Lisa Gilman

Featured Folklorist, Folklore Works
Lisa Gilman
Photo courtesy of Lisa Gilman

Lisa Gilman is a folklorist and ethnomusicologist who received her Ph.D. in Folklore from Indiana University. She currently serves as a Professor in Folklore Studies and Public Humanities in George Mason University’s English Department and as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of American Folklore. Her research interests include performance, music, dance, intangible cultural heritage, trauma, gender, and sexuality in southern Africa and the United States. Her works include monographs, co-edited volumes, articles, book chapters, and a documentary film. Previously, she taught in the Folklore and Public Culture Program of the University of Oregon, Performance Studies at Texas A&M University, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Toledo.

Tell me about a project that’s been especially important to you recently.

At George Mason University, we have a strong Arts Management program. My colleague in Arts Management, Carole Rosenstein, has written about cultural policy and overlaps a lot with the folklore world. She and I and another colleague in Arts Management, Karalee Dawn, collaborated with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and received a grant from George Mason to develop two courses in folklife festival management. In the spring of 2020, we taught a course that included students in both Folklore and Arts Management. The class was on what a folklife festival is, folklore theory, public folklore and how that differs from arts management. It also included some hands-on logistics that the Smithsonian folks helped out with in terms of what skills one needs to run the festival. The plan was that toward the end of the semester, the students would start working with some of the working groups within the center that put on the festival. In the summer, half the students were going to be doing internships with the festival.

The goal is that students benefit from the instruction, the hands-on experience, developing networks, and having the people who run the festival doing some of the instruction. The festival always hires interns in the summer, many of whom have no idea what folklore is, or folklife, and so the center benefits by getting some interns who have a little bit more background. Training would have already started in the spring, so they should be able to hit the ground running with some of the internships that require more know-how.

I’m really invested in AFS and trying to figure out the diversity piece of it–why we aren’t attracting more diverse students into our program. Mason has an incredibly diverse student body, so the hope is also that as this program builds, we’re bringing more people, more students into this course sequence. They can build their CVs and their networks and hopefully also see folklore as a viable career option. Of course, the pandemic dramatically changed our plans for these courses in the pilot year, but we’re going to try again next year.

In terms of developing and putting together that program, what were some of the challenges, obstacles, or unexpected moments that you had to overcome?

I would say that the biggest challenge is how to work within institutional structures to do something that’s the right thing to do and a creative thing to do that meets the missions of all the different institutions involved. The university is set to pay its faculty and adjuncts, but there’s not really a mechanism for saying, well, the [Smithsonian] Center is contributing enormously to this learning and professional opportunity, so we’re going to give them a chunk of cash. That doesn’t fit into any of the ways that the university budgets its money.  Even within the university, the Folklore program is collaborating with the Arts Management program, but the university’s budget model is such that collaborating across colleges is not advantageous to either college. There are all these institutional barriers to doing something that seems exciting on both a pedagogical and professional level. I think that’s something that I constantly find frustrating, but I also find it to be a challenge, and I kind of enjoy those challenges, even as much as they frustrate me.

I’m curious about what aspects of folklore you feel resonate with people outside of folklore as you’ve been strategizing and working with people in other departments.

I think the benefit of folklore is the chameleon aspect of it. When I was a student at IU, we learned to be really scrappy. We had so little funding. We became really good at figuring out whatever little scrap of cash was there. We got really good at selling ourselves in a variety of ways. That’s a real skill, a strength, that we don’t acknowledge as much as we could.

And of course, the diversity, the ethnographic work, the listening, understanding what people are, where they’re coming from, the recognizing of the arts and expressive culture that’s kind of trivialized, we know that it is really valuable and it is central to how the world works. All of that is valuable outside the field.

In general, what do you feel is the role of folklore in social change, enacting it or supporting it, as a discipline that lends itself to both research and public work?

“In my own research, I study power. I study expressive culture as a way to understand power relationships, hierarchies, dominance, oppression, and how we use expressive culture both to oppress and to fight.”

Many of us study these things within our own research, but we don’t always turn the lens back on ourselves. I am currently trying to do that in my little microworld of the Journal of American Folklore.

With the murder of George Floyd and this huge movement that is happening, I’m really thinking about the structural and systemic racism in our society and recognizing that the Journal is an institution, it’s part of the system. It is a structure. As folklorists, we have the tools to ask, what are the systems in our society? What are the structures? How do those structures contribute to racism specifically?

As the JAF editor, I’ve worked with the editorial team to create an action plan that comes out of  my having researched power for the last 20 years. I’m hoping to create some structures that will outlive my term as editor. Unless you actually do things that are going to produce some kind of systemic change, you’ll continue to have ebbs and flows, not real transformation.

I also think teaching is very powerful. I think of it as part of an activist agenda, but I think our public sector colleagues are sometimes doing more work on the ground.

How would you place it right now within the landscape of changes that have happened in the field since you entered it?

When I came in, there was this massive divide between the public sector folklorists and the academic folklorists, and there was a lot of anger, a lot of resentment. I think that that has largely dissipated. I think there’s been a change in terms of the culture, in terms of how people think, but also in terms of who the presidents of this society are, who’s on the executive board, and so on. We had Bill Ivey and Bill Ferris as the heads of NEA and NEH, and they got a lot more visibility than any famous publisher of academic books is ever going to get. I think that most of us now recognize that public and academic (and other types) of folklore are all valuable. I think that that’s been a massive, real transformation. That gives me hope.

I feel frustrated that there hasn’t been as much change in recognizing the works of people of color and women, and I think that continues to be an ongoing problem within the society. The whole point of why we’re doing what we do is to respect, honor, and value the marginalized. The fact that there is marginalization of marginalized peoples within our Society is something that makes me angry and is an ongoing source of frustration. There’s not enough self-reflection in recognizing privilege and how much we’re complicit.

One of the things that’s making me a little bit hopeful now is that there is a lot of pressure on liberal white folks to think about ourselves and our own roles.

Do you see public-facing work as a particular part of the solution moving forward?

I think the public-facing work is important. A lot of our public folklore colleagues would say their work is anti-racist. Their work is collaborating and working with diverse communities from the ground up. Yet, I think we have to question why white folks tend to be the majority in most public sector organizations.

One of the reasons that I’m really excited to partner with the Arts Management program at George Mason is that a large number of their domestic graduate students are people of color. There’s the Arts Administrators of Color Network organization that grew out of students from George Mason University who are now working professionals in arts administration and museums. When they have students or mentees who they are encouraging to study arts management or museum studies, they often recommend George Mason. This example shows that creating programs that provide what our colleagues of color need is very real and possible.

We need the people teaching folklore to be diverse, and we need the people working as public folklorists to be diverse. To do that we (academic and public folklorists) have to collaborate together. This festival management course sequence is really trying to think about that. Students should be able to come to programs where there are people like them teaching them, who then give them what they need to be able to get the kind of jobs that they were hoping for. 

Again, we need to use the brains we have to think strategically, and I think what’s difficult is that we get into our jobs and replicate what’s already happening. But I think white people who find ourselves in the center, we need to be driving these initiatives because we’re also the ones who are the beneficiaries of  power and privilege.

How have you had to make changes due to the pandemic? What are you seeing as changes and as end goals to your projects in a very different time?

I don’t know yet. I have to say, I’m talking about all this structural, systemic stuff, which I think is really critical. But our field is what allows us to do the work that we do, that I love doing. The Society exists to support us doing what we do. 

“And yes, I do the work I do because I’m interested in politics and gender and power, but what I really love is what we study. I love that we value things that are integral and central to life and pleasure and fun, and that they’re tied to all of these other troublesome things.”

When the pandemic hit, I was going to go to Turkey and Malawi for a project I want to start on music and refugees. Now we have this pandemic, and I don’t even know how to wrap my mind around what my next project is going to be. I feel grateful that I have enough stuff on my plate and enough things that I am really committed to doing that I’ve been able to shift my energy. Having the pandemic has allowed me to really focus and [manage the JAF] in a deeper way than I had anticipated.

But I am really looking forward to getting on that airplane someday and going to Malawi and Turkey! One of the best things about being a folklorist, which I’ve only really been able to enjoy in the last few years, is that if you’re a folklorist and you travel and you’re hosted by other folklorists, they are the best travel guides in the whole wide world.

I get so much joy and pleasure out of the work that I do, and I think that’s an important thing that we need to all remember.

What do you think is the future of folklore studies? How do you see the study of folklore continuing to contribute to society in general?

In so many different ways. I think so many of us are working in so many different kinds of organizations and institutions, and ideally we bring our training and our approach to other people as one where we listen and we try to understand people with other perspectives. We try to experience things from other people’s perspectives. We have folklorists working in all different places, and I think that’s tremendously valuable in conflict resolution and organizational management, policymaking, and in all social work. I think that there’s tremendous value in those ethnographic methods.

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