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Contact Information

326 Greenlaw Hall CB# 3520
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
sawin@unc.edu

Education

Ph.D. Folklore, Indiana University, 1993.
M.A. Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, 1986.
B.A. English, Yale University, 1978.

Research Interests

I am a folklorist. What images does that call up in your mind? Fairytales? Quilts? Quaint dances and customs from a European village? I was fascinated with all those things as a child, but when I discovered that it was possible to study folklore in graduate school, I learned that the contemporary discipline of folklore explores much broader and more consequential questions about the relationships among tradition, creativity, identity, and power. Why—in a world where we can call up the latest musical hit on our computer with a few key strokes or order in food from a dozen different ethnic cuisines—would we make the effort to create something for ourselves? On what models and resources do we draw? What do we mean when we say something is “traditional” and do we value or vilify it?

Sometimes the answer is practical and easy: you and your friends just started quoting that funny line from a favorite movie, and somehow it has come to encapsulate the unique quality of your relationship. Sometimes it is purely personal and sentimental: you make that weird Jell-o salad every Thanksgiving because your grandfather loved it. Sometimes it is highly political: the old songs and stories of your community have never been valued by the wider society, so it is up to you to keep them alive and to champion the minority experience, values, and critique that they inculcate.

As my definition of folklore suggests, folklore is all around us, everyone has some folklore in their life, and much of what people share when interacting on social media is an emerging kind of folklore. I love teaching both undergraduate and graduate students. In all of my classes students get the opportunity to turn the folkloric lens on their own lives, families, and communities, collect contemporary folklore, and make deeper sense of those apparently simple kinds of everyday creative expression that most of us take for granted.

I have focused my own research primarily on the everyday stories that people tell to make sense of their experiences and to share a little of themselves in an engaging way. Even the most spontaneous and artless story calls upon many of the resources we think of as literary and rewards careful attention. Furthermore, because such stories are performances—created by a specific person for a specific audience under specific conditions—they communicate far more than just the bare words might suggest. I have also been fascinated by festivals—those marked occasions when communities come together to celebrate, interact, and sometimes overindulge. Whether it’s a traditional Mardi Gras run in Cajun country or the North Carolina Pickle Festival, watch what people do and they will tell you who they are, and maybe sweep you into the merrymaking and make you (at least temporarily) one of them.

My recent research has taken me in two new directions. After adopting my own daughter, I realized I had become part of the relatively little-known community of families created through transnational adoption. I have been intrigued (not surprisingly) by the ways that both parents and children draw on personal stories and on festive gatherings to create a sense of community, to sort out their identities, and to figure out what adoptive parents and adopted children share and where they inevitably part ways. And I have started teaching a class on adoption that—in true interdisciplinary American Studies fashion—examines the topic from historical, literary, anthropological, sociological, psychological, legal, and ethical perspectives. My experience of teaching the graduate core course in disciplinary theory for close to twenty-five years also nurtured my interested in the history of this discipline. I am excited to have co-edited a volume of essays on the histories of all the programs in the United States and Canada that have offered a graduate degree in folklore and to have contributed the chapter on the unique development of the UNC program, dedicated to helping make sense of the complex and conflicted history of the US South.

Link to my book on Bessie Eldreth: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/usupress_pubs/57/

Link to my co-edited book on the history of folklore graduate programs: https://iupress.org/9780253052896/folklore-in-the-united-states-and-canada/

Courses Taught

  • ANTH/ENGL/FOLK 202: Introduction to Folklore
  • AMST 317: Adoption in America
  • ANTH/FOLK/LING 484: Discourse and Dialogue
  • ENGL/FOLK 487: Everyday Stories
  • FOLK 850: Approaches to Folklore Theory
  • [in the planning stages]: Folklore, Cultural Equity, and Social Justice

Publications

  • 2020    Co-editor with Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt. Folklore Studies in the United States and Canada: An Institutional History. Indiana University Press.
  • 2020    Bringing Ethnographic Research to the Public Conversation: Folklore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In History of Folklore Studies in the United States and Canada, ed. Patricia Sawin and Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt, pp. 24-37. Indiana University Press.
  • 2020    “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit”: Generational Variation and Solidarity among Women’s March Participants. In Pussy Hats, Politics, and Public Protest, ed. Rachelle Hope Saltzman. University Press of Mississippi.
  • 2019    Teaching About Adoption as an Anti-hegemonic and Anti-racist Effort: A View from American Studies. Special issue, Adoption Pedagogy: Challenges, Implications, and Practices. Adoption & Culture 7(1): 115-135.
  • 2018    with Milbre Burch. Performance. The Routledge Companion to Media and Fairy-Tale Cultures, ed. Pauline Greenhill, Jill Rudy, Naomi Hamer, and Lauren Bosc, pp. 56-64. New York and London: Routledge.
  • 2017    “Every kid is where they’re supposed to be, and it’s a miracle”: Family Formation Stories Among Adoptive Families. Journal of American Folklore 130(518): 394-418.
  • 2014    Things Walt Disney Didn’t Tell Us (But at Which Rogers and Hammerstein at Least Hinted): the 1965 Made-for-TV Musical of Cinderella. In Channeling Wonder, ed. Pauline Greenhill and Jill Rudy, pp. 131-158. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.