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CSUMC Friends Newsletter, Spring 2004, Vol. 2, No. 1 Become a member of the CSUMC Friends CSUMC home page Contact us Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures Home Page

Regional humanities center leaders meet in Lincoln to discuss the future

Regional humanities map
The ten regional humanities boundaries.

A strong blending of ethnic influences has long characterized the Upper Midwest, producing a "hybridization" or "creolization" in the culture of the region. That was among the points made by Jim Leary, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Upper Midwestern Cultures, during a recent gathering of regional humanities scholars in Lincoln, Neb.

The event, held during Nov. 20-22, 2003 brought together academicians and others from nine regional humanities centers created in 1999 by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was the first occasion at which representatives from the centers had gathered to share ideas and pursue cooperation in strengthening their mission in regional studies.

Hosted by the Great Plains Humanities Center, based at the University of Nebraska– Lincoln, the conference included presentations by scholars from each region as well as a variety of smaller, topical sessions. At the conference's conclusion, it was announced that a similar gathering will be held every two years. Representatives from the regional centers will hold a business session during the intervening years.

During their presentation, three scholars from the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures focused on linguistics and cultural considerations.

"There was never an Anglo-Saxon hegemony in the Upper Midwest," Leary said during remarks by himself and two other scholars from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Only a small percentage of Wisconsin residents indicated in the 2000 Census that their heritage is English, he said.

And cultural diversity is increasing in some surprising ways, creating developments that are having a major effect on language, said Leary and Joseph Salmons, a professor of German. "American English is becoming profoundly more diversified," said Leary.

Salmons, a co-director of the Center, described a "Northern Cities shift" by which an accent associated with cities near the Great Lakes area is spreading westward through urban areas. For speakers with this accent, the word "pot" is pronounced (roughly) as pat. "Pat" is pronounced pet or even pit. "Bag" can be misheard by speakers from other areas as beg.

Salmons and Ruth Olson, a folklorist and the Center's associate director, described how they are digitizing as much of their recorded language material as possible.

During the conference, remarks by representatives of the regional centers revealed common themes. The scholars explained how they are working to broaden the study of regional history to include the full range of participants, including women and minorities. In some cases, this involves debunking traditional historical narratives that have proved to be exclusionist or simplistic.

New England's regional character, for example, includes far more than the Puritan/Yankee stereotypes. Joseph Conforti, a professor of American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine, noted that by the early 20th century, New England was the most culturally diverse region within the European context. Robert Frost, a poet held up as an embodiment of solid New England sensibility, graduated from high school in a town that many locals called "Immigrant City."

In the Deep South, said Mississippi native William Ferris, a folklore scholar and historian at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, perspectives on the region's history differ sharply. Traditionalists see things one way. Modernists and revisionists, another. The study of the region, he says, has become a matter of "contested memory."

It was Ferris, as director of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the late 1990s, who pushed for the creation of the regional humanities centers.

Discussions during the Lincoln conference also touched on other common themes: building constructive relationships with other regional-oriented institutions; pursuing a public education mission; making the most efficient use of limited fiscal resources; exploring the use of technology as an academic and educational tool.

For example, past and present residents of a particular neighborhood in Camden, N.J., have used a self-publishing capability at the web site for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, or MARCH, to record their online recollections at the site.

Joseph Slade, a professor of telecommunications at Ohio University and director of the Central Region Humanities Center, described how a technology called ArcView GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is allowing the creation of sophisticated maps for the study of a wide variety of data relating to regional economics, culture, and more.

The gathering proved an occasion for sharing observations covering a wide variety of scholarly interests in regionalism.

Mark Busby, head of the Southwest Regional Humanities Center, cited a quote by Texas novelist John Graves: "The provincial who cultivates only his roots is in peril, potato-like, of becoming more root than plant. The man who cuts his roots away and denies that they were ever connected with him withers into half a man."

Frances Kaye, an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, described how, early in her academic career, she lived in New York and found the state to be an inhospitable environment for regional studies. People in New York City, she said, tended to see their city not as part of a particular U.S. region but as part of a global urban culture linking NYC to other world-class metropolises such as London, Paris, and Tokyo. To live in a "flyover" zone such as the Great Plains, Kaye said, makes one "more willing to look at oneself in a certain way."

Tom Isern, a History professor from North Dakota State University, took issue with claims that Great Plains agriculture has ruined the region's ecology. "When Europeans arrived, according to this story, there was stability in the climax formation of prairie," he said. "Then European humankind—people generally considered by ecologists not to be part of nature, and capable only of messing it up -- arrived and messed up the prairie. Naturally, in their arrogance they planted a civilization that, because it disregarded the constraints of environment in a stingy land, had to fail.

"The story since then is one of succession back to some stable state, some new climax formation that can stand," Isern said. "The problem ... is that there is no such thing as a stable climax formation, except as an object of faith. No one has ever seen one. The state of nature is not stability. The state of nature is transition."

During a presentation on the Atlantic South region (the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and Puerto Rico), Tom Rankin, a scholar of photography and documentaries at Duke University, presented slides from various photographic projects on the region. From a transregional perspective, the slides he showed of Walker Evans' well-known Depression-era photography across the South bear quite a resemblance to the photographic explorations of old-time Great Plains farmhouses by Wright Morris, a Nebraska native.

Rankin pointed out a remarkable 40-year effort by photographer Paul Kwilecki to chronicle life in Decatur County, Ga. Over the decades, many locations in the county have seen so much change that Kwilecki has returned to photograph them again.

Slides from a photography project in Delray Beach, Fla., included a picture of a menu over a restaurant countertop. Reflecting the overlap of Caribbean and traditional Southern tastes, the menu's numerous offerings included both grits and goat. The image signals the South's future, Rankin said. Many of the photos from these projects, Rankin said, open a window on "a South that's hardly there anymore."

Geitner Simmons, an editorial writer at the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska, is a North Carolina native who has written extensively on U.S. regional issues. He attended the regional humanities conference in Lincoln.

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Last updated: August 11, 2003

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