Tom Carroll – part IV

The following is the last post – Part IV in the interview with Tom Carroll NOW – and Tom’s advice for the next generation

(if you want to begin at the beginning, chick here for  Part I).

Tom now sometimes works closer to home, sometimes at a distance depending on the project, though he’s recently developed a special focus on fieldwork in southern New Jersey. He’s also working on a project with Towson University to investigate karaoke within the various Asian communities of Maryland, which would involve doing things like going to house parties and documenting karaoke as a cultural phenomenon – as a way of understanding and transmitting understanding of how it functions, how it works with those communities, leading to an exhibit and related programming at the Asian Arts and Culture Center at Towson early in 2017. For Tom, seeing how people use ethnography to find linkages and seek to better understand the ways communities connect to larger communities is the beginning of a more nuanced understanding of how culture works, and it bodes well for the future.

Tom has also explored opportunities afforded by interest in ethnography from business communities – as a graduate student he taught in the communications program at the Wharton School, offering communications and public speaking to MBA and executive MBA students. In his view, the whole concept of doing something like running a meeting at work is actually an enactment of social responsibility, and it’s crucial for those who will be engaged in such practices to truly internalize what that means. He gave as an example how he encouraged his students to think about narrative as social phenomenon. In this view, giving a presentation is ultimately about the connectivity of one individual to another. What we are aiming to do is transition into a social framework and think about things like “how is your speech part of constructing meaning out of social experience?” He tried to nudge his students towards a phenomenological shift, radicalizing their presentation process by regarding it as an act of speaking rather than writing, and conceiving the audience itself as their primary text.

When I asked Tom to reflect on what advice he would give to those who are interested in fieldwork jobs, he noted that this work landscape has changed dramatically. The program in folklore and folklife at Penn, and the follow-on Center for Folklore and Ethnography are no longer active, and to his knowledge the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has not organized major fieldwork initiatives in recent years. Also, in Tom’s opinion there is much more focus now on very specific outcomes – strict outcomes – for projects. Instead of opportunities to do what he calls “open-sky fieldwork,” projects are driven by funding considerations and the need to justify the work and the process to their funders.

His advice for those who would seek to engage in these conversations with funders would be to say to the people who you would seek to hire you: “we need each other. I need you because I can’t do this research without your sponsorship and support, but you need me because I’m an outsider” — with “outside” being a fundamentally important position for fieldworkers to assume, and maintain.  In Tom’s view, this position as “outsider” enables the ethnographer to operate freely in the interests of the community, rather than those of hiring agency per se, which in turn means that she acquires the potential to provide something fresh and unconstrained and different.

For those who are interested in pursuing the study of folklore he mentioned folklore programs at Indiana University at Bloomington, at UNC in Raleigh North Carolina, an exemplary program at Ohio State University, and other programs that relate to folklore, for example at Goucher College in Towson, a suburb of Baltimore, that offers a master’s degree in cultural sustainability.

His advice to those who would look to get started as a folklorist is, “Work in a state agency, a museum, for a state arts council or a historical commission, or a local arts organization.  These will give you an imprimatur.” (And for those of you, like me, who need that term defined, it means the mark of official approval that you can do this work.)  “And then build a sustainable practice as a cultural worker, emphatically grounding your practice in communities, then distributing the results to organizations – not the other way around.”

Our conversation ended on a note of cautious optimism.  Suggesting that ethnography has become a household word, Tom said “Everybody these days does ‘fieldwork’, but we need to remind ourselves that ethnography is committed, extensive, immersive, mindful, involves paying attention, and is systematic. It involves deep engagement, and is empathetic and passionate. This is not something to do because you have a passing interest. You have to have a feeling for the work. It is intuitive and personal.  You have to dig deep, and exercise patience.  And if you do make that commitment – think ‘open sky.’”


Thank you, Tom, for taking the time to share your work with us – I know that I found the experience of talking to you most edifying, tremendously illuminating not to mention inspiring, and I know that the readers of Career Linguist will get a great deal out of hearing about your experience!


To read more from the interview with Tom Carroll, here are Part I, Part II, and Part III of Tom’s career path.


Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge ManagementNaming, Non-Profit Communications, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing,Tech, User Experience Research, Training and Facilitation and many more!


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