Jon Lauck on the Midwestern History Association

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Lauck-photo-Nov-2014Jon K. Lauck received his Ph.D. in economic history from the University of Iowa and his law degree from the University of Minnesota. Lauck’s newest book is The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History (University of Iowa Press, 2013). Lauck is currently serving as an adjunct professor of political science and history at the University of South Dakota, as the Associate Editor and Book Review Editor of Middle West Review, as the series editor of Studies in Midwestern History, and as president of the Midwestern History Association. The Midwestern History Association is on twitter and facebook.

How do you or the Midwestern History Association conceive of the Midwest intellectually?

We are quite traditional in our definition of the Midwest and use the common 12-state definition (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, and Kansas). But we also think that the debate over the boundaries of the Midwest is a productive area of discussion and we realize that some states are divided—southern Missouri isn’t that Midwestern, the western Dakotas aren’t that Midwestern, etc. Southern Missouri was settled by a differing group of people than Michigan, for example, and was much more heavily influenced by the culture of slavery. The Western Dakotas, for another example, have a different topography, different rainfall, different occupations, and distinct groups of people which set it off from the Midwest. Of course the boundaries of the Midwest can be one of the more animating features of Midwestern historical discourse. Whatever the precise boundaries, it is generally the area of the United States that isn’t covered by studies of the South, New England, and the American West.

Can you describe the genesis of the Midwestern History Association? Did you and the others involved in the association consider other ways to meet the group’s goals?

The thought came to me after finishing a book in which Midwesterners featured prominently and I decided to try to understand the region better. When I started researching, it occurred to me that Midwestern history as an organized field of study had pretty much vanished. This led, naturally (for us historians), to the organization of a panel discussion on the matter. 

Could you describe the process of creating a new scholarly organization? How did other scholars react to this new organization?

In advance of a history conference in Wisconsin where we had planned a “state of the field” panel about Midwestern history, I sent an email to other conference goers asking if they were interested in meeting in the bar of the conference hotel to talk about these matters. Thirty people showed up and we ending up declaring the beginning of a longer-term Midwestern History Working Group and having discussions about starting a new Midwest-focused journal, which we thought was critical to future scholarship on the region. 

Can you tell us about the Midwestern History Association and its objectives? What future plans do you have for the organization? What avenues for inquiry, scholarship, and collaboration do you hope to open with the creation of a new society? 

After we formed the Midwestern History Working Group, we had a year of meetings and conference panels and discussions and, after receiving lots of positive feedback, we finally voted to formally create the Midwestern History Association, adopt by-laws, elect officers, form committees, and generally organize ourselves as a scholarly association. From our 30 founding participants in Wisconsin we’re now up to 562 members and have 540 Twitter followers and 400 Facebook friends. We are quite happy with our rate of growth and want to reach out to others who may not be aware of our efforts. We also hope to have more collaborative conferences, such as the one on May 1 Michigan entitled “Finding the Lost Region,” which was planned alongside the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University. More generally, we want to make a concerted effort to reach out to other groups and institutions that want to join our effort to promote study of the Midwest and form alliances with them.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to a professional organization that focuses on a geographic space, rather than a time period, social group, or theme? Who might benefit from joining an organization of this kind? 

In this case, the organization serves the purpose of promoting the study of a major region of the United States which has been greatly neglected, as I argue in my recent book The Lost Region. Historical organizations often emerge to focus on specific areas that have been neglected by historians and the MHA is no different in that regard. We hope that this area becomes quite active and that history departments, especially ones located in the Midwest, will be interested in fostering this area of teaching and research. We think this might be of great benefit to younger scholars.

Moreover, the Midwest-as-a-Category-of-Analysis can be of great benefit in thinking about the American past in new ways that transcend existing and conventional categories of thought so that we are better able to dissect the entirety of the American experience. Given the neglect of the Midwest in the past, this may prove to be one of the most innovative ways we’ve had of understanding American pluralism in quite some time.

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