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Margaret Mills Archival Collection - Remembering the Words of Storytelling: A Public-Facing Module for the MM Collection

In Autumn 2023, a comprehensive document was created to commemorate the Margaret Mills collection at The Ohio State University’s College of Arts and Sciences Center for Folklore Studies Archive. It was produced by graduate students in the Department of Comparative Studies doctoral program as part of a learning lab in archival methods.

Cover of the Margaret Mills Public-Facing Module Document

The following is a featured portion of the document.

A Legacy in Retrospect: Excerpts from an Interview with Margaret Mills Completed for This Commemoration

Family Life

I was raised in a middle class, rather upper to slightly upper middle-class family in Seattle. My parents were both doctors, but they were both farm kids. And so, it was first generation, upwardly mobility, upwardly mobile 50s kind of thing. My mom was actually a refugee, an internal refugee in Italy during World War One then an immigrant after the war ended. She was brought here with my grandparents. And so, there was this background of, you know, high respect for education. Choosing a school district that had really good public schools. And, you know, those kinds of middle-class, middle-century choices, which I'm very grateful for. And I had a brother, who was since deceased.

Going to College

When it was time for us to go to college, it was sort of, you know, getting to the best school. And that was not too well defined. But for my brother, that was MIT, and it was a good fit for him. I think I went to Harvard because I thought it was probably very serious. But even when I joined, Radcliffe was seen as a sort of an annex. And it was more competitive to get into than Harvard. They took fewer of the applicants. Because it was a smaller place, and there wasn't gender-blind admission, which later became the case. So, I wasn't choosing for a program, I was sort of choosing for what I thought would be the widest variety. And, because my brother was there in Boston, and it seemed like kind of a migration of sorts. And so, I ended up at Radcliffe, not knowing what I wanted to major in at all, took English as a default. Had I'd been given better advice, I would have gone into history. There was a history and lit major that caused you to choose other languages and histories. The intellectual scene there was such that they sort of felt themselves to be at the pinnacle of, you know, breakthrough, whatever. And in some ways, it was, in some ways it wasn't. But what happened for me that was really important was that Albert Lord was by then tenured on the faculty, and he had in the 30s, and again, in the 50s, undertaken this research on oral epic, actually, as a way of trying to figure out how Homer did it. They were going off to figure out how the Yugoslavians did it, which generated a whole generation of literature theory on oral poetry production, that was, I think, productive, but also somewhat limited in its general scope. It wasn't full blown ethnolinguistics in the way that other places were doing, as I discovered later. Anyway, Lord was the one who turned me on to folklore and got me out of English per se, which was great. And I took a couple of his undergraduate courses. And then, as a graduate student, went back to Harvard, sort of.

Going to Iran After Undergraduate Studies

At the end of my undergraduate career. I was also looking at archaeology. And I got a chance to go on a dig to Iran, at a time when still under the Shah. It was 10 years before the revolution that changed everything. While at the dig site, there was a guy in full dervish kit, which is absolutely recognizable and probably no longer seen, except maybe in Afghanistan in some places. He had a turban that was made out of strings, and a patchwork cloak that was very obviously worn and patchy. And he was carrying a kind of a ceremonial axe, and a kind of begging bowl that was made out of a particular kind of coconut shell, which was traded up from Southeast Asia or South Asia, so it wasn't indigenous, obviously. Anyway, so he was a really strange looking character. And he was singing. I said, what is this all about? And they said it was a story. And I said, how long is it? You know, at this point, channeling Albert Lord, they said, oh, I don't know, hours, days, you know, it just goes on and on. And he was singing Sufi, you know, devotional narrative stuff, whether it was memorized from a text or whether he was improvising, one couldn't say at this point, but I thought, ah, so that was the aha moment in Iran, that caused me to say, I don't have to be an archaeologist. So then I hung on in Iran got a job teaching English in Tehran, just to support myself and study Persian, in a foreigner’s course, and that was the rest of the year, and wrote to Albert Lord and said, what seems to be going on in Iran, and I want to go study Persian and folklore, or Persian and epic studies. Lord got his secretary to write me back. And which said, and this is a pretty direct quote, Mr. Lord apologizes, not being able to answer you personally, but says, please, do fill out these forms for Harvard Graduate School.

Accepted to Harvard

When I got back from my year in Iran, I thought I'd already been admitted to a master's program in Persian at the University of Washington, which I thought would help me get ready to do fieldwork in Iran, which was my goal. Lo and behold, I found that I'd been admitted as a special student at Harvard. And nobody told me that I went in June to sort of check around and ask Professor Lord what had happened with the forms. He told me I was admitted, and he packed me off to a very eccentric individual who was the senior professor of Persian. I was sent to see whether he was going to be willing to teach me Persian. I went to see Dick Frye, who is this wild man of sorts, but also very famous in the field. And he said, I don't know why you're here. You're Albert Lord's student go back to him. This was his form of yes. So it was a strange environment, and kind of scattered andnot a place where you could get a comprehensive graduate education in folkloristics.

Education at Harvard

At Harvard I got this very limited edition version of epic studies and whatever I could read on the side. But nobody was doing other things. In fact, there was an active avoidance of material culture studies. I knew this because there was an undergraduate student who wanted to do a paper on traditional chair making, and he was told not to bother. This was Albert Lord. He felt that the material culture was not scholarly. It was for a tiny, tiny field, it was really balkanized. I was teaching in Albert Lord's courses as a TA. And he had excellent enrollments. He was very funny and looked like Mr. Magoo, he really did. And he was very curious and charismatic at Harvard. He was a perfect example of the charismatic, non-macho. I mean, he was certainly navigating the patriarchal world at Harvard, but he, he was very, very easy with undergraduates, obviously really cared about undergraduates and was charismatic lecturer. He did things like he brought a gusle, which is the epic instrument what was then called Yugoslav, Croatian epic. He brought it into class, and he hauled off and hit a couple of notes, and then imitated, just repeated, the opening verses of one of the stories, one of the epics that he knew well, and of course, the place just erupted because he was exposing himself to ridicule. But it wasn't ridiculous at all. I was like, I've been there. This is cool stuff. You know, you guys have to pay attention.

Choosing a Dissertation

While at Harvard, I proposed to go back to Herat to do graduate study because it's more orally exclusive. I mean, there was radio, but there was no TV, except if you had a high capacity. I think other kinds of support actually helped me get what I needed to do that, which was a Fulbright, an NSF grant, and American Association of University Women also paid for a year. So I ended up with two years in Afghanistan. So I felt, you know, supported in that way. And I also felt totally cynically that the reason I was getting the support was because I was coming from Harvard, that, you know, it had a cache. And Afghanistan made sense because you didn’t know what you're getting into, because it hadn't been researched, there wasn't yet a terrain of research to read. So that's sort of how I ended up in Afghanistan, it felt like kind of motion by default, but it really turned out to be a good choice. While there, I think one aspect of Lord's preparation that I loved was that he was trying very hard to explain in people's own terms, what they were doing. So that kind of was one thing that caused me to turn somewhat away from an anthropological style ethnography, because it seems there that the goal was to provide a model that was more complex than what the people themselves thought they were doing, that we could understand them better than they can understand themselves. And, you know, coming along in the 60s, you can see politically that that would have been kind of a tainted approach.

How Folklore Changed

Over time, I learned a lot about what public folklorists do by going to AFS meetings. It is half or more of the discipline at this point but was not in the 70s. It was kind of scary, innovative, like, are these people real folklorists? Are they really academics?

Life at Penn

When I was hired by Penn, they intended to hire a woman. And I think Afghanistan was cache because it was weird and strange and out there and who the hell knows where it is, at that point. And there was also a strong interdisciplinary gathering of South Asianists. And they were actually supportive when they found out that one of the shortlisted people in folklore actually worked in the region, Afghanistan counted as South Asian or Central Asia, depending on how you count. So they were actively supporting my work. And so I didn't feel marginalized. I did feel that I didn't know how to teach a course on women and folklore. And there were graduate students who were doing it. So I, you know, cheerfully stole their syllabus and had some help from them. But I didn't know the field of gender studies and folklore in the American side really except my then exposure to Dell Hymes readings, reading his stuff, and some of the other seminal pieces on performance, which I'd managed to read while writing my dissertation.

It was a tiny department. Diane Goldstein was there as a senior PhD student. Her dad was chair of the department. But this was not nepotism. She was just incredibly brilliant and perceptive about how people organize their ideas and beliefs and operate, how they make them operational against any kind of institutional over against institutional structures. 

It was like seven faculty I think when I got there. And for them that was vanishingly small and who cares. It doesn't matter that you have 100 graduate students, you don't have enough undergraduates from their point of view because undergraduates are revenue producers. and graduate students are not. I never understood that because graduate students were doing a lot of teaching on the total cheap. One thing that was amazing at Penn, that was not true of Harvard, was Harvard has this rubric of every ship on its own bottom, which has to do with the autonomy of departments and also the autonomy of individual faculty, but Penn was utterly porous. The departments were always doing things together.

One of the first things I encountered was the ethnohistory workshop, which is between history and anthropology. So there was this construct of seminars, crossing disciplinary boundaries, which I think has been a struggle at OSU. I think Dorry as well as Amy Schuman but Dorry especially, just went absolutely to the limit to establish discourse between fields that wouldn't normally talk to each other.

For instance, folklore and Political Science, which are not interlocutors in many institutions. But coming out of Penn as they both did, Amy and Dorry both knew how to do this and Dorry goes on doing it with incredible finesse. And I think incredible benefit to the field.

Penn was really a fantastic place and run on a shoestring. And it seems like the shoestring was the main thing that the administration saw, it wasn't reviewed in US News and World Report, you know, so didn't matter. It was as an intellectual center. So you can tell I was a bit bitter because my departure from Penn had to do with, again, a refusal to replace faculty who were left and a refusal to not well, it was eventually overtly stated intention to shut the department down. At first, they didn't admit that they were doing it. It happened and at the point, when I thought leadership wasn't really viable, that the existing tenured faculty, senior faculty, had already shown that they had no intention of running.

Going to OSU

When I got the offer from OSU, I had a previous offer from Emory, which I turned down, because I hoped for better things from the faculty, from the administration, which were not on offer. I actually took the offer to go to OSU partly because John Roberts was already there. He had a history of training. Patrick Mullen was there. Don Barnes I think recently retired. They had folklorists in the English department that were very solid and producing graduates who went on to teach elsewhere. So they were part of a viable, small but viable, kind of production line of folklore faculty who went out to different places, and different kinds of programs. So it seemed a logical thing to go to OSU. With regret, because Penn had been so incredibly fertile, productive.

The Value of Folklore

It’s an incorrigible commitment to communicating across cultural and political boundaries, listening, especially. One area of improvement for folklore is instrumentalizing narrative, which ought to be a home run for folklorists. And I think for some it is. Bonnie O'Connor and Diane Goldstein are people who figured out how to use folklore research and the representation of community communications for policy work, which is really significant.

Women in Folklore

The presence of women in the society has changed since I was first there in the early 70s, when they were organizing the women's section. And I say they because I got on the bus after it was already in motion. I think women welcome other women. Women are equally underpaid and underrecognized. And academically, I think that women's studies is something useful Gender politics have changed a lot. In terms of who's active who's conservative, who's radical. I mean look at some of the most conservative women or arch conservative women operating in politics in this country now. And first of all, I, I fear them or don't admire them, let's put it that way. But they're there. So, the gender and power dynamics are shifting across the whole country and presumably the world as well. Yeah, you know, who gets a senior fellowship or a senior professorship? Still women are still underrepresented, underrepresented in faculties, generally speaking.

Lessons on Global Citizenship

I think it's impossible to fully adopt a non-western approach. I think I'm still very much an American middle-class kid. And when I react to my friends in Afghanistan, I tend to react as that, as opposed to going native. I've been appalled by the way women's opportunities in Afghanistan are constrained. What they can do, when they're allowed to, in terms like work, or choice of spouse, or how many children to have, or basically, you know, any sort of, say, in the family, and it's very carefully modulated. And I guess that was something that was striking to me and something I could definitely understand, but could I do it? Hell no. I mean, did I marry an Afghan? No, and it was not for lack of opportunity.

But I couldn't imagine giving over to what in my case is almost a pathological independence to that set of institutions. So, did I understand it? No. I can see the choices made. And I can understand when somebody's saying well, this is what we did. But I feel like I never went native enough. I never was insightful enough. And I think one of the issues, for me, at least was language. Without local language competence, I would have been absolutely nowhere. But there are others who have done really insightful research who aren't that linguistically immersed. Being able to work cross-culturally is still the word, cross-institutionally or cross-community, whatever, implies a certain kind of linguistic competence. Not necessarily a foreign language, but discourse competence, being able to guess if not mimic what somebody's going to say about or do about a particular situation that they define as a situation.

Regarding Legacy

First of all, I have to say that impostor syndrome is well represented in local contexts. I really feel like I don't feel charismatic. I don't feel like I've done much at all. I feel as though I have not done enough and why the hell wasn't I working harder when I could? No, at the time, I was thinking I'm working as hard as I care to and still have a life which may or may not have been an invalid position. But maybe because of the way women were raised or how I was raised at that stage, which was 50s to 60s, basically, the inability to claim one's space was still there. It was almost that you could discredit yourself if you claimed it. So, it was a perfect space for imposter syndrome. I don't know how many people in my generation have imposter syndrome. You say it, and they all go, yeah. And there's plenty of men who do as well. Although I think men's self-advertisement was more expected as a skill.

I wish I'd done a lot of everything else. I wish I'd produced the biographies of the Afghan family, even though I kept putting it off, because I thought, every time I go to Afghanistan, there's another chapter.

It'd be nice if people still thought that the stories in the yellow book are funny, because I think they're hilarious. I still feel good about that book. I feel good about the little book that is probably not on your radar, and I probably should send you a copy. We call it Two Heroes of Justice. The idea being it's supposed to support basic literacy in both English and Persian, assuming some people are trying to keep working on English, even though they're not using it actively.

And the other another thing that makes me happy is Ben Gatling’s work, because he was my last graduate supervisee at OSU and he's brilliant, and he's doing very well in what he's doing. And I guess one of the things that's nice is when people that were allegedly your students just surpass you, and go on and do way more than you could have suspected or suggested. He's working at George Mason in the English department, helping that kind of crypto but very healthy folklore program work. And he also continues to work in Central Asian stuff. So, he's been doing some research in Tajikistan. This book on Tajik Sufi revival after the Soviet Union collapsed is very important. And so, there's people out there that I think, Jesus, I was there when they know he started mining my collection and did a wonderful paper from a series of dirty jokes that are in my collection. And you know, not because he likes dirty jokes, but because he's very good at linguistics and, and interpretation. So, there's stuff like that makes me feel good.

Please email cfs@osu.edu for access to the complete document.