Moving Past the Data: Further Down the Rabbit Hole

Students and professors met together to discuss what is to come next with the discussion around the Fairy Tales on Television project.

PROVO, Utah (May 14, 2015)—For the past couple of years, scholars have been digging further into the research and data behind the use of fairy tales in media. But why fairy tales? In a symposium held on Brigham Young University campus, one student who has worked closely with English associate professor Jill Rudy answered this very question. The BYU English student, Megan Armknecht, sat in a conference room with several professors and scholars from across the continent to discuss the Fairy Tales in Television project that Rudy and associate research professor of digital humanities Jarom McDonald have been working on.

Armknecht spoke of how fairy tales never die and, though we think they are for children, how they are much more complicated than we realize. They show cultural tensions not just from 17th-century Germany but also in today’s society. Armknecht also reminded those present that fairy tales are not just for the children but for everyone. As C. S. Lewis said, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

After Armknecht finished her statement, Professor Rudy picked up where she left off and recapped the work that she­ has been doing. With help from professors and graduate students all over the nation, Rudy and McDonald’s team has created an online database that shows how often certain fairy tales appear in films and television. But like most research, it was not enough to just answer the question of which fairy tale appears the most often in the media (in case you were wondering, it’s Cinderella).

For Rudy, though the database was a success, it was not giving her the information she necessarily wanted. All this data had been collected and archived, but she wanted more. “Folklorists have been thinking about this in a computational way for a long time,” Rudy noted. Now the questions is about what to do next with all this data. Where could one go from here? How could they move beyond the metadata?

Rudy saw the symposium as a chance to discuss what was to come next. She recognized that the beauty of data such as this is that it “creates more learning” by generating more questions. Rudy asked, “Are there things that we can do to help us understand the tales themselves, especially that are on television? Are there things in terms of the dialogue? Are there points of semantic meaning in the television narratives that might help us understand the fairy tales’ narratives a little bit better?”

With these and other questions in mind, Rudy and other scholars joined together to discuss and brainstorm what to do next. A few students who have been working with Rudy on the project contributed their own ideas on how to move forward. Ideas ranged from involving the public through social media to a BYU writing camp focused solely on fairy tales. Other topics included expanding the database and research worldwide and making it international. Students from all over could then be involved in contributing to the database by suggesting research ideas or citing shows with fairy tale references through a soon-to-be created form on the website.

The ultimate goal is for more questions to be asked. “We want it to become more and become bigger and become relevant in a way that is incredibly unique,” Rudy stated. Kendra Magnus-Johnston – a Ph.D. candidate for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Manitoba who also spoke – said that the “double-edged sword of a compelling scholarly project such as this is that it keeps offering new discovery and a reason to keep asking new questions, to keep looking.”

Magnus-Johnston noted that though it may seem like their research is creating more work for themselves, this is what makes it so wonderful: that the research can and will continue into further generations. That their “work will never quite be finished.”

For further reading on Rudy and McDonald’s project click here.

—Amelia Wallace (B.A. English ’15)