Eric Miller, Ph.D. candidate, Folklore Program, University
August 16, 2002
“Storytelling and Videoconferencing”
A major objective of the research project is to learn about the uses
of verbal play and games in the oral language acquisition process; especially
about the uses of repetition with variation (including substitution,
modification, and addition of verbal elements), and the uses of melody,
rhythm, and gesture for improvement of verbal memory (Jakobson
1976). Problems to be investigated include, “What are successful
methods of giving instruction in oral language and verbal arts, both in-the-flesh
(with parties physically present to each other) and via videoconference?”;
and “How can videoconferencing be used in the effort to pass languages
and verbal arts on to new generations?”
To gather evidence, I will live in a rural community in the southwest
section of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu for one year, and, at the end
of that year, facilitate a videoconference between folk artists and myself
at the Tamil Nadu site (possibly in Chennai), and students, professors,
and Tamil-Americans living in the Philadelphia area, at the University
of Pennsylvania site (in Philadelphia). The research methodology
for the year in the village will be ethnographic fieldwork: this will involve
participant observation of, and interviews with, teachers and learners
of oral language and verbal arts (especially forms of storytelling, also
known as oral narrative). The end-of-fieldwork videoconference will
be a social science and technology experiment, providing an opportunity
to demonstrate and discuss language teaching techniques and folk verbal
arts for our audience members in Philadelphia.
The research project will aspire to work within the tradition of ethnography
of speaking. In 1962, Dell Hymes founded this interdisciplinary
field by calling upon scholars to survey the full range of speech activities
in the communities they would study (Hymes
1962). Extended to communication in general, the field has also
come to be known as the ethnography of communication (Gumperz
and Hymes 1972).
Another field of study that grew out of Hymes’ work, and which pays
special attention to the process of folkloric communication, is known as
the performance-centered approach to folklore (Paredes
and Bauman 1972). The cohort of folklorists that first developed
this approach in the late 60’s and 70s was primarily concerned with the
styles of performance; the tones and rhythms of voice; body language; and
teller-listener interaction and relationships. One of these folklorists,
Dan Ben-Amos, posited that folklore is “artistic communication in small
groups.” My dissertation will argue that such folkloric communication
need not be limited to in-the-flesh communication, but can also occur in
cyberspace, in virtual environments, through interactive telecommunication
-- in this case videoconferencing. Thus, my dissertation will attempt
to extend the performance-centered approach to folklore to videoconference
communication. The dissertation will consider the ways in which videoconferencing
can, and cannot, be considered a folk activity. A related question
is whether my informants will perceive the videoconference process as being
secular, or whether they will perceive it as being imbued with the divine.
A reason that this research project should be carried out in India is
that India is very rich in traditional verbal arts. The project will
occur in the state of Tamil Nadu only. Chennai will be the city of
primary residence, but the year of fieldwork will occur in a speech community
in the southwest section of the state, south of Pollachi and north of Nagarcoil,
as traditional verbal arts are especially vital in such rural areas, where
the influences of mass media are not yet great.
The full range of the community’s conversational, performance,
ritual, and other types of speech styles and events will be surveyed, whether
they are practiced by a particular age, gender, or other type of group,
or by the entire community. The data to be collected will be that
which pertains to the teaching and performing of oral language and verbal
A major focus throughout the year will be on the process by which children
learn to speak the local oral language (Piaget
and Ochs 1986), and especially how verbal play and games are used in
this process. The types of play introduced by adults will be studied
and Hawes 1972), as will the play that seems to originate from the
children themselves (Sutton-Smith
The language teaching and storytelling by elderly women will come under
special attention, as women do much of the early childhood educating in
rural India, and elderly women there tend to be especially knowledgeable
regarding various local verbal arts, including the chanting and singing
of lullabies and laments (Venugopal
In south India, almost every village has a resident goddess (Whitehead
1921). Many of these goddesses are legendary figures who supposedly
once lived in the location as humans. Puja, a characteristic
form of worship in Hinduism, involves a complex of activities, including:
the drawing of kolams (designs made with powdered lime, or rice flour);
the pouring of liquids over, and the placing of flowers on, the deity stone;
the offering of gifts; and the praising of the deity.
The southern end of the research project’s fieldwork region is the home
of villupattu, a well-developed form of story-telling and -singing
1988). Villupattu features a combination of talking, chanting,
and singing, and often is used to tell the story, typically during an annual
festival, of the divine figure associated with a particular village.
Deities are believed to demand attention and respect, and both puja and
villupattu attempt to please
the deity by describing, praising, and summoning him or her.
In these ritual contexts, the act of narration is an act of invocation.
Whatever forms of puja and villupattu are practiced in the fieldwork village
will be studied.
Selected verbal arts events will be videotaped, in both natural
and induced natural contexts (Goldstein
1964). (The induced natural context method involves facilitating
a gathering of subjects so that the folkloric communication can take place
A four-step transcription/translation process, which I have developed,
will be utilized:
Tamil (in Tamil font)...
English, word-for-word translation...
English, colloquial translation...
This four-step system enables the English-literate reader to see,
in a single glance, what English sounds and words the Tamil script refers
to, syllable for syllable. Following in the tradition of ethnopoetics,
scoring techniques will be used to indicate voice tone, melody, and rhythm
1992). Transcriptions will also include notation of gesture (Birdwhistell
As mentioned, the end-of-fieldwork videoconference will occur between
a site in Tamil Nadu (possibly in Chennai, the state capital) and one at
the U. of Pennsylvania. People from the fieldwork village will be
invited to attend in Chennai. Subbu Arumugam -- whom I have met,
videotaped, and interviewed on my previous trips to Tamil Nadu -- will
also be invited to attend and participate in the videoconference at the
Chennai site. Mr. Arumugam is a historian of villupattu as well as
a famous modernizer and performer of the art: he -- as well as his son
(his apprentice), and his daughter (a schoolteacher) -- will help to contextualize
the rural traditional styles of storytelling that will be reported on and
demonstrated in the videoconference. A hypothesis of the research
project is that the videoconference medium has tremendous potential for
connecting members of extended communities who may be separated by great
distances, both geographical and sociological, so that traditions may be
passed on to new generations. The ways in which these traditions
may change in such a transmission process is a central topic of the project.
Members of the New York, New Jersey, and Delaware Valley Tamil Sangams
will be invited to attend at the Philadelphia site. Acting as an
assistant teacher as well as a student, last year I attended a Sunday language
class for children of the Delaware Valley Tamil Sangam , and this summer
I am attending a similar class for children in the New York City Tamil
community. The videoconference will thus be an experiment in multi-sited
ethnography, with the ethnographer literally creating a link between
the home and diaspora communities (Marcus
1995). Tamil and English will be spoken in the videoconference,
and on-screen subtitles, in Tamil and English (typed at the Philadelphia
site), will be displayed for at least part of the time.
A number of variables will differ between the verbal arts practiced
in the videoconference, as opposed to those that will have been witnessed
in the course of the year of village fieldwork. It will be relevant
to evaluate the effect of the video-mediated presence of Tamil-American
people in Philadelphia on my informants in Tamil Nadu. The participants’
choices of which stories to tell in the videoconference, and how they will
be told, will be noted and analyzed. The comparing and contrasting
of the in-the-flesh and the video-mediated verbal arts events will I believe
lead to numerous interesting and valuable conclusions. The project
will involve the question of how aspects of a traditional culture are modified
not only when they
are presented via new technology, but also when they are presented
in new social situations (Singer
1972). This will be an instance of culture from the (so-called)
Little Tradition being brought into contact with practitioners of the Great
The videoconference component of the project will follow in the tradition
of Through Navaho Eyes (Worth
and Adair 1972), a landmark in the study of indigenous media (Katz
1977). That project created a research experiment designed to
show how certain Navaho people might express their culture through the
medium of cinema.
The present research project relates to my career goals in a number
of ways. First of all, the village fieldwork will yield a great deal
of significant information about numerous types of storytelling, and this
will help me in my effort to develop the New York City and International
Storytelling Institute, of which I am a co-founder. This spring at
N.Y.U.’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, I taught a combined
analytic and studio course entitled, Storytelling: from Personal Experience
Narratives to Myths. This was an introductory course to the interdisciplinary
field of Storytelling Studies, which I hope to help formally establish.
Secondly, the village fieldwork will help me begin to develop a general
method of teaching language that utilizes verbal play and games (Maley
and Duff 1982).
In regard to videoconferencing: I am, of course, interested in what
happens when various types of storytelling are attempted via this medium.
I am also developing ethnographic videoconferencing, the use of videoconferencing
to collect data from the field. For videoconferencing to legitimately
earn the adjective, ethnographic, two conditions that should prevail are
1) the event should be held in the subjects’ language, and 2) the event
should follow extended in-the-flesh fieldwork.
I hope to throughout my career continue to act as a facilitator of videoconferences
initiated both by myself and others, for ethnographic, educational, business,
artistic, civic, and other purposes -- especially for the teaching of languages,
and for the teaching and performing of verbal arts. Today many of
the world’s languages, not to mention the verbal arts
performed in those languages, are dying out: this project represents
an attempt to stem and reverse this trend. I would be delighted
if a result of the project were that video-mediated distance-teaching of
language and verbal arts might become a common practice (in addition to
in-the-flesh teaching). In addition, the videoconference component
of the project will contribute to the body of thought concerning the aesthetic,
psychological, and social mechanics of videoconferencing, and concerning
videoconferencing’s many potential applications, including computer-supported
cooperative work (Finn,
Sellen, and Wilbur 1997; Storck
and Sproull 1995).
In summary: four fields of scholarship to which the project is relevant
are: 1) children’s play; 2) language learning and teaching; 3) verbal arts;
and 4) audio- and video-mediated distance-education and -performance.
The projected project schedule is:
Arrive in India; confer with scholars and officials to locate appropriate
rural village for fieldwork; and conduct library research.
Settle into rural village.
Complete fieldwork in village; facilitate videoconference (possibly
Depart from India.
Submit dissertation (in Philadelphia).