Bloom, Iowa, and academic locales: a few thoughts

I read about Stephen Bloom’s Atlantic article about Iowa not first in InsideHigerEd but in an email my father sent around to family.  Bloom, who is a journalism professor at the University of Iowa (this will matter in a moment), wrote a piece about Iowa as a primer for people wanting to learn more about the Republican caucuses that will be happening in a couple of weeks.  I suppose he was trying to be tongue in cheek funny, but he missed. Pretty badly.  For example:

In this land, deep within America, on Friday nights it’s not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby (“First they were thrashin’, now they’re CRASHIN’!”). There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen.

Now, I grew up in suburban Iowa– Cedar Falls/Waterloo, which probably has about 100,000 or so people in the area– and I lived for four years in the decidedly college town of Iowa City, IA.  This is not the country area that Bloom is presumably describing, and as this critique of Bloom points out (and there are many critiques of Bloom out there), most of Iowa isn’t this area either. “Just 6.3 percent of Iowans are ‘farm operators,’ and in the last decade Iowa’s metropolitan population grew by 9.1 percent while its rural population decreased by 7.4 percent.”

Anyway, I never went to a tractor pull in Iowa and I didn’t go to one when I lived in Bowling Green, Ohio as a PhD student, the home of the national tractor pull championships. And yes, I missed the combine demolition derby too, though I won’t comment on the boar semen remark.

Then there’s this:

But relatively few rural Iowans are employed in the business of wind energy. The bulk of jobs here are low-income ones most Iowans don’t want. Many have simply packed up and left the state (which helps keep the unemployment rate statewide low). Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”

Almost every sentence here is obviously not true. And in another part of his commentary that really bothers me, he even gets corn wrong.  Corn does not, as Bloom suggests,  “crackle” as it grows, and no, most of the corn planted in Iowa is not meant just for pigs; it’s meant for the many byproducts of corn (plastics, food products, syrup, paper, cardboard, ethanol, etc., etc.) that are in pretty much anything you buy in a grocery store anyplace in the western world. And if I had a dollar right now for every east coast/west coast self-satisfied Atlantic subscriber who read that passage about crackling corn and who then said to some fellow quasi-elitest bastard “Hey, guess what?  Corn crackles when it grows!” I’d have have enough money to buy all the meth in Iowa.

I came to Nate Kreuter’s “Go Native, Be Happy” after the original Bloom and his critics.  Kreuter’s take is on the problems of certain academic locales and he argues that Bloom’s problem is that he has failed to embrace the “challenges” of his college town.  Here’s a quote from that:

Do you imagine that you’ll secure a tenure-track appointment in San Francisco or New York, despite all the evidence to the contrary? If so, statistically speaking, you’re delusional. San Francisco and New York are wonderful cities, and I love to visit them, but wonderful as well are Fargo and Roanoke and Pittsburgh. Wonderful as well are the truly rural areas of the country (yes, all of them), where your college may be the largest community for very many miles around. There are a lot of great places to live in this country, and not only the metropolitan cities or quaint college towns. In some parts of the country, and depending upon your own interests and personality, you may have to work harder to find the things and people you’ll connect with, but every locale has things and people to recommend it.

I find myself here indirectly agreeing with Bloom in theory but Kreuter in practice.  What I mean is this: there is no doubt that a lot of great colleges are in kind of shitty towns.  I earned my PhD at Bowling Green State University, which was a great school but in the remarkably icky town of Bowling Green, Ohio.  There are lots of places like this, great schools in less than great towns. So while it is true that there are plenty of “wonderful” places not on either coast (and I think Fargo, Roanoke, and Pittsburgh would all be fine places to live and work), there are places in this country I am simply unwilling to live, and some places where I do not think the locale does have recommendable characteristics.

But Bloom’s whining about the problems of Iowa and (indirectly) the academic locale of Iowa City proves he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Iowa City is a nice town, a great town, actually.  I can’t speak with a lot of authority here since I moved away from there almost 24 years ago and I know that downtown isn’t quite as vibrant as it once was because of malls and suburban sprawl, but basically, Iowa City is both a classic college town and a cultural oasis in terms of restaurants, shopping, movies, etc.  Bowling Green it ain’t, which makes the Bloom piece all the more puzzling.

Incidentally, my father sent me another editorial from the Waterloo Courier, “U of I president disagrees with Bloom’s observations.” It recounts the widely circulated rejection of Bloom’s points by current U of Iowa president Sally Mason.  And then the editorial ends with this:

Bloom is on one year of leave from Iowa as he teaches at the University of Michigan.

Considering that, we would also be interested to see what Mary Sue Coleman has to say about the article. Coleman, the University of Iowa president from 1995-2002, is now at the helm at Michigan.

Perhaps she might have a stake as well.

If exaggerations and stereotypes – and we believe some inaccuracies – about Iowans are what Bloom comes up with after two full decades of living in this state, who knows what an article titled “Observations from Just 1 Year of Michigan Life,” could entail.

I do wonder if Coleman will weigh in on this….


4 thoughts on “Bloom, Iowa, and academic locales: a few thoughts”

  1. Steve, I read the Bloom piece and thought it incredibly stupid. Though I’m a native Iowan, I have no particular romance about the place. But sometime teaching journalism should have facts right, at the very least. The thing about corn making noise while growing was dumb as shit, and if you think Iowa City is the end of the earth, well, you haven’t been to Fort Dodge (to pick on a place I’m actually fond of).

  2. Here’s our show about Bloom’s article:

    “Four native Iowans talk about the depiction of them and the state they call home in Stephen Bloom’s scathing and controversial article in The Atlantic Monthly, his motives for publishing it, the response its generated across the state, and its national implications with regards to Iowa’s first in the nation voting status.”

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