Distinguished Scholar Tom Mould: "To be human is to tell stories"

Tom Mould, recipient of Elon’s 2013-14 Distinguished Scholar Award, spoke Tuesday evening about the way people share narratives to convey beliefs and shape worldviews – and how we all change in the process because of those tales.

Associate Professor Tom Mould
Associate Professor Tom Mould[/caption]For more than a decade, Tom Mould has spoken with hundreds of people whose beliefs and values are inextricably linked to the stories they tell not only about themselves, but about those with whom they live in their communities. Over time, what the professor of anthropology has come to recognize is that many people, in many settings, tell the same stories.

Only they don’t. People alter popular stories ever so slightly. Sometimes they even tell stories of things they “observed” firsthand, though when pressed for details, well, maybe it was a friend, or a friend of a friend, who was instead a witness to a particular event.

It’s not that people consciously lie when they tell stories, Mould said in an April 15 talk inside Elon University’s LaRose Digital Theatre. They simply may not be as critical or reflective of the process by which they came to know and share that story. And as one of the nation’s top folklorists, Mould seeks to understand the way stories are conveyed, and what they reflect about the way humans view their world.

“A lot is at stake with the stories we tell each other,” he said, “so it’s really important that we understand how we create these stories, how we share these stories, and how we change in the process.”

Mould’s lecture, “The Art and Artifice of the Tales We Tell,” served as Elon University’s 2013 Distinguished Scholar Lecture. His hourlong remarks captured the minds and imaginations of more than 100 friends, family members, faculty colleagues and students in attendance.

Drawing on his research into the Choctaw Indian and Mormon communities, with additional insights based on his recent collection of stories from government welfare recipients, Mould explained how stories – which he defined as a chronology of events containing a complication, a point of insight and, finally, a resolution – often purport to be value neutral and a record of facts.

They are easier for people to share and recount compared to argument, commentary or analysis, in large part because their defined structure make them more likely to remember. Plus, he said, stories allow audiences to be more open and less critical of new ideas. And since they embed themselves in memory, stories have the power to create perceptions regardless of accuracy.

Mould cited the example of the “welfare queen” popularized by former President Ronald Reagan during his unsuccessful White House bid in 1976. Reagan grossly exaggerated the case of a Chicago woman who was defrauding public assistance systems, but for the public, the narrative of a “welfare queen” was born. It today shapes the way people view welfare recipients and has created the notion that most recipients are cheats.

National data and stories compiled during the “Voices of Welfare” project co-led by Elon University’s Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies prove otherwise, Mould said.

“Stories can be an extremely powerful conduit for shaping our views and beliefs of how the world works,” he said. “They are not verbatim records of the past, but rather constructions of the past, shaped to fit the perspectives and agendas of the storytellers.”

Mould used part of his time to highlight differences between firsthard stories and secondhand stories. Firsthand accounts told by people who directly witnessed an event lend stronger credibility to the tale. The further removed a narrator is from witnessing the story, the less attention it receives. However, Mould argues that secondhand stories are underappreciated and under-studied.

Secondhand narrators are not necessarily perceived to be in positions of sharing the story for personal gain, he said. Plus, secondhand stories open the door to more critical examinations of facts and interpretations, since the narrator isn’t being challenged for underlying motives. In this unique way, secondhand stories can be more powerful than firsthand accounts.

“We create our world, our beliefs and our actions through the stories that we tell and the stories that we hear,” he said. “Accordingly, we must understand how were create our stories.”

Mould has written three books and edited two, including two on Mormon folklore and two on the Choctaw. He has published numerous journal articles, book chapters, encyclopedia entries and book reviews on folklore and oral traditions. In addition, he has produced three video documentaries and given more than 20 peer-reviewed or invited conference presentations.

Mould started his career at Elon in 2001 as an assistant professor of English before moving to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. For the past 10 years, he has been an associate professor of anthropology teaching courses in anthropology, folklore, ethnography, general studies, interdisciplinary studies and literary journalism.

Since 2003, Mould has directed the Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies and serves as its director.

The Distinguished Scholar Award he received last spring is an annual honor that recognizes a faculty member whose research has earned peer commendation and respect, and who has made significant contributions to his or her field of study.

“We shouldn’t all aspire to be like Tom the scholar. That standard, frankly, is too high. Trying to match his scholarly success would set many up for disappointment,” said Assistant Professor Jason Husser, who introduced Mould to the audience. “His level of intelligence and accomplishment are not scalable for general advice. But we should all be as good and compassionate and kind as Tom the person.

“If more people embodied a life of learning and a commitment to justice as Tom walks every single day, this world of ours would be a much brighter place.”