Ever since the third grade, when an assistant principal generously offered to teach him and two classmates French, John Miles Foley has been curious about how languages work. Starting with the early epiphany that language is always embedded in culture, Foley followed this line of thinking until it led to oral tradition, which the MU Professor of Classical Studies and English has now been researching for over three decades. It will surely be a lifelong journey, for the field far outstrips written literature in size, diversity, and social function. In fact, all the written literature we have, Foley is fond of saying, “is dwarfed by oral traditions.”
The basic idea behind the study of oral traditions, explains John Miles Foley, is that we must approach them differently from how we approach written texts. Foley’s seminal book, How to Read an Oral Poem (2002), now translated into Chinese, offers a methodology for approaching oral tradition while paying attention to such crucial aspects as performance, audience, structure, and specialized language.
Foley describes several other ongoing projects. One involves relocating the journal Oral Tradition from a conventional paper format to a new incarnation on the web in 2006. The decision to put the journal online stemmed from his commitment to forge a truly international conversation about this multidisciplinary field. In addition to the online journal, the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition has published three book series, comprising over 27 volumes. Foley is also involved in various collaborative research projects with scholars in Sardinia, Finland, China, Mexico, Indonesia, and the Basque Country.