Unlike other regions of the country, the Midwest is often described as an “anti-region.” What, in fact, is the Midwest? What are the defining features of its landscape? Are its citizens and its art somehow recognizable as Midwestern?
This course will interrogate the concept of a Midwest aesthetic or sensibility by examining works of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction by writers and artists creating art from and about the Midwest. Many of these works will have an eco-focus that directly addresses the Midwestern landscape. Besides reading, discussing and interpreting the Midwestern-themed works on the syllabus, students in the class will create (and revise through peer workshops) their own creative works of Midwest-inspired art to reveal what the Midwest has come to mean to them personally.
Keywords: Creative Writing; Environmental Studies; Midwestern Literature; Sense of Place
Note: Content adapted from the curricular project
“How to Talk Midwestern” is junior/senior level course for English or Environmental Studies designed to help students think creatively and critically about what it means to be a Midwesterner. It fulfills Beloit College’s capstone requirement in English. The prerequisite for the course is ENGL 190: Introduction to Literary Study.
To interrogate the two questions: Is there a distinct Midwestness? How is it revealed in art?
To test the hypotheses: that “local knowledge is global knowledge,” and that “people who root themselves in places are likely to know and care about those places.” (Sanders, Scott Russell. Staying Put)
Higher order thinking skills goals
- Learn workshop pedagogy to improve their work and their classmates’ work through disciplined yet generous group critique
- Compose their own creative works in at least two genres, including poetry
Patch of Earth Project & A Midwest Journal
While scientists use quadrats to count and measure species within the quadrat, students in the course will include themselves, as observers and members of the biotic community, as objects of study within the quadrat. Students will create a plot (or quadrat) and map out, mark and “inhabit” their own little patch of the Midwest. They will record their data, observations, and analysis from their “Patch of “Earth” in a notebook called “A Midwest Journal.”
- Students will create at least one visual project for the class, which will include a physical map of emotional terrain
- Fieldwork component includes two field trips to regional literary/ecological sites
- Aldo Leopold’s shack near Baraboo
- Lorine Niedecker’s cabin near Fort Atkinson
At least two trips to the College’s Liberal Arts in Practice Center will help students reflect on their liberal arts education at Beloit in preparation for graduation.
This was what I call a “thesis seeking” class in which I posed a question—Is there a Midwest aesthetic?—and then the class sought to answer the question. This was a useful approach. Students were very engaged with the course topic and they felt a strong sense of ownership for it, at least in my estimation. At least a few times during the semester, we would step back from the texts and take a wide-angle look at the question, putting our findings on the board to share and discuss.
This was a new course for me, so a few of the interdisciplinary course projects, such as the “Patch of Earth Project” were assignments that I designed for the first time. I taught the course in the spring semester, and the weather in Beloit was terrible through the first week and March. We had one of the coldest Februaries on record, along with above-average snowfall. This dampened or otherwise chilled the class enthusiasm for sitting and note-take in their plots. Also, I taught the course at night, which made it difficult for me to visit the plots with the students. These two variables combined to make this assignment less productive than it could have been. Also, one of my visions for the capstone class was to have students more responsible for class activities, including some of the content. We began each class with a student presentation on a Midwestern artist or writer of their choosing who was not on the syllabus. In this way, I hoped to broaden the “reading list.” This part of the class was a bit diffuse, and we didn’t have time to adequately (in my opinion) correlate these presentations with the other course material. In the future, I would drop or alter this requirement.
Finally, while most students were quite receptive to the class content and approaches, at least a couple of the students were resistant to the course’s local/regional/rural focus; they took the course to fulfill the capstone requirement and not because they were drawn to the description.
Resources & Materials
How to Talk Midwestern: A talk about a class (Syllabus PowerPoint)
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. Norton Critical Edition.
Blaeser, Kim. Absentee Indians. Michigan State University.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. Harper Perennial
Leopold, Aldo. Sand County Almanac. Oxford.
Porcellino, John. Map of My Heart. Drawn and Quarterly.
To prepare for visit to Lorine Niedecker’s cabin:
Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker (2009) Cathy Cook
To prepare for the visit to the Aldo Leopold Foundation:
Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time (2011) Aldo Leopold Foundation
Outcomes and Significance
The primary course assessment was the peer workshop. Students turn in their written work to their peers, as well as their professor, one class prior to the workshop date. Then the workshop itself is a full half hour peer critique of the manuscript. Besides the oral critiques, the class provides a thorough narrative evaluation of each work before the workshop begins.
Students then revise their major works and resubmit in a final portfolio. At that point I read the revised works and once again provide a narrative assessment of the revisions.
I assessed the Midwest Journal by collecting it at various points in the semester just to see if the students were keeping up. Other than occasional marginal comments, I don’t provide a narrative assessment of student journals.
During individual student conferences, I provided oral assessments of their class presentations and class citizenship. I also included individual revision strategies clarified any confusion about narrative assessments students had received.