something like this in the actual world, rather than in the works of a single author. I asked some friends and former professors about who did this kind of work, and I ended up with copies of Alan Dundes’s The Study of Folklore and Vladimir Propp’s The Morphology of the Folktale. After that I was hooked. My work ended up being nothing like theirs, but I still find those books inspiring.  

How do you present the idea of folklore to communities speaking other languages or where “folklore” is not a common word or where it is understood as entertainment loosely based on traditions of a perceived lower class and has taken on pejorative meanings?

Perhaps this is odd, but I have never encountered this situation. Plenty of people have totally misunderstood the kind of thing I do, but almost never in a negative way. Actually, it’s been more common for people, when I say I’m a folklorist, to suddenly start talking about Cinderella or Bigfoot, something they’ve seen on TV that they associate with the idea of folklore. So, if I want to clarify, sometimes I explain my work as being a bit like that of an anthropologist. That usually helps because then they either have a better idea of what I mean, or they have absolutely no idea what an anthropologist does. Either way, we can usually move on from Bigfoot at that point. 

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