What does it mean to be a Midwesterner? Whether you’re a transplant to the Midwest for your college years or a lifelong Hoosier, Midwestern identity is part of your story. Drs. Andrea Wolfe and Kathryn Ludwig invite you to explore the nature of that identity in their upcoming Midwestern Stories courses, funded, in part, by the Indiana Humanities One State/One Story Campus Read Grant.
The Midwestern Stories project will focus on representations of the Midwest in literature, TV, film, and elsewhere and will culminate in a student-developed museum exhibit at Minnetrista Cultural Center on contemporary Midwestern identity. You have the option to enroll in one or both of a two-course sequence. The first course will be offered in Fall 2020 as ENG 347: Twentieth-Century American Literature and taught by Dr. Andrea Wolfe. The second course will be run in Spring 2021 as ENG 402: Cultural Studies and taught by Dr. Kathryn Ludwig. We are looking for engaged and creative students for these courses!
ENG 347 in Fall 2020
This course will focus on the Midwestern past: the mythic landscapes of the small family farm and the thriving factory town and the realities that go beyond these stereotypes. It will include travel as well as more typical classroom discussion of literature. It will also require students to engage with community members through an oral history project and help to develop video representations of the Midwestern past for the Minnetrista museum exhibit.
Students in the course will experience immersion into some of the common representations of the Midwestern past through a two-day visit to The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. This visit will help students start to consider ways that the Midwestern past is celebrated–and sometimes manipulated–for financial and/or political gain. Of course, the visit to Dearborn will also spark student thinking about representation of Midwestern identity through museum exhibition, something that students will focus on more extensively in ENG 402, if they intend to continue with the Midwestern Stories project in Spring 2021.
In addition to the excursion to The Henry Ford sites, students in ENG 347 will read several contemporary novels, all of which will complicate common representations of the Midwestern past. Students will begin with the One State/One Story novel, Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home. Additional primary texts will likely include Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and Angela Jackson’s Where I Must Go. Together, these novels will demonstrate a preoccupation of contemporary Midwestern writers with the region’s past. These novels will broaden students’ consideration of the Midwestern past through depictions of factory and farming scenes that do not conform to common representations of these landscapes as well as depictions of other landscapes, such as the college campus and the suburb. The four novels will also allow students to consider how differences in gender, race, and sexuality may have impacted the lived experiences of Midwesterners in the past several decades.
ENG 347 will also include engagement with the remembered experiences–the stories–of older community members who lived through some of the cultural moments most romanticized in the rhetoric and visual representation of “the past” through an oral history component. Students will be paired with community members for recorded interviews and then compose profiles detailing their partners’ past experiences. Students will also collaborate with Ball State’s Digital Corps to develop a museum installation featuring video representations of the profiles of Midwesterners that they compose. These videos will be included in the museum exhibit at the end of the spring semester.
ENG 402 in Spring 2021
In the last decade, the world has seen ardent Midwesterners on screen contending with the likes of Demogorgons and small-town bureaucracy. This class will appeal to fans of shows like Stranger Things, which bears a connection to the recent emergence of Rust Belt Noir, in which Gothic locales are menaced by a literal and figurative past, and Parks and Recreation, which depicts Midwesterners deeply and comically invested in the revitalization of a sleepy Indiana town. Students will compare texts like these by non-local producers with locally produced creative and rhetorical texts, ranging from downtown murals to city promotion and activist materials, which variously celebrate the Midwest (its triumphs of perseverance and excellence) and expose opportunities for growth. In this way, students will consider the extent to which assumptions about place are shaped by a view from outside and how deeply Midwesterners internalize that view. Students will hone their rhetorical awareness by interrogating the investments of the people who create each text and by exploring factors that determine the influence of some voices and forms, such as those that stand to profit from stereotypes, and the suppression of others, which may lack the political or financial power to reach large audiences.
Students in the course will work together to curate an interactive exhibit at the Minnetrista Cultural Center in Muncie, focused on the evolution of Midwestern identity across generations. The first section of the exhibit will present stories of the past drawn from the oral history project completed in ENG 347. The second section of the exhibit will share some of the findings of ENG 402’s inquiry into contemporary media representations of the Midwest. Students will bring together iconic images and texts that express and interrogate collective identity in public discourse. The final section of the exhibit will display student multi-modal projects that extend the conversation about Midwestern identity by staking a claim to aspects of inherited Midwestern identity which continue to be generative and by suggesting how contemporary experiences and modes of communication can engender revision or innovation. Visitors to the exhibit will be invited to contribute their own stories throughout the exhibit. In this way, the exhibit will not only promote students’ ideas about the future of the region; it will also act as a catalyst for visitors of all ages to envision a rich Midwestern tomorrow. The exhibit will aim to articulate a nuanced view of the Midwest, which goes beyond stereotypes and highlights the diversity of experiences and cultures that make up the Midwestern story.
Registration for ENG 347 will open soon and will not require special permission. Email Andrea Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to know more about this immersive learning course before registering.
For more information about ENG 402, contact Kathryn Ludwig at email@example.com.
We hope that some students may choose to take both Midwestern Stories courses in order to provide continuity throughout the project, but we welcome students who may only be able to commit to one or the other.