I Apologize: A Note for Iowa (and Beyond)

When I submitted my application to Michigan Tech--in Houghton, one of the most Upper corners of the Upper Penisula--I remember thinking that I likely wouldn't survive my first winter. Houghton's nestled against Lake Superior, right across from Thunder Bay and 10 miles from an alpine ski center. The university hosts annual snowmobile races. People *ice fish*.

The school itself is nationally known for its engineering curriculum, and their tech writing faculty is top-notch. The faculty members I've met from MTU enjoy being a part of the small Houghton community and work to be visibly active citizens. The local culture is one part Midwestern, two parts Nordic, one part Native. Though the climate ran counter to my biological need for 55 degrees and above, I was excited at the prospect of contributing to their department and taking advantage of the many natural features of the area. I hate snow, but I looked forward to learning to snowshoe if I landed a job in the UP.

I didn't, and I'm settled in an ideal, for me, locale. The academic job search holds much in common with the military: You go where the jobs are. Many times, these jobs are housed in small universities in small towns with one-gate regional airports and no Broadway company tours within 200 miles.

Responding to Bloom's protracted Iowa dirge, Krueter argues that graduate students who fantasize about an urban, cosmopolitan first-job appointment are "delusional." He credits the Net for saving culture-starved academics from relying on commercially popular films, since Netflix streaming makes the most obscure fare infinitely accessible. Firefox shall save us from the degradation of the ordinary. So help us God. Praise be to 3G.

What would the hinterlands do without Skype, friends?

To stand in praise of the art house film necessarily makes "culture" prohibitive and redraws those tired lines between low and high, between educated and common. I'm uncomfortable with that definition of culture, but perhaps that's because I dislike art-house for art-house's sake. There's a point at which the definition of "academic" becomes synonymous with "high-culture." The conflation is self-congratulatory at best, prejudicial at worst.

I agree with much of what Krueter writes. He and I share strangely similar backgrounds and interests. We both self-identify as Appalachians and value conservation and outdoor recreation. He returned to his home state as an Assistant Professor. I interviewed in my home state of West Virginia but accepted a position in North Carolina, adjacent to the Appalachians but no longer in them.

Krueter acknowledges the most troublesome subtext of Bloom's piece: The article ("Observations from 20 years of Iowa Life") fronts itself as a public service: "Considering [Iowa's] enormous political significance, I thought this would be a good time to explain to the geographically challenged a little about Iowa, including where Iowa is, and perhaps more importantly, in both a real and metaphysical way, what Iowa is." However, with the demographic and historical data excerpted (all such information as could be gleaned from most any history of the state), what remains is a statement on Iowa's lack of culture, or more specifically, Iowans complete inability to make thoughtful political decisions. (Contrary to the point that Iowa is one of the few states to legalize same-sex marriage.)

Bloom ends the article with this charming anecdote (Hannah is his dog, for clarification):

"I can't tell you how often over the years I'd be walking Hannah in our neighborhood and someone in a pickup would pull over and shout some variation of the following:

'Bet she hunts well.'

'Do much hunting with the bitch?'

'Where you hunt her?'

To me, it summed up Iowa. You'd never get a dog because you might just want to walk with the dog or to throw a ball for her to fetch. No, that's not a reason to own a dog in Iowa. You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat.

That's the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president."

Midwestern culture--so much like my native Appalachian culture--stands in for Bloom's fear of the radical right and supports his call for Intellectual Colonialism. He all but calls out the state's residents for making their political decisions based on Fox News, though he stands amazed that he must teach real journalism in a culture where it's commonplace to print Bible verses on the front page. He bemoans his struggle to train his students to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." In short, Bloom's article successfully presents every negative stereotype about academics, masked by his concern for the future of liberalism in America. 

As a radical/leftist professor from Southern West Virginia--who likes to fish and couldn't care less about art museums--I'd like to apologize for Bloom. We're not all like that. We all don't denigrate the communities which we're tasked to serve.

Some of us see the importance of the cultural heritage of practices like hunting and fishing. (My high school didn't hold classes during the week of Thanksgiving because so many people were absent. It's deer season, folks, and that venison isn't going to throw itself on your doorstep, field-dressed and ready to be steak.) Some of us find value in political opinions contrary to our own, not because we wish to change those opinions, but because we wish to engage in progressive discourse. Some of us recognize that the land both enables and constrains labor, so much so that the industrialization of heritage jobs (as with the family farms in Iowa) can lead to other systemic social problems, like drug use. If we're working in your town, at your colleges and universities, teaching your children, we're not always and already counting the rungs between where we are and where you are, because some of us realize that there isn't really a ladder and that our jobs aren't somehow more intrinsically valuable than yours. Our ideas aren't better. Our beliefs aren't more fully vetted. Our lives and histories aren't richer or more thoughtful or more important.

As for Iowa and its citizens, I see many overlaps with West Virginia. As the mines and coal-fired plants close, people are left without work. Desperation sometimes breeds extremism, but that's always been the case regardless of geography or class. Bloom's article provides a written-to-order description of the GOP monster under the bed, a harbinger for other academics who see the Midwest as a value-free, critical-thought-free flyover-zone (on their way to San Fransisco or New York, where critical thought and Real Culture lives). Bloom frames Iowans as too culturally deprived to make informed political decisions, yet he reveals himself as too culturally insensitive to recognize his short-sightedness. Bloom writes, "[H]ow screwy it is that a place like Iowa gets to choose -- before anyone else -- the person who may become the next leader of the free world?" I ask, "How screwy it is that a professor of journalism--who has made his reputation by writing about and photographing rural Iowa culture--will so quickly move denigrate that culture?"

You can read the response of Sally Mason, President of the University of Iowa here.


Quintilian B. Nasty said...

Speaking as native Iowan and someone who grew up in the working/lower-middle class, Professor Bloom pisses me off.

Apparently, he forgot that folks from Iowa helped Obama, a darling of the ivory tower set, get his campaign started on the right foot four years ago.

Casie Fedukovich said...

Me, too, Buddy. Me, too. There are rumblings that Bloom's a hired hand, which would make sense if the article weren't potentially career derailing. Considering his previous pubs and his connections to the university, I'm surprised that he would think this article was a smart career move. Maybe his last year in Michigan reminded him that he's more urbane than everyone else. Not sure.

I am glad others are put off by him. I'm often concerned that my own class bias causes me to read too inflexibly.

Thanks for the comment!

Jackrabbit said...

"My high school didn't hold classes during the week of Thanksgiving because so many people were absent. It's deer season, folks, and that venison isn't going to throw itself on your doorstep, field-dressed and ready to be steak."

Amen, Casie, Amen.
I want to grow up to be as cool of a professor as you