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Midwestern Stories is a two-course series that has taken place in the Department of English in the fall and spring semesters of 2020-21. It has focused on student investigation of representations of Midwestern identity in various types of media. Indiana Humanities’ One State/One Story novel pick for 2020, Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home, has been central to Midwestern Stories’ thematic core. The novel engages and challenges popular narratives of the Midwest, including 1) that of a past in which agriculture and industry thrived and people were fulfilled by their participation in building America and 2) that of the contemporary Midwest as a stagnant milieu with little to offer the next generation. Paralleling these two popular narratives of the Midwest, the first course of Midwestern Stories focused on representations of the Midwestern past while the second focuses on the Midwestern present.
Midwestern Stories: Complicating the Mythic Landscapes of Farm and Factory
Students in the first course gained an expanded view of the agricultural and industrial Midwestern past and explored the kinds of stories that are left out of the popular idealization of farm and factory in the American imagination through the study of contemporary Midwestern novels. To learn about the experiences of real Midwesterners in past decades, students in the first course conducted an oral history project, interviewing older Midwesterners willing to share their recollections of life in the Midwest of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Based on these interviews, students worked together to compose and record a podcast that was then produced by the university’s Digital Corps. In nine episodes, the Stories from the Heartland podcast shares the stories of older folks from the often-mythologized middle of the country to challenge misconceptions and expand understanding of the Midwestern past.
Midwestern Stories: Constructing Our Contemporary Identity
The second course shifted students’ attention from the past to the present, focusing on representations of the contemporary Midwest in a variety of cultural texts. Through conversations with numerous guest speakers from multiple disciplines, students learned about the diverse experience of living in the Midwest and considered the stakes of employing a regional perspective. Students then worked alongside staff at Minnetrista Cultural Center in Muncie to develop a museum exhibit focused on Midwestern identity. Through a series of stories, the exhibit invites visitors to take a fresh look at a familiar space, exploring the complex landscape that is alternately celebrated as America’s Heartland and derided as “Flyover Country.” In addition to the Minnetrista lobby exhibit, students created a digital version of the “Midwestern Stories." Web content includes expanded explorations of stories shared in the physical exhibit, full access to the oral history podcasts developed in the first course and book reviews.