Ever since the third grade, when an assistant principal generously offered to teach him and two classmates French, John Miles Foley has been curious about how languages work. Starting with the early epiphany that language is always embedded in culture, Foley followed this line of thinking until it led to oral tradition, which the MU Professor of Classical Studies and English has now been researching for over three decades. It will surely be a lifelong journey, for the field far outstrips written literature in size, diversity, and social function. In fact, all the written literature we have, Foley is fond of saying, “is dwarfed by oral traditions.”
Foley distinctly recalls the roots of his interest in languages and oral tradition. During the third grade, assistant principal Jean Buteau offered to teach French to Foley and two other students as an alternative to study-time. In graduate school, two teachers were especially influential. One of them, Robert Creed, introduced Foley to oral tradition by performing parts of the Old English Beowulf during every seminar meeting, illustrating how — unlike the written word — oral traditions live in embodiment. The other, Anne Lebeck, was Foley’s most inspiring teacher of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which also derive from oral tradition. Seeking a modern analog, Foley later began to study the living oral traditions of the Former Yugoslavia.
As a Curators’ Professor and Byler Chair in the Humanities, Foley is well known for his teaching, offering a number of courses in the Classical Studies and English departments, and occasionally in Germanic and Slavic. For example, he currently teaches courses on oral tradition, a seminar on Beowulf, and courses in Homer and Greek literature. Foley notes that the Beowulf seminar reads the entire poem—“all 3,182 lines”—in the original language of Old English. In fact, he adds, “we have a feast at the end of the semester, when we perform it aloud so that the students can get a feel of what it’s like in the original.” Regardless of the topic, Foley infuses students with an appreciation for the beauty and complexity of language and verbal art.