Unabridged Q&A with 2012-14 Phi Kappa Phi Scholar Thomas E. Barden

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by Peter Szatmary

Thomas E. Barden knows what makes a good story. The University of Toledo English professor specializes in American folklore and oral tradition. His early scholarship includes coediting Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Indiana University Press, 1980). He also edited Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War, missives for Newsday by the writer, published earlier this year by University of Virginia Press. One of Barden’s six books, Virginia Folk Legends (University of Virginia Press, 1991), is in its ninth edition.

It won his school’s Outstanding Faculty Research Award. Other campus recognition for Barden: the Outstanding Teaching Award and the Edith Rathbun Award for Outreach and Engagement.

The longtime administrator has been dean of the honors college since 2006, general editor of University of Toledo Press since 2004, and a faculty member since 1976. A former Fulbright Fellow at University of Wales, Barden received bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in English from University of Virginia. He was initiated into the Society at University of Toledo in 2008 and is chapter scholarship/award coordinator. The Army veteran (1968-71) earned a Bronze Star for artillery duty in Vietnam and rose from private to first lieutenant.

Define the folk narrative.
Dramatic tension arising from some sort of conflict is at the core of all stories and what innately holds our interest. But traditional narratives, while entertaining, often also function as psychological aids. Many Grimm Brothers’ tales, for example, are coming-of-age narratives in which someone tries to surmount obstacles to enter the adult world. Allan Chinen’s Once Upon a Midlife, a favorite book of mine, analyzes stories about people’s middle years; often the theme is that youthful magic fades and life becomes more about hard work and perseverance. Another thing: folk narratives usually reflect the cultures that maintain them.

And American iterations?
Stories featuring kings, queens, princesses, and nobles didn’t hold interest for colonists (and, subsequently, newly minted Americans). As folklorist Richard Dorson pointed out, American stories gravitated toward larger-than-life characters, Western expansion, and interactions with Native Americans. Later, the Industrial Revolution, especially the railroad, held great appeal. Then the automobile trumped the horse and the iron horse, and the open road became the national obsession.

What is overlooked in your field?
“High culture.” For instance, I don’t spend much time on complex postmodern novels. Inversely, some colleagues dismiss Steinbeck as subliterature since you don’t need an expert to help you comprehend him.

You give a talk entitled “The Humanities in Everyday Life.”
Ordinary people possess great knowledge and artistry that are undervalued or overlooked because they lack formal credentials or training. Seasoned cooks, yarn-spinning grandfathers, country bluesmen, and quilters, for example, may produce astounding work, but only within a small circle. In fact, cultural theorist Daniel Ben-Amos suggests that “folklore is artistic communication in small groups.”

You also explore American studies: black-white relations, the Vietnam War, the Works Progress Administration, traditional music like blues, bluegrass and folk. Recommend one work about each.
For the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of the best novels ever written in English. Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, is the quintessential work on race relations in the U.S. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved is also an important and great work.) The best overall book on the WPA is Jerre Mangione’s The Dream and the Deal. (I also recommend the introduction to Barden, Perdue, and Phillips’s Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves for a comprehensive overview of the Writers’ Project aspect of the WPA. I guess that’s a shameless plug.) For American folk music, I suggest Googling “Alan Lomax” and listening to his extensive discography. He and his father, John A. Lomax, pretty much invented American folk music field research. And for a good and well-written introduction to the blues, Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta is what the subtitle says, but also covers the blues well into its urban expansion and electrification.

Which of your own writings are you especially satisfied with?
That’s a tough question. I guess my essay “Folklore and American Democratic Literature” published in the U.K. in a book called Representing and Imagining America (Keele University Press, 1996). It sums up some core ideas I have worked with over the years. It doesn’t deal with one particular folklore genre or one author.

Do you have an opinion about the recent firing and then reinstating of Phi Kappa Phi member Teresa Sullivan as president of your alma mater?
Yes. There is enormous pressure from the political right on universities to adopt a “business model.” And university board members increasingly miss the fact that a university isn’t a business. What happened at University of Virginia was that a hedge fund manager named Peter Kiernan from the business school board convinced a majority of the overall university board that President Sullivan wasn’t “strategically dynamic” enough, presumably meaning she protected things such as the study of ancient Greek! Kiernan believes that things with a bad ROI (return on investment) should be cut. In other words, he doesn’t have any idea what a university actually is, especially one founded by that ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scholar Thomas Jefferson. Fortunately, in the Charlottesville case, students, faculty, and alumni rallied and won the day. President Sullivan was reinstated. But that battle goes on everywhere in higher education. We live in an era of corporate dominance - this was just one skirmish in a very large war.

Under “professional experience” on your CV, you put military service first. Why?
Because it came first. My professional life during college was being a student, driving a Pepsi truck for money, and performing in coffeehouses. When I was drafted into the military after graduation, I went from private E-1 to first lieutenant through Artillery Officer Candidate School. So my first real professional experience was leading soldiers in combat. It taught me a lot fast, as you can imagine.

What do you like best about Phi Kappa Phi?
Going back to the University of Virginia topic, I like that the culture of Phi Kappa Phi is not corporatist. We are not driven by money and power, but by a desire to improve the human condition. Promoting the love of learning and service to others is so admirable, and a mission I am proud to be aligned with. Also, we offer membership to professional and liberal arts students, and I like that inclusiveness.

What does the Phi Kappa Phi Scholar award mean to you?
I am deeply honored. This is such a significant national recognition. When our University of Toledo chapter president Wade Lee nominated me, I never dreamed I’d be considered worthy of it. I only wish my primary academic mentors were around so I could thank them. I think I will anyhow - Doug Day, Charles Vandersee, Chuck Perdue, thank you, my dear friends, for all you taught me, formally in your amazing classes, seminars, and tutorials, and informally by being role models as I tried to figure out how to be a good professor.

The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi