Academic journal article Western Folklore

"Rather out of the Center of Things": Contributions of Alta Fife to American Folklore Scholarship

Academic journal article Western Folklore

"Rather out of the Center of Things": Contributions of Alta Fife to American Folklore Scholarship

Article excerpt

While folklorists consider looking at the overlooked as a key contribution of the field, the history of folklore studies still holds many overlooked areas, issues, and people. The folklore work of Alta Fife offers an important complement and contrast to the contributions of her husband, Austin Fife, and other prominent folklorists of the mid-twentieth century. Although Austin only taught folklore courses at the end of his work as a French professor, his academic career is similar to the trajectories of other professionally trained scholars who established folklore studies as an academic field in the United States. My dissertation research on Stith Thompson's career concurred with discussions of professionalism and the linear academic career model that emerged in the United States from mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. However, some aspects of Thompson's career, such as the importance of mentors and collegiality, have not been adequately acknowledged in theories of academic professionalism. Four Symposia in Folklore, the report of the Midcentury International Folklore Conference, introduced me to the significance of collegiality in shaping Thompson's career (Rudy 2000). Collaborative work with national and international colleagues helped Thompson frame folklore studies as an important scholarly discipline deserving doctoral status.

Thompson's references in Four Symposia to the collaboration of Austin and Alta Fife encourage me to investigate Alta's contributions to folklore studies in contrast to a highly professionalized, linear career model. While Thompson was trained in the English departments of several prominent universities around the country (Wisconsin, Berkeley, and Harvard), Alta Fife attended Utah State University but held no formal degrees. Thompson worked in libraries and archives to produce his type and motif indexes, and his revision of the Aarne type index that added his name to the work was a significant boost to his academic career. However, the motif index bears Thompson's name alone, although students and colleagues contributed references and resources to the production of the work in a highly collaborative manner. With her husband, who was trained in French and folklore at Harvard and Stanford, Fife conducted field research on Mormon folklore and western folk song. The Fifes' fieldwork and archival research resulted in several co-authored articles in academic journals and in books published by university presses. She also contributed significantly to the donation, indexing, and organizing of the Fife Mormon and Fife American collections that form the basis of the Fife Folklore Archives at Utah State University. However, Alta Fife never held an academic position and rarely received a salary for her folklore collecting, publishing, and archiving. This lack of institutional support and status invites the question: does her lifetime of work count as a professional, scholarly endeavor?

Alta Fife's work at the borders of professional training stands as a contribution, and subtle challenge, to folklore studies. Because Fife held no academic degrees nor university positions, and because most of her published works were co-authored with her husband, acknowledging Fife's work and assessing her contribution requires an understanding and reassessment of the place of collaboration and family life in the conduct of scholarship. In part, Fife could be acknowledged as a co-author on the scholarly books and articles because folklore studies had not emerged as a fully professionalized field at the time she and her husband initiated their fieldwork. Because her husband was not pursuing an academic career based on his folklore training, Fife's name could appear on their published works without jeopardizing his professional advancement. The Fifes' work, therefore, serves as an interesting contrast to the institutionalized trajectory of Thompson's career and of other highly trained and well-known academic folklorists. …

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