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Eric Miller, Ph.D. candidate, Folklore Program, University of Pennsylvania

June 30, 2002 

Project summary:

“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 1960; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 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 a home base, 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 arts. 

A major focus throughout the year will be on the process by which children learn to speak the local oral language (Piaget 1926; Schieffelin 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 (Jones and Hawes 1972), as will the play that seems to originate from the children themselves (Sutton-Smith 1979; Schwartzman 1978).

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 1996).

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 (Blackburn 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 between them.)

A four-step transcription/translation process, which I have developed, will be utilized: 

Tamil (in Tamil font)...
English, transliteration...
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 (Tedlock 1992).  Transcriptions will also include notation of gesture (Birdwhistell 1970). 

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 Tradition (Marriott 1955).

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:

2002 September
Arrive in India; confer with scholars and officials to locate appropriate     rural village for fieldwork; and conduct library research. 

2003 March
Settle into rural village.

2004 March 
Complete fieldwork in village; facilitate videoconference (possibly in     Chennai).

2004 August
Depart from India.

2005 March
Submit dissertation (in Philadelphia).