The Revival of Midwestern Studies

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

H-Midwest Advisory Board member Jon Lauck recently appeared on South Dakota Public Radio along with John E. Miller to talk about The Revival of Midwestern Studies. Much good stuff there. As Jon says in the interview, “this is the moment for the revival.”

At one point the host asked Jon and John what “a vibrant Midwestern Studies program” might look. Jon proposed what he called “very modest goals”: an active association that hosts an annual conference, and major universities employing at least one person who teaches a course about the Midwest now and then. John added a need for publishing outlets.

Awhile back, news of a course on tacos made the rounds so I asked on Twitter if anyone knew of any courses on Midwestern foodways. I got one response about a food and film studies course. Since then I’ve been thinking about other Midwestern Studies courses that might be, and what a Midwestern Studies major might look like. What courses would be required? What courses are people teaching now about the Midwest?

And so I put these questions to you: what would a vibrant Midwestern Studies program look like? What do you think of Jon and John’s modest goals? (I appreciate the feasibility, but let’s think hypothetically: what do we really want?) What courses might be required of a major? Or a grad student? And more concretely, what courses are already being taught about the Midwest?

Don't look only at history departments. University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Department of English, offers a class on Midwestern History and Culture.

(Iowa's loose meat sandwich figured in a recent episode of The Good Wife. It also is called a tavern sandwich or so says Wikipedia

We always called it a "Maid-Rite", which I believe was actually a brand name for that kind of sandwich. I recall a shop with that name in Cedar Rapids, where I was born and lived until my family moved to southern Californianwhen I was eleven.

Denise Spooner, co-editor H-California

To Jon's modest goal to convince  "the bigger universities in the Midwest to have at least one person that may teach at least one class once in awhile about the Midwest." How are we doing? What universities do have someone teaching that one course? (Jon then goes on to call out my alma mater as not having a single one, at least in the history department . But I did have a Minnesota History course in my high school!)

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, as I started studying Midwestern writers because I grew up in Wisconsin and didn't know of a single Wisconsin writer until I was a sophomore or junior in college when I came across August Derleth in a Vampires in Literature course (not exactly a comprehensive introduction, but it was something). And I was born and raised entirely in the state.

There are more than a few folks that I know of teaching Midwestern literature courses. I don't know of many schools in the Midwest that have a course like that officially in any catalog. If I wasn't a Midwestern scholar teaching at a Southern university (the strangeness of a job market where you go anywhere to get a decent job), I'd be trying to get any university I was at to adopt one, as I think there is as much a case for teaching it or putting it in the catalog as a possibility at Midwestern colleges and universities as there are classes on Chaucer or whatnot (and that's not to knock Chaucer--for any Chaucer fans on the list--but to point out that if we can specialize in one why not the other).

The pessimist in me--as I'm a large scale pessimist about higher ed these days--is to say that I think a Midwestern Studies program or minor is going to be a hard sell in today's climate. What can students go on to do as a result of it? What is the ultimate value in it? Those of us in the area know there are options and value, but when the essence of any program change these days is driven by job placement or other number crunching, I think we'd have a hard time finding a sympathetic school willing to fund any positions or programs dedicated to it.

What frustrates me most in literary studies though is that I continually see, even in the current abysmal market, job listings that ask for specializations in southern, Appalachian, southwestern and western literature. It's almost never the primary focus of a job listing, but it's often in the laundry list of secondary skills. I have never once seen a listing, in the roughly ten years I've been monitoring the higher ed job market in literature that asked for anyone with a specialization in Midwestern writers.

Maybe what we need to do even before getting to the point of hoping a school would begin to hire or adopt a program in Midwestern Studies is to lay a template of what that might look like or what the benefits might be? One not just authored by a single individual but one signed off on by a number of scholars, as I think that would help refute any larger criticisms about this being the dream of one person or avoid making the idea easier to marginalize? I'm not sure the best way to get something collaborative like that together, but maybe the Midwestern history conference in June would be a place to start a dialogue since it sounds like there will be a pretty interdisciplinary crowd of scholars there? If anything, it seems that template could then be something used or adopted by folks who want to try and fight the good fight to get something moving at a Midwestern college or university.

When I was in grad school back in the day at Loyola University Chicago (having been born and raised in the city), I was fortunate that they offered a History of Chicago course, but nothing on the Midwestern History. I ended up creating an independent study course with Ted Karamanski that I did over a summer that focused on a great bibliography we both put together. Wish it would have blossomed into something more real there, but don't think it did. Nevertheless, I am grateful for that summer.

Hello all! I'm a senior at a small Midwestern liberal arts college, and I'm headed to a terminal MA program in History in the Fall.

Being an Ohioan, and seeing posts from all over the region, I'm very interested in different Midwest(s). How do we see Sherwood Anderson's Midwest versus that of David Foster Wallace? How does the Rust Belt compare to the Corn Belt? A Midwestern Studies curriculum would help me to suss out these questions.

I'm studying residential segregation in the 20th century, and in this way, unfortunately, the Midwest is *certainly* exceptional.

I look forward to attending Midwestern history conferences in the future...

Harry, do you happen to have a copy of the syllabus you put together to share? For a young, inquiring Midwestern scholar?

I have been very interested in this idea for a while now so I am happy to see a post discussing some of the merits of it and the feasibility moving forward. As far as classes that I know of offered in sort of "Midwest studies," I agree with several commentators here that most of them are local courses. I did my undergrad at Michigan Tech and we had a course on Michigan History as well as a course for Copper Country History which took a good look at mining in the Lake Superior region but mostly focused on the Keweenaw Peninsula, the rise and subsequent fall of the mines, and the people of the region. Those were the only two courses offered (Although I took a History of Canada course as well which gave a nice perspective of history on the other side of the lakes so they complimented each other in a way).

As a response to Eric's question about how do we see the Midwest(s), there isn't just - in my eyes - the Rust Belt v Corn Belt but even the Great Lakes v Plains. Now living in West Virginia, but from Michigan, my concept of the Midwest is different from many others. I see it as the Great Lakes region, for a sporting analogy, the old footprint of the Big Ten Conference. But even stretching beyond sort of this concept of Rust Belt v Corn Belt, Great Lakes v Plains, there are some regions of the "East" that have a very Midwestern feel. Erie, PA and Buffalo, NY have many qualities I think people would associate with the Rust Belt, Great Lakes Midwest. Long story short, as I have thought about the creation of a course for a Midwestern Studies class there is always the physical question of where is the Midwest and the lived experience question of where is the Midwest.

One way in which I have thought about approaching it in terms of getting it accepted as a course, or for grander ideas of a major even, would be through a transnational lens. How do people who live in the Midwest move through the space both locally and from overseas, from other regions of the country, and how do people interact through the Canadian-US border over time. Something akin to Bukowczyk, Faires, et al "Permeable Border."

This is great to see discussion about this.