In this interview, #bsuenglish professor Patrick Collier discusses his Virginia Ball Center seminar “Everyday Life in Middletown.”
What did the project entail?
These Virginia Ball seminars are semester-long projects where students get up to 15 credits for their participation, the teacher gets a fellowship, and that gets him or her out of teaching responsibility or any other responsibility on campus. The subject of the seminar was “Everyday Life in Middletown.” Middletown, I assume you know, is Muncie. There’s this history of Muncie being referred to as Middletown since the ’20s when the Lynds did their sociological study in Muncie and it became a national best-seller.
The idea of the seminar was that we would bring the theoretical tools of the study of everyday life to the study of Muncie, or Middletown. Everyday Life Studies is an interdisciplinary field that has been developing over the last couple of decades. … It studies the stuff that actually typically escapes notice in history and in other academic fields. Everyday life is the stuff that tends to go unrecorded. We do actually spend the vast majority of our waking lifetime being in everyday things but they aren’t the things that “make up our life stories.” The whole idea of Everyday Life Studies is to try to record what everyday life is like and analyze what everyday life is like. A big part of Everyday Life Studies has evolved into coming up with ways of studying it. … It’s been developing as an academic field over the last 20 years or so.
To put it in a nutshell, the Virginia Ball seminar really has three components: one is the theory of everyday life, the other is the whole Muncie/Middletown phenomenon, and the third is the products that we developed out of the seminar. One was this documentary film, and the other is this website that is kind of an archive of everyday life in Muncie as we perceived it. Roughly, we spent the first month of the class studying theory of everyday life. We spent the next four or five weeks doing a study where we recruited informants, people who live in town who were willing to record their everyday lives for us. They kept day diaries that they wrote once a week, sort of recording everything they did, and answered questionnaires that we sent them once a week asking them a bunch of questions about their everyday lives. The remainder of the semester we spent developing the website and finding ways of representing that data and finishing the film.
What are those ways of studying that you employed, and what challenges did you have with this project?
In terms of how we studied everyday life, we started out by really talking a lot about the problems of having to study it. There are a lot of inescapable problems about it. One of them is almost by definition: the everyday is ephemeral. It happens and then it’s gone. As soon as you actually try to fix it, you try to stop it from moving. Then you’ve actually changed it.
We are going to tend to look at things from an academic perspective, which tosses a sort of alien language to the everyday. You don’t walk down the street, or you don’t go to the grocery store, or brush your teeth thinking about the historic and philosophical roots and repercussions of what you’re doing. So bringing academic inquiry to the everyday is, in itself trying to translate it into an alien language.
We decided that we wanted to give the informants as much freedom to give us what they wanted as possible, so that we weren’t setting the terms for them. We gave them really minimal instructions on how to do the diaries. … And we got a vast variety of different forms that they reported to us in. … There was a great deal of variety, and that’s what we wanted. We didn’t want to shoehorn people’s everyday into a set schema that we devised. … The approach to everyday has to be multidisciplinary and has to take multiple perspectives because the everyday—again, it can’t just be translated into a basic language. That’s why we had a combination of the diaries, the questionnaires, and the personal interviews. We interviewed each informant at least once, and some of them we interviewed more than once. … So we tried to be as eclectic in our methods as we could under the constraints we had and tried to be responsive to the responses we were getting to avoid shoehorning our sense of what the everyday was into some preexisting idea about it, if that makes any sense.
We wanted to try to get a demographically representative sample … Now that’s impossible—we shot for 15 informants, there being 15 students in the class, we thought that was a nice symmetry. We ended up having a couple people drop out, so I think we ended up with about 13. But we weren’t being scientific about it, and we were adamant from the beginning that this was an art project. … We weren’t claiming that this was a social science project. We basically said we are going to use artistic methods to shed some insight on everyday life in Muncie. And that’s really important. … What we were trying to do was use artistic methods that borrowed and stole from social science to make artwork that could shed some light on everyday life in Muncie. … We weren’t trying to be mathematically or statistically accurate in our representation of the town, but we wanted to make the group that we would get together as diverse as we could. We were reasonably successful in that, although if you do look at it mathematically, we weren’t. … I think we did pretty well within the constraints, although if you look at it mathematically it’s not really accurate because our sample skews towards professional and middle class.
Are there any conclusions or lessons to be taken away from this that you or your class drew at the end?
We tried really hard not to have expectations about what we were going to find out, and so I think some of the things we found out were probably a little bit less about everyday life than they were about Muncie. … I was really struck by how much community activism there is in Muncie, and that may be partly an artifact of the people that we ended up having as informants, but Muncie really is a community. … I really emerge from this with a feeling that Muncie really is a distinct place with a distinct history and a place where people identify as being from the town.
Part of that is that we happened to come across a lot of people who are involved in the community, involved in civic activities and community groups and activism, and it was interesting. … Muncie is a place that really has a sense of place. For some people, then that sense it’s negative, there are people who—but nonetheless that’s different from not having a sense of place at all or feeling that you live in the bland suburbs. So I guess that’s one thing. I suppose that this is expected, but social media is a huge part of everyday life. And just about everybody commented on their use of social media, sometimes with some kind of guilt or feeling that they were spending too much time, sometimes with joy, really taking real pleasure in their engagement with social media.
I think that there’s really a wide range of opinions as to how Muncie’s doing and how bright the future is for Muncie. We really saw a whole wide spectrum of that. … There really aren’t any conclusions because that’s really the only way to do justice to everyday life because everyday life happens in this collection of tiny moments. … We wanted to give light and air to parts of our lives that don’t get expressed, parts of the community that don’t get expressed. … Every one of those moments that’s recorded in one of those diaries theoretically is as important as every other one. That was the real—and this is the challenge with everyday life, is that you don’t want to overly reduce it to some formulas, and anything that you say about it is going to in some way going to reduce it or going to close off some sort of aspect of it.