Elaine Lawless will be the first to tell you that we are all storytellers.
Lawless is a curator’s professor of English and women’s studies, director of MU’s Center for Arts and Humanities, and an award-winning author. Now she will head an international folklore organization that has been collecting the world’s stories for nearly 120 years.
Lawless was recently elected president of the American Folklore Society after serving as the editor of the organization’s Journal of American Folklore. The society has more than 2,000 members and includes educators, librarians and members of public folklore organizations.
As a folklorist, Lawless studies stories and tries to find patterns in a society’s “folk groups.” Lawless is also an accomplished ethnographer, doing field work and collecting stories at a women’s shelter for her 2001 book, “Women Escaping Violence.”
Stories play an important part in every aspect of life, including on campus, Lawless said. For example, students gain much of their knowledge about traditions and social standards through stories told among their peers.
“It’s just as important, or even more important, than what they’re learning in the classrooms,” Lawless said.
Patricia Okker, chairwoman of the MU English department, said that with Lawless’ leadership at the folklore organization, the English department’s national profile will rise, be able to attract more graduate students and increase educational opportunities for students.
“There’s an incredible ripple effect that changes what happens in the classroom,” Okker said. “It is a huge accomplishment and something to celebrate.”
Lawless has also spurred the growth of humanities by urging collaboration among different academic departments at MU. She says she fights every day on behalf of the humanities on campus.
“I hear about life sciences all the time,” Lawless said. “I keep asking, ‘What about arts and humanities?’ You can’t pretend."