Folk and Myth: Beyond Witches & Ouijas

When Harvard senior Merrill Kaplan's parents are asked about their daughter's major, they have a standard answer.

"She's a pre-med," her father says. "She's studying to be a witch doctor."

Kaplan, who concentrates in Folk-lore and Mythology, says her father usually enjoys the ensuing conversation about "whatever this person thinks folklore is," ranging from urban legends to Halloween.

Kaplan's parents are not alone: many people find it difficult to explain that they pay $25,000 a year for classes about Ouija boards and vampires.

Folk and Myth majors simply have to be "not afraid to say `Mom, Dad, I am studying something completely bizarre and I don't know how I am going to get a job," Kaplan says.

But concentrators say that despite the skepticism others feel about Folk and Myth, they are incredibly happy in the tiny department.

Students praise the flexibility of their interdisciplinary plans of study, which allow a "build-your-own-major" approach, and the intimacy and unique character of their 14-person concentration.

And while the concentration only has one-and-a-half faculty slots, students say they can get the classes they want by using other departments' resources.

Folk and Myth concentrators say they are often forced to explain their major, which few people seem to understand.

"When you tell people what your major is, they will think it's a joke or they will have think it's a joke or they will have absolutely no idea what it's about," Kaplan says.

Even Folk and Myth chair Stephen A. Mitchell admits that concentrators have to be "willing to put up with the abuse of telling their roommates and parents that they will major in folk-lore and Mythology."

It's worth the abuse for the concentrators, however. Classes are nearly always 20 people or fewer and the concentration's three faculty members know the name of everyone in the department.

Mark J. Millman '94 switched into Folk and Myth from the slightly more traditional biochemistry concentration.

"Chemistry both literally and figuratively stank," he says. "Folklore, unlike, say, English, or history, is a small concentration in which you have a lot of choice and a lot of personal contact with the instructors."

Few concentrators arrive at Harvard intending to be Folk and Myth concentrators. Like Millman, they are often drawn by the course topics and the intimacy of the department.