Studying the Midwest Just Became Cool

When Dr. Jon Lauck’s academic career led him down the path of Midwestern history studies, he made an unexpected discovery — the field didn’t really exist. Ten years later, through efforts by academics and museums alike, regional study of the Midwest is an up-and-coming field. Cover graphic by Caitlin Evans for Midstory.

When Dr. Jon Lauck’s academic career led him down the path of Midwest history studies, he made an unexpected discovery — the field didn’t really exist. 

“There’s so much information, but the information is not organized around regional, Midwestern history,” Lauck said. “It’s just focused in other ways. So you have to go in, read it, rethink it, reorient the information so that it’s speaking to the story of the region.”

According to a paper written by Paul Mokrzycki, when regional subfields of study took off in the mid-20th century, the Midwest was glossed over in favor of rising interest in the South and West. Since then, despite being America’s “heartland,” the Midwest has remained ignored and overlooked as a region worthy of study. 

“[At the] University of Georgia in the South, they have like 10 people in their history department [who] study the South,” Lauck said. “And just by way of comparison, University of Minnesota — which is an even bigger institution in the Midwest — they have zero people who teach the history of the Midwest.”

Concerned about what this might mean for the future of the region — with the Midwest’s place in cultural discourse already declining — Lauck made it his mission to help revive the study of the Midwest.

He started by publishing “The Lost Region” in 2013, a book detailing this very discovery. The following year, he went on to co-found the Midwestern History Association with a group of like-minded historians and established the Middle West Review journal.

“There had never been an entity like this designed to study the region,” Lauck said. “Every proper academic movement needs its own journal to keep track of its writings and findings and thoughts.”

Around the same time, a group of universities in the Midwest received a $3 million grant to fund research into the Midwest’s significance.

Things were looking up, but there was still a long way to go.

According to Lauck, there was no existing historiography (comprehensive writing) of the Midwest for academics to draw from. This led to his embarking on the journey of another book, “The Good Country,” published in 2022, which lays historiographical foundations for the 19th-century Midwest.

“It was supposed to be a comprehensive history of the region, but after I got into it a little bit, I’m like, ‘There’s no way to do this in a short version,’” Lauck said. “Maybe in 20 years you can come back and write a 100-page book about it, after there’s been a lot more basic research done, but at this point it wasn’t possible. You’ve just got to do it in chunks.”

Across the Midwest, academics and historians have been contributing to the field, chunk by chunk. New publications like The New Territory and university initiatives like the Rust Belt Humanities Lab have further established regional Midwestern studies as a worthy cause.

And slowly but surely, academics in the field are connecting — from social media circles to journal collaborations, from conferences to book reviews. 

The Midwestern History Association’s annual conference has been connecting academics and invested individuals in the name of Midwestern studies for 10 years, as of 2024. The conference, which is set to run again in Grand Rapids, Michigan on May 30-31, usually sees around 100 scholars in attendance who present their research on Midwestern studies in hopes of finding publication and spark collaboration.

“There’s a lot more people working in the field now because, before, it really wasn’t a field. People didn’t know where to go,” Lauck said. “Until we had this forum where we could have this discourse about what the field [and] what the region is about, we didn’t have a platform from which to talk about it.”

The 10th Annual Midwestern History Conference will be held at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan in May 2024. Image courtesy of Gpwitteveen via Wikimedia Commons.

According to Lauck, another goal of the conference is to facilitate connections between state historical societies. Every state has historical societies to preserve and document local history, but they do not often have the opportunity to connect with a regional, Midwestern focus.

“We need to be seen in regional terms. We have a better sense of the Midwest, and so we’ve been trying to work to connect state historical societies to think more in regional terms,” Lauck said. “We can get people from different states on the same page and doing comparative work, and so we can say something larger about the region.”

According to Charity Counts, executive director of the Association of Midwest Museums, museums are all in for the cause.

“All the historical organizations would hope to be a part of any kind of effort to bring to light more of the history of the Midwest,” Counts said. “I think museums are trying to bring out some of those stories that people have never heard before now.”

While academia was catching up to reviving the field of Midwestern studies, museums were busy preserving its history.

And according to Counts, this work doesn’t end with just preservation.

“Museums, for the most part, are the holders of primary sources,” Counts said. “[But] they’re still trying to connect with communities that aren’t yet represented in their collections. … Through this process, they’re gathering more stories and oral histories, or being able to scan photos that they didn’t have before, that they could use to tell a broader, more complete story.”

A region-specific focus has also been a growing trend among museums in the Midwest as they attempt to reach their local communities.

“Museums are really working to bring out these stories, to help people have full context for the lives that they live in, the life they live today, the place that they live in today,” Counts said. “People are curious, and any curiosity that we can tap into about the history of the Midwest through objects or the stories we share and the voices that we elevate in that process, that’s going to draw people in.”

Partnerships between museums and academic institutions seem to be a fruitful path forward for the field of Midwestern studies. Collaboration takes various forms: universities training the next generation of museum workers; conference hosting and attendance; and, of course, museums allowing researchers to access their source collections. 

For scholars and practitioners alike there are a host of reasons why regional study of the Midwest is necessary.

“Museums have that academic and research side, but they serve the public,” Counts said. “They’re preserving history, but they’re also here to serve the public, and they have a responsibility to that.”

Lauck agrees with the importance of public-facing Midwestern studies.

“I’m specifically interested in informing Midwesterners about their region a little bit more because I don’t think a lot of people know a lot about the region,” Lauck said. “[If] you don’t understand your own history, if you don’t understand your own identity, then someone else is going to tell you who you are — and they’re going to do it using stereotypes and cliches that are inaccurate and they’re not going to have your best interest at heart.”

Lauck hopes that by way of regional comparison, the Midwest can recognize which elements of its culture are absorbed from the coasts, and have more self-determination in its own culture. Counts agrees.

“It can lead to some shared appreciation for the area of the country we live in, and that is often passed by or overlooked, in spite of all that we have to offer here,” Counts said.

Ten years on since the revival of Midwestern studies, the field is still expanding. So what’s next?

The Middle West Review is still making strides into uncharted territory — quantitative study being one of them. They recently collaborated with Emerson College Polling to produce the largest and first-of-its-kind survey on Midwestern identity (view our interactive analysis of the study here).

Lauck hopes that the foray into quantifying Midwestern studies will continue and that more comparative research in this area will help us to better understand regional identities.

More literature is also making its way onto the scene. Namely, Oxford University Press is currently preparing a New Oxford History of the American Midwest, which will be published in the next few years.

“That’s a sign, I think, that the field’s being taken more seriously and more people are following what’s happening here,” Lauck said.

According to Lauck, a center for Midwestern studies — like the 15 that exist for the American West — needs to be instituted to facilitate discourse, support, funds, staff, research and publications.

“We’re making progress,” Lauck said. “But it’s the discipline of histories: The wheels grind slowly. Sometimes it takes decades to really make a dent in things.”

In the meantime, those who see the value in the field continue to carry the torch.

“One thing that’s valuable about this kind of history is understanding what the Midwest has been and what it could be again,” Lauck said. “Understanding how [post-industrial] life can be productive and positive is a good thing. It helps you to shake off this torpor of deindustrialization and failure and defeat, and helps you connect with another era where things were more prosperous.”

Logan Sander contributed reporting to this story.

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