Theresa Vaughan

Featured Folklorist, Folklore Works
Theresa Vaughan
Theresa taking a selfie, wearing a pussy hat made by Charlie Groth that commemorates participating in the 2017 Woman’s March in Paris, France while on sabbatical; photo courtesy of Theresa Vaughan.

Theresa Vaughan attended her first American Folklore Society meeting in Jacksonville, FL in 1992, driving for two days each way in a van with a bunch of other graduate students from IU—most of whom are still speaking to each other all these years later. She has served as co-convener of the Women’s Section, edited Folklore Feminists Communication, sits on the editorial board of The Digest: A Journal of Foodways and Culture for the Foodways section, and has chaired or been a member of the committees for the Elli Kongas-Maranda Prize, the Polly Stewart Student Travel Award, and the Sue Samuelson Foodways Student Essay Prize. She is an active member of the Women’s Section and Foodways Section and also participates in the Medieval and Early Modern Folklore Section on a regular basis. She was co-editor (with Liz Locke and Pauline Greenhill) of the Encyclopedia of Women’s Folklore and Folklife (2008), and her current work includes Balancing the Humours: Women, Food, and Diet in the Middle Ages, forthcoming in 2020 from Amsterdam University Press. She is a member of the Local Planning Committee for AFS 2020 Annual Meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What is your current job, and how does it relate to the field of folklore? What kinds of things do you do day-to-day in this position?

I am currently Professor of Humanities and Assistant Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO). I teach required general education classes referred to as General Humanities, which surveys the history, art, music, literature, philosophy, and religions of the Western world from the Bronze Age through the present day. I also am responsible for teaching courses which are non-Western or indigenous in focus, or which deal heavily with archeology. Our typical load is 4/4. As an assistant dean, I manage college projects which focus on interdisciplinary endeavors and serve as a liaison to other areas of the university. In my copious free time, I try to get some research done and remain active in AFS.

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 completed both a French and anthropology major in college and finished half a major in cellular and molecular biology—my interests are wide-ranging. I applied to graduate schools for anthropology, but one of my anthropology professors also introduced me to the field of folklore, so I applied to Indiana University (IU) and University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) as well. IU offered me a fellowship, so I got my PhD in folklore with a double minor in anthropology. My spouse had found a tenure-track job at the University of Oklahoma, and when I was finished I was lucky enough to be offered a tenure-track position in the UCO Department of Humanities and Philosophy—which was looking for someone who could teach Western Humanities, but could also cover their non-Western classes. My background was weird enough that they picked me. Twenty-five years later, I’m still here. I never expected to live in Oklahoma, I never expected to be teaching humanities (I identified more with the social sciences), and I never expected to land a tenure-track position teaching outside of my discipline.

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

My work in folklore has meandered a bit over the years—one of the hazards of being a generalist and teaching outside of my specific field. In the classroom, although I rarely get to teach a course specifically on folklore, I bring folklore to whatever I teach. My goal is always to help students see not just the work of the famous, but of the common people; not just great works of literature or art, but of folklore and material culture—and show how the two are related. I try to bring sensitivity to cultural products, cultures, religions, and different worldviews to all my classes. My goal is to get my students to see other peoples and cultures as making sense, to clear up misconceptions, and to make them more attuned to what is important to us all. In my research, I often use the perspectives of folklore and anthropology to give alternative takes on history, texts, culinary history, artwork, and so on.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

What I have found most challenging is finding a place for myself in the discipline when I rarely have sustained contact with other folklorists. My university doesn’t even have an anthropology department. The other thing I have found challenging is that I feel more comfortable doing historical research than contemporary fieldwork, even though I feel fieldwork is more important to the field most of the time. I have had to learn to accept my limitations.

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?

In Oklahoma, what I would most hope to accomplish would be to fund a robust public agency which gives grants to traditional artists and others who are the tradition bearers of the unique combination of communities and cultures living in Oklahoma. I would hope that such an agency would also be able to employ folklorists to help document and promote Oklahoma’s folk culture.

How does your current work impact your community? What is, in your mind, the most important professional contribution that you make (or have made)?

My impact on the community has occurred largely in the classroom. I have given some public lectures and have served on the board of a local arts center, but I have not had the kind of time I would like to make a more direct impact on the community or the discipline itself.

How did you come to reside where you now live? What are your favorite aspects of the area or of your local community?

As mentioned above, I never expected to be living in Oklahoma. I am here more or less because of my spouse and an unexpected job opportunity. Being from Michigan, living in Oklahoma was a bit of a shock, though getting to know Ross Peterson-Veatch in graduate school, who grew up in Tulsa and loves it to this day, did give me some sense that there were some good things and great people out here. Over the years, I have come to appreciate some of the food (still not keen on okra), the diverse mixture of cultures and ethnicities, the rather lively weather, and above all Oklahomans themselves. We rarely agree on politics or religion, but the people here would give you the shirt of their backs if you were in trouble. Time and again—after the Murrah Building bombing in 1995, after each devastating tornado, and other disasters the people of Oklahoma pull up their boots and rush to help their neighbors—no questions asked, no thanks necessary.

What do you most wish outsiders knew about your community? What are some common stereotypes or misconceptions that you often find yourself trying to disprove?

Oklahomans have historically been portrayed as poor, ignorant, right-wing fanatics and gun-toting idiots. While there are many problems here related to poverty and the state is pervaded by a certain conservative religious perspective, it is also highly diverse. People here care about the state and their neighbors. People take pride in their culture and in self-sufficiency. They are friendly and warm and have a lot to be proud of. There are rich histories here. The tendency among some academics is to just write the state off as being a very red fly-over state, and that’s disappointing.

What kinds of things occupy your personal time? In particular, what sorts of local or regional activities, endeavors, or commitments do you pursue when you’re not on the job?

Being a pretty strong introvert, I don’t do a ton of socializing—but I enjoy going to art fairs, museums, trying new restaurants, and attending the occasional powwow. I have yet to attend a rodeo, however, but it is on my to-do list.

Tell us about your favorite foods unique to the region where you live.

Since I am particularly interested in foodways, forgive me if this is a long answer. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and thought I had been exposed to many different kinds of foods. However, I learned about several foodways which were new to me. Country gravy and sausage gravy were a puzzle—gravy is supposed to be brown! It looks sort of like Crisco to me, but I tasted it and it was good! I have since grown to enjoy biscuits and gravy, country-fried steak, and other Oklahoma specialties (except okra). The Oklahoma City area has a large Southeast Asian population which settled here after the Vietnam War. I have become familiar with Vietnamese food (my favorites being pho and bun cha), Thai food, and other Asian cuisines which I didn’t know. I’ve also been introduced to frybread, Indian tacos, Frito chili pie, much more authentic Mexican food (there’s a great Oaxacan place within walking distance of my house), and quite frankly alarmingly huge slabs of beef. I’ve come to appreciate that “barbeque” is a food group, and that you don’t “barbeque” steaks and burgers (as we say up north), but you grill them. I love the food landscape here!

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

While some of that question has been answered above, one of my favorite books as a kid was called Hodgepodge, which was a miscellany of American folklore written by Duncan Emrich. It was a glorious collect of all kinds of things and I read it over and over again. When I eventually found out you could actually study that stuff, I was intrigued.

What makes folklore unique as a discipline?

At its best, folklore is an incredibly humane discipline which finds joy and interest in individuals and cultures, but is always centered by cultural products—stories, material culture, and other expressions of what it means to be human. It is that centering which returns us over and over again to both individuals and the larger cultural worldviews.

What would you do differently at the beginning of your career, if you knew what you know now?

I would not have worried so much about being well-known in my field and making important contributions by landing a job at an R1 school—life can be lived well in smaller institutions. I would have made myself do more fieldwork after I finished my dissertation. I would have written more, even if it didn’t get published, just because it’s something I enjoy. I would have become more involved in the museum community. Essentially, I would have stopped thinking there was only one right way to be a folklorist.

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