Friday, May 18, 2012

Introducing A Course On Midwest Culture

Steam Coming Off The Grain Bins, Outside Sioux Center, Iowa; Kenyon Gradert

Art of the Rural is excited to announce A Course On Midwest Culture, a new series that promises to apply a wide interdisciplinary lens to a region of the country often relegated to reductive myths and cliches. 

With this, we are also pleased to welcome Kenyon Gradert to our staff. Kenyon is a doctoral student in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis with primary research interests in religion and philosophy, romanticism, and nineteenth-century American literature. He was raised on a third-generation grain and cattle farm in northwest Iowa. His father and younger brother continue to live in this region and work as cropdusters.

Kenyon will curate the Course on Midwest Culture series, a project that seeks to utilize new media to find a common ground between the discussions that occur within the Academy and those that take place everyday in the American Midwest. His introduction to this effort begins below.


The Midwest holds a complicated spot in American cultural thought. While it has competing claims to both blasé “flyover” and that core of American moral fiber, the “Heartland,” other regions encroach upon its cultural capital. The South seems to have a monopoly on popular rurality and the East coast keeps old-school cosmopolitanism tucked in its pocket, never mind the lake cities’ key role in our industrial revolution, the historical centrality of St. Louis and Chicago in the 19th-century, and the rather straightforward fact that the Midwest today has almost twice as many farmers as the South.

Culturally, the Midwest may seem nothing more than that quaint vacuum between New York and LA without even the literary charm of the south. Indeed, some may think “Midwest culture” the height of oxymoron.

But the region has been home to significant literary endeavor--and long before the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Someday I’d like to use this literature to form a college course that challenges presumptions and assaults (im)pieties both within and towards the Midwest, a place that is neither quaint Georgic pastoral nor vacuous meth ghetto. Perhaps a bit of both, with much in between.

A Course on Midwest Culture will be a recurring series, a syllabus in the making, if you will. I’ll post a brief excerpt of a possible primary text along with my own brief observations and arguments for why such a text should be in such a course. 

Like the internet itself, this cultural studies project will be interdisciplinary. Mosaic-like, I may use a post on Hamlin Garland’s short story “Under the Lion’s Paw” to examine the rural complications of Marxist thought, meanwhile providing web links to Johnny Carson’s Public Service Announcement for the Farmers’ Crisis of the 1980s, a University of Missouri sociological study on rural versus urban poverty, or even John Mellencamp’s first Farm Aid show on the University of Illinois-Champaign campus.

Most importantly, I’ll look for your feedback

When it’s all said and done, my hope is that this project demonstrates the necessity of such a course offering, which I might teach at some point in my time as a doctoral student. Thus, with your help, this series becomes an experiment in a more democratic course-construction. 

Professors most often go to other professors via listservs to determine course material. Why not let Midwesterners outside of the academy help?