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AFS Executive Director's State of the Society Address Delivered at 2017 AFS Business Meeting

Wednesday, November 8, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lorraine Cashman
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The following report on "The State of the Society" was delivered by Executive Director Timothy Lloyd at the AFS Annual Business Meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 21, 2017:

This year, we are continuing the deeply rooted tradition, begun an entire year ago in Miami, that calls for the executive director to give a brief annual talk about the state of the American Folklore Society as an organization. I am here to tell you this evening that the state of the Society in October 2017 is good…but not by any means perfect.

Some of the accomplishments and challenges I will describe in the next few minutes are particular to AFS, some celebrate particular members’ work of special note, and some are characteristic of the field as a whole. And that is as it should be. In their 1967 soul ballad—well worth listening to for many reasons if you don’t know it already—Sam and Dave sang that “When something is wrong with my baby, something is wrong with me,” and the same is true of AFS, its members, and the field: what affects one of us, or one part of our professional world, affects all of us.

First, some of the good. This past August 31, AFS finished its financial year in the black, having earned ever so slightly more than we spent during the year. Even better, this is the ninth consecutive year in which we’ve done so, since 2008, everyone’s least favorite recent financial year. And even better, for the first time since 2008 the money we earned from old-fashioned university library subscriptions to the Journal of American Folklore actually went up. Only by $813, but after 9 years of declines, any up is up to me.

But apart from matters of subscription revenue, through both hard-copy and online distribution The Journal of American Folklore—not just the most current issues but the entire run of the journal—is more widely read and downloaded worldwide than ever before. This is a remarkable testament to the work of our present editorial collective at Western Kentucky University and to that of the editors who preceded them, to all the colleagues who have written the articles and reviews that constitute the Journal’s amazing 129-year legacy, and to those inside and outside our field who use those materials in their classes and research. That online access to the contents of JAF provides the Society with a new kind of revenue from royalties—one unknown to us until about 12 years ago—that we use to support a number of AFS activities that don’t have their own source of income, such as the increasing number of annual meeting travel stipends AFS and its sections provide to folklorists of color, international colleagues, and students—more than $20,000 this year alone.

Our annual meeting continues to be well-attended and well-received and, since you all have been in the middle of it for the past three days, you hardly need me to tell you about the quality and variety of its presentations. I particularly want to call attention, though, to: 1) the series of Minneapolis sessions on “fake news”—a topic to the deeper understanding of which folklorists have much to say; 2) several sessions and workshops on professional issues (on sustainable employment for adjuncts and independents, on getting your work published, and on presenting our field to those outside it); and 3) sessions, most of them sponsored by our Cultural Diversity Committee, on social justice matters and issues inside and outside AFS, and in the communities where we work and in which we hold this meeting each year

In the larger world of the humanities and social sciences, the number of folklorists who have received American Council for Learned Societies fellowships for their work quadrupled last year, when three folklorists joined recent recipient Tim Tangherlini on this list. And, as other fields and learned societies in the humanities have recently begun developing their public dimensions to accommodate their new PhDs for whom there is not space in the academy, folklore studies, with its much deeper history of public engagement, is becoming more widely (and appropriately) regarded as a groundbreaking field and as an example for others.

A year ago, we opened our endowment campaign to participation by all AFS members, and I’m happy to report that more than two dozen new donors have joined our campaign since then.

Our work on several projects to serve and benefit the field continues to operate at a high level. We’ve just begun the tenth year of our National Endowment for the Arts-funded effort to provide consultancies to public folklore organizations and professional development opportunities to individual public folklorists. Open Folklore continues to provide an easy-to-use portal to folklore studies scholarship available online. And, for 17 years, we have carried out a series of projects to help make the contents of folklore archives in the US more accessible. We have high hopes of being able to continue that work next year with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Speaking of the NEA and NEH—and their sister organization the Institute of Museum and Library Services—AFS has worked hand in hand with academic folklore programs, public folklore organizations, and with the National Humanities Alliance (directed by folklorist Steve Kidd, I might note) and our 70 sister organizations in the American Council of Learned Societies to advocate in very strong terms against the abolition of these agencies that has been proposed by the current Administration, and—just as strongly—for their future funding at no less than their current level, though by the standards of most comparable nations that current level is woefully inadequate.

Our work with the China Folklore Society is also in its tenth year, and during the past year we have planned a China-US museums collaboration around ethnic minority group textile traditions from southwestern China, and have produced a folklore summer institute for graduate students and early career-professionals from China, the US, and—I am happy to report—Japan as well.

But all is not as we want it to be. It is good, for instance, that our membership numbers have remained stable, but what is not good is that those numbers are not growing. It is good that student membership in particular has remained stable, but where will the professional opportunities be for those students over the next 10, 20, or 30 years? To effectively encourage more young people to enter the field we need to be able to demonstrate that there are more opportunities at the other end of the pipeline—and we cannot always do this. It is good that diversity in the Society has increased by about 50% over the past 10 years, but still we have a long way to go to make our field and its institutions as diverse and inclusive as they should be.

Our field faces many important challenges. In the member survey we conducted in early 2016, members were quite clear about their top three priorities for new work by AFS—another way of identifying our most persistent problems: 1) bringing younger people into the field; 2) increasing the numbers of future professional opportunities for them, achieved in part by more effective advocacy outside the field concerning the importance and contributions of folklore studies; and 3) increasing the diversity of AFS membership.

The Board has adopted these highly interrelated challenges as official AFS policy to pursue and, following advocacy from within the membership last year, the Board has added the need to provide greater targeted professional support for adjunct and independent folklorists to that list. But, although recruitment, advocacy, and diversity are the interlocking challenges the AFS Executive Board and staff will be engaging with into the next decade at least, you also have to understand that these are not AFS-only challenges: they imply, and must involve, many institutions and people across the field as a whole.

Who will do the work to respond to these challenges? One of the most common experiences we have at the AFS office is when a member contacts us to recommend that “AFS should do X.” Our response is often to ask some version of these questions: “Which AFS do you mean? The AFS staff? The AFS Executive Board? One of our committees or sections? The entire Society?” In many instances, in fact, the “AFS” this imaginary member has in mind is quite often the entire field, and in fact the hardest and most engaging problems of all, like the ones I’ve just mentioned, are ones that will require people and institutions from across the entire field (often with AFS serving a leading or coordinating role) to work together to solve.

We will need all the intelligence, and all the initiative, we can muster to do this. It appears to be a universal principle of human nature that it is easier to find people willing to argue the need for a ditch to be dug than it is to find people willing to help you dig it. But I’m happy to report that folklorists represent a notable exception to this rule.

AFS is, and always has been, no more or less than what all of us have made of it, and without the dedicated support of hundreds of volunteers throughout the field we could do very little of what we get done each year. So I thank all of you who have volunteered in the past year for your out-of-the-ordinary contributions of all kinds, and I invite all of you to serve and support the field by helping us undertake this future Big Dig.

Thank you.

 

 



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