MU professor dedicated to education, knowledge

Tuesday, May 8, 2012 | 8:19 p.m. CDT; updated 2:11 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 9, 2012

*An earlier version of this article misstated the names of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition and the Center for eResearch.

COLUMBIA — John Miles Foley was more than simply a college professor. He was considered the foremost authority in the area of scholarship deemed oral tradition. 

"John has many times referred to oral tradition at the world's oldest thought technology," said Mark Jarvis, IT manager at the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition and the Center for eResearch* and friend of Dr. Foley's. "Oral tradition is the way that ideas, art and technology are transmitted from generation to generation or just between people without writing." 

Dr. Foley died Thursday, May 3, 2012. He was 65.

According to the MU Department of English, Dr. Foley graduated with his doctorate from University of Massachusetts in 1974. He served at MU as director and founder of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition and the Center for eResearch, as well as a curators' professor and professor of both classical studies and English. 

Dr. Foley studied as a student under Albert Lord, a scholar in the study of oral tradition, said Milbre Burch, Ph.D candidate in the MU department of theater, award-winning storyteller and former student of Foley's. 

"John was a student of Albert Lord and as a result of that and his ongoing work in the field, the Lord family gave his papers to John and the university library last year," Burch said. "This was a tremendous gift due to John's incredible work in the area." 

Dr. Foley studied the oldest forms of thought technology such as epic poems in comparison to the newest forms of thought technology such as the Internet, Jarvis said. 

"John was able to really bring a scholarly analysis of oral tradition," Jarvis said. "You can do field work and you can collect research, but John really began the work of how oral tradition works and is transmitted."

Jarvis said Dr. Foley worked to develop the oral formulaic theory, which indicates how methods of communication and transmitting knowledge in non-textual forms takes place.  

Dr. Foley also founded the Oral Traditions Journal, which is dedicated to the multidisciplinary study and research of oral tradition. 

"The study of oral tradition requires a lot of different disciplines, such as linguistics and anthropology, in order to truly investigate it," Jarvis said. "John pretty much solidified this study." 

Jarvis said Dr. Foley went out of his way to make his research readily available. As the editor of the Oral Tradition Journal, Foley was adamant about his work being democratic and free to all, he said. Jarvis recalls this being the guiding light in all that Foley did. 

"John was very interested in making knowledge open access to all. The Oral Tradition Journal is distributed online all around the world," Jarvis said. "We have readers in over 200 countries. It is truly international." 

Burch said Dr. Foley was dedicated to making his research widely accessible on the Web. 

"I think John’s generosity as a scholar and human being is clear when you go on the oral tradition websiten which is an open site for scholarship on oral tradition," Burch said. "He was very interested in connecting people to the wide body of info around the world that has been gathered on oral tradition."

The Oral Tradition Journal and Center for Studies of Oral Tradition celebrated its 25th anniversary in February 2011. 

Jarvis said the most recent issue of the Oral Tradition Journal is a Festschrift, which is a German term meaning a book or pieces of work that serve as a celebration of an individual's cumulative work or career. This edition of the journal is composed of pieces entirely done by Dr. Foley's students. 

"It is a fitting tribute to John’s standing as one of the greatest scholars in the field and a really excellent mentor to so many students over the years," Jarvis said. 

Throughout his 30-plus years as a professor, Dr. Foley mentored many of his students. Dr. Foley would co-author papers with his students, encourage them to do great work and help them in many generous ways, Jarvis said. 

"He was an incredibly generous and kind man as well as being an engaging and awe-inspiring professor in one of the fields that I believe has been one of the best kept secrets," Burch said. 

Burch credits Dr. Foley as one of the reasons that the study of oral tradition is still in existence. 

Jarvis recalls Dr. Foley as being "a true educator." 

"John was really interested in the field of oral tradition and was a really great teacher to his students," Jarvis said. "He was able to understand that when you bring students along and give them the tools to do good scholarship, you have a much greater impact."

A memorial service will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Great Room of Reynolds Alumni Center at MU.

Supervising editor is Hannah Wiese.

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