Passionately Curious: Tom Mould examines the power of storytelling

Mould, professor of anthropology, department chair and the J. Earl Danieley Professor, is one of eight Elon faculty members featured this year in "Passionately Curious," the annual Elon University President's Report. 

Each year, Elon University points a spotlight on its truly exceptional faculty and their dedication to excellent teaching, scholarly accomplishment and transformative mentoring in the President’s Report. In this year’s report, “Elon University Faculty: Passionately Curious,” featured educators were asked to write about their intellectual passion and how they share that passion with their students inside and outside the classroom.

Professor of Anthropology, J. Earl Danieley Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology Tom Mould works with students during a class discussion.

This summer, I met an entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles who had moved from teaching in a law school to working for an international law firm. “It’s nice to be dealing with real world issues for a change,” he said, echoing a common complaint about higher education of the scholar in the ivory tower, unassailed by the very real problems of the world below. Like so many of my faculty peers, however, I find my discipline not only allows me to bridge these imagined divides between the university and “the real world,” but requires me to.

​I’m a folklorist and anthropologist studying the intersection of culture, communication and art commonly referred to as expressive culture. This includes the stories we tell our families and friends about ourselves and the world around us, the objects we make to solve problems in creative ways and the rituals we create to navigate life’s challenges and changes. This artistic communication expresses our values, beliefs, fears and hopes, shaping our view of the world.

This work is important for the same reason studying the plays of William Shakespeare, the poetry of Maya Angelou, the architecture of I.M. Pei and the artwork of Frida Kahlo is important: because art challenges us to think and feel in ways that expand our understanding of the world and of human potential. The study of folklore further reminds us that such artistic impulses are not confined to the famous few but can be found in communities across the world. In fact, all of us express ourselves in creative and artistic ways. For one, all of us tell stories. I am fascinated by the power, complexity and universality of storytelling.

An English literature major in college, I took a class on “the trickster” figure. My professor, Carter Revard, a member of the Ponca Indian nation, introduced me to the Winnebago coyote trickster in Paul Radin’s aptly-named classic "The Trickster." How, I wondered, could a figure bring the sun so people could see and stock the rivers with fish for people to eat then turn around and steal from, trick and abuse the very people he helped? It was only in understanding storytelling in its many contexts—particularly shared orally and ritually—that I began to see the incredible diversity of thought behind what seemed to be such simple tales.

It was this epiphany that opened my eyes to another reason the study of folklore is so important. Stories do not just reflect our worldview; they shape it in powerful and sometimes dangerous ways.

At a dinner party one evening, I found myself talking with a fellow guest about one of the most contentious issues of the day: health care in the United States. To support her more general argument that the poor abuse all government programs, she shared a story of a woman in the grocery store with polished nails, a designer handbag and a fur coat trying to buy dog food with food stamps. When the cashier told her she could not, she made a scene, marched to the meat counter, grabbed two steaks and declared that her dog would eat those instead. It was a story I had heard before, one that has been repeated for at least the past 40 years despite any significant evidence to support it.

That story, shared so easily and offhandedly, has been perpetuating a view of the poor in this country that is misleading and destructive. Analysis of congressional debates, the mass media and stories shared informally among friends and family makes it clear these stories have directly and indirectly shaped current federal and state legislation that penalizes the poor for imagined or exaggerated offenses. So for the past seven years I have collaborated with aid recipients, caseworkers, medical professionals and local leaders in working on a research project with Elon students to interview hundreds of people about their views of welfare in America. Recording stories from aid recipients, aid providers, government officials, grocery store cashiers, working class people and students has helped clarify why people’s views about poverty and welfare are so different and what we can do to create a more just society.

By studying and teaching about the artistic impulse among the many not just the few, listening to marginalized voices so often shut out of public discourse and understanding the impact our stories have on personal beliefs and government policies, my students and I engage directly and deeply with the communities we study. All of this is very real—real people, real stories, real impacts.