History conference puts spotlight on the Midwest

courtesy / Ed Aboufadel via Twitter

courtesy / Ed Aboufadel via Twitter

Ysabela Golden

Despite Midwestern America’s importance to the country’s politics and economy, many scholars have found academia’s understanding of its history and culture to be lackluster. 

That’s why Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center and the Midwestern History Association have teamed up to host Finding the Lost Region V: The Fifth Annual Midwestern History Conference May 30-31, an event dedicated to sparking — and sustaining — a revival of Midwestern studies in American scholarship. The conference has run for five consecutive years and Hauenstein Center Program Manager Scott St. Louis said it has only grown as time has passed. 

“The 2018 Midwestern History Conference had around 150 participants, the 2017 conference around 100, and the 2016 conference around 50,” St. Louis said. “This year’s conference is on track to be the largest yet, with more than 180 scholars participating.  We’ve expanded the conference to two days this year to accommodate its tremendous growth.” 

Like most large academic conferences, St. Louis said the Fifth Annual Midwestern History Conference will host sessions with a variety of panels and roundtables taking place concurrently.

“Folks who attend will have many great options for exploring the history of the Midwest,” St. Louis said. “Historians from around the United States and beyond will be in attendance.” 

Given the wide range of subjects explored by panelists, guests who attend are likely to find experts on topics that fit their interests, like “Madness, Murder, and Method: Interpreting Mangrum the Man-Devil,” “Beyond the Bounds of the Law: Black Women and the Informal Economy in Interwar Chicago” and “Michigan Polar Bears in Russia: The Undeclared American War with the Bolsheviks.” Panels cover the extant but often unacknowledged diversity of perspectives in the Midwestern region, from LGBT activism to indigenous tribes to a long history of immigration.

Though presenters come from all over, GVSU itself is represented at the conference by several professors such as David Zwart, an attendee of all four previous conferences who will be presenting “Heartland Stories: Remembering Immigration to the Rural Midwest After World War II.” 

“It’s always nice to have the opportunity to welcome scholars from across the country to our campus and show them what we at Grand Valley have to offer,” said Zwart. “The scholars attending are really incorporating the Midwest as a place in their scholarship.”

What are the benefits to putting scholarly focus on Midwestern history? Well, for the many GVSU students who grew up in the area, the history of the Midwest is the history of their homes. 

“In education, the more you can connect what you’re teaching to the local — what students are familiar with —  the easier it is to reach them,” Zwart said. “Connecting the local to the national can be really beneficial in that regard.”

Regional history like that explored at the Midwestern History Conference often goes uncovered in primary and secondary education. 

“There’s a lot of discussion over what should be in K-12 curriculums,” Zwart said. “(There are) a lot of subjects that teachers have to find time to cover.” 

Those Midwesterners who are curious about what they never got to learn in school can make up for lost time by perusing the conference schedule for panels that hit close to home and attending at the end of the month.