Professor Spotlight: Meet Stephen Olbrys Gencarella

Meet Professor Stephen Olbrys Gencarella, a professor in the Communications department here at UMass.


HC: Where are you originally from?

SOG: I was born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, which is a tourist town hugging the coast and staring at the border of Connecticut. I’ve always identified as a southern New Englander and with the indelible working class and contrarian impulses that you can find there.


HC: When you were high school, where did you think you would end up? Did you have a different dream?

SOG: In some ways, my high school ambitions did come true, in that I was interested in mythology at a very early age—my nerd inclinations came early on the scene—and I ended up becoming a folklorist. But at the time I was in high school, I thought I’d become a psychotherapist, and when I was a little younger I wanted to become an archeologist. I was the first in my family to go college, and given those aforementioned nerd tendencies that manifested in my wanting to read, my family encouraged me to become a lawyer, and I seriously considered that for some time. And if you ask my mother, she would tell you I announced early in life that I intended to become a professor, but that was probably the influence of the character on Gilligan’s Island.

I mention all of these twists and turns because I think that it’s important to listen to the instincts and peculiar dreams that we have as children and teenagers. I doubt anyone actually becomes what they want to be when they are very young, but it’s so easy to get bogged down by the expectations others put on us and forget to follow one’s own interests. That’s probably bad career advice, but it keeps the focus on living a good life, which is more than just a way to make money. And I didn’t come from wealth or privilege, so it’s also meant as advice for students who have to make decisions like that count. But I’m glad that I was stubborn enough to think that what actually interested me could lead me to some meaningful work in the future. 


HC: Where did you go to college?

SOG: My undergraduate degree is from Providence College, and it was in Humanities, which is sort of saying it was a degree in a little bit of everything. I went on to pursue a MA in Classical Studies at Tufts University, and then started to work on a Ph.D. in Classical Studies at Boston University, where I worked with an inspiring professor of mythology, Carl Ruck. But I eventually jumped ship and left Classical Studies, and went to Indiana University, where I did a joint Ph.D. in the Folklore Institute and the Department of Communication and Culture.


HC: What is your best memory from college?

SOG: There are too many to choose from, but in a weird way, I loved the kind of stress that undergrads can have, where if you do it right, you spend days and nights debating ideas with others and with yourself. I miss those days of weak coffee, cold pizza, and late nights driving around with friends and solving all the problems of the world (even as our own lives were barely put together). I’m only 45, but some of those friends have already died, and as much as I love being a father and husband now, I fondly recall those times nearly three decades ago when the world was my oyster and it was my job to read and think as much as I could.

It’s one of the things I find most worrying about students these days: the stress that society puts on them does not seem either healthy or the right kind. It pains me to see students get sick over grades and keeping a job and student loan debt, when I think we should be supporting them in every way to be a little irresponsible and encourage them to read and think with abandon. 


HC: What is your favorite thing about teaching at UMass Amherst?

SOG: This will sound cliché, but it’s the students. Let’s be clear: every job sucks in some way. And in higher education, it’s the seemingly endless administrative and bureaucratic demands that kill the joys of the job. Sartre once said that hell is other people, but I think he’s wrong; hell is other paperwork. But there’s nothing like a class of young intellectuals ready to take on the world to re-energize you and give you some hope for the future.

And I effing love teaching UMass students! It’s such an honor to be among them. I know public universities and their students are not treated like the privileged Ivy Leagues or even private designer colleges, but semester after semester I am struck with the ingenuity, creativity, and thoughtfulness of my students. Honestly, every semester that I have been here—15 years now—I think I have had the best group of students possible, but it just keeps getting better.

I frequently joke that I teach because I love my four children, and when I am gone they will live in a world that my students make, and so I don’t want those students to mess it up for them. But every class I have taught makes me rest easy at night knowing this group of young people will have the reigns soon enough.


HC: Do you have a favorite memory from teaching?

SOG: Again, there are too many to choose from, and each semester brings me new surprises and good memories. Some of my favorite moments have come when students break through the hierarchy that is designed to distance us from our humanity. I have kept emails from students who sent kind words when a dog of mine died 13 years ago and I mentioned it in passing, and I hold on to every note or email that a student has written thanking me for something I did in the classroom that helped them. And I equally cherish those emails in which students joke about some dark times in their lives, knowing that I’ve been there and can sympathize. Those emails remind me why I became an educator.

In terms of actual classroom teaching, I am quite fond of the many times when students hijack things and decide to change the plans for the day or refuse to stop a conversation or debate just to keep on schedule or announce that they want to change or nix some assignments and have the votes to do it. I used to be the rebellious one, and now I’m the authority figure, but there is nothing sweeter to me than knowing I’m not in charge and that students have taken the responsibility for their own education. Those moments are filled with risk and uncertainty, but I replay them in my mind with sheer delight. 


HC: List five adjectives to describe yourself.

SOG: Disorganized, unruly, good-humored, resolute, lucky


HC: You teach a folklore studies class, why folklore?

SOG: Folklore is the glue that keeps a society, community, or group together. It gets tossed aside and ignored for seemingly more worthy institutions and experiences, but I think it is of paramount importance, especially if we want to understand the connection and mutual influence between the everyday and the extraordinary. So I came to folklore studies because I was a nerd interested in myths, legends, superstitions and the like, but I stayed because I realized that folklore was potentially the single most important social phenomenon that no one pays attention to. I don’t mean to be coy in saying that. Specifically, I mean that in reading the work of activist scholars such as Antonio Gramsci (who criticized folklore but saw its significance) on the one hand and folklorists who emphasized both special performances and everyday performances of self on the other, I came to appreciate the power of tradition to carve out perspectives for people to adopt. As someone interested in social change, I tend to critique traditions, but that only underscores the importance of looking closely at them and understanding why we humans are willing to fight for our stories, our beliefs, our rituals, and our other practices that help us make sense of the world. So to respond to the good question of “why folklore,” my honest answer is that it’s the key to understanding “human nature,” or at least how we collectively ask ourselves what “human nature” could and should be.

Here’s a case in point. Right now I’m the consulting folklorist for the Connecticut River Museum and I am developing a series on Connecticut folklore for iCRV, the internet radio station. It’s exciting work, and it’s led me to read thousands and thousands of pages of “histories” and the like written since the colonists arrived in New England. And time and time again, I find these stories are about white male heroes—usually at the expense of Native Americans, African slaves, women, and anyone who did not conform to “manly” values. Rather than ignore these traditional stories—stories that cemented the educational and entertainment institutions of New England for centuries—I think we need to look at them head on, recognize how they shaped a worldview and value system that influenced political and social institutions that continue to this day, and question whose experiences and ideas were left out. Folklore studies can be exhilarating and fascinating, but it’s also very serious work that calls into question how we came to organize the social world the way we did, and wonder if we can change it by changing the traditions we pass on.


HC: What do you enjoy doing outside of the classroom?

SOG: Ignoring my four children and trying to find a moment to share with my wife. I’m only partially kidding there. I love being a dad more than any other thing on this earth, but as the father of two sets of twins (ages nine and seven), my life is a chaotic, demanding mess in the best way. And my kids are as rebellious and creative as could be, which means I happily add gray hairs to my beard every day.

To answer a little more seriously, I am very fond of hanging out with my human family, and with my canine family as well. I have four dogs, and I believe that the dog is nature’s charming trouble-maker, so I delight in watching my children and my dogs find new ways to create havoc daily. We live in Lyme, Connecticut, on a few acres with a pond, so there’s always something interesting to explore outside, and if I could find the time, I would spend hours watching the blue herons, the beavers, the muskrats, the snapping turtles, and the other animal visitors to our property.

I don’t want to seem too high-minded, however, so I should also note that I enjoy watching thoughtful comedies, smart cartoons like Regular Show and Gravity Falls, and interesting horror-comedy. (I teach classes on humor studies and horror studies, so this is where my job and my life coincide nicely.) I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I enjoy cooking, that I enjoy eating even more, and that I’m not one to turn down a drink or two. I’m even considering writing a book on the folklore of alcoholic drinks—because again, it’s a social phenomenon that we ignore at our peril, given the importance that excess and temperance have had on human culture. 


HC: What is the best piece of advice you can give to college students?

SOG: Ignore your parents, but don’t tell them outright you plan to do so if they are paying the bills. Trust me: I will give your kids the same advice someday, so it will even out.

What I mean by this is for you to trust your own interests and instincts, and to be stubborn enough to stick with just enough of the crazy ideas you had as a kid to make life interesting. And by “parents,” I do mean those actual people who spawned you, but I also mean every well-meaning professor, advisor, administrator, bureaucrat, boss, potential employer, and seemingly wise voice of conscience that tells you that stupid risks are not worth taking and that you should settle for a safe educational and career goal.

You can’t manage life so that it works out precisely as planned. Odd things happen. Friends die unexpectedly, the market turns mercilessly, and dogs will pee on that rug you bought to impress people. Finding a way to be flexible in the face of contingencies, yet keeping true to some of those wild ideas you had when no one was looking and trying to pressure you to become something they want, is probably the only way to secure a relatively good life.

The advice I would have for students while they are at UMass is to try and recapture some of the right kind of stress that comes from taking classes that interest you, from taking a class that you’re afraid to take, and from reading as much as you can and talking to other people about those ideas you encounter. I know it does not feel like it given all the demands put on you right now—and I admit that most of those demands are probably useless or meant to train you to put up with nonsense—but you actually have more time and freedom now than you probably ever will in your life. Use it wisely! Read, talk, and repeat…


Photos: Cover photo courtesy of author, 1,2,3,4