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Kuppinger introduces course on ‘Cultures of Illinois’

Barry McNamara
02/02/2018

MONMOUTH, Ill. – The timing of a new Monmouth College class couldn’t have been better.

“Cultures of Illinois,” developed by Anthropology Professor Petra Kuppinger, explores the state’s rich social and cultural diversity. It is debuting in the year of the Illinois bicentennial, and Kuppinger hopes it will cause students to view the state from a new perspective.

“I’ve lived here for 17 years – Illinois is my adopted state,” said Kuppinger, who joined Monmouth’s faculty in 2000. “I got interested in the culture here, so I dug into it and I really learned a lot. Trying to decide what books to use for the course was a fun experience for me.”

In addition to examining the state’s immense social and cultural diversity, the course also explores rural-urban differences and what Kuppinger calls “contexts of considerable social inequality in different locations in Illinois.”

“We are trying to understand the past, present and future of our own environment,” said Kuppinger. “We seek to analyze our own position in this complicated cultural mosaic.”

Illinois became the 21st U.S. state on Dec. 3, 1818.

“When my course proposal was approved, I realized it would meet in the bicentennial year,” said Kuppinger. “That was not done on purpose. The class is not historical, although there are some historical elements to it. It’s a culture class.”

Kuppinger’s class explores a variety of those cultures, as well as the cultural dichotomy between Chicago and most of the rest of the state.

“We’ll spend some time on the rural-urban issue,” she said. “It’s a huge cultural divide. There are people in Chicago who think the rest of the state is negligible, and there are people who live in places like Monmouth who say ‘I’ll never take my kids to Chicago – it’s the capital of crime and sin.’”

The course’s readings and films span the state’s history and geography, from Cahokia, to Cairo, to Chicago.

The former location is covered in the book Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City of the Mississippi, which provides Kuppinger the opportunity to talk about the state’s Native American culture.

The students will watch the documentary Between the Rivers, which tells the story of Cairo, described in the film as “where the North meets the South in the heartland of America.” The film explores the multiple factors that led to city’s rise and decline, from booming river trade and juke-joints to mob lynchings and race riots that tore apart the community.

Chicago is the setting for several of the course texts, including two 2013 books, Black Picket Fences and Exit Zero. They tell the stories, respectively, of the black middle class, and family and class in postindustrial Chicago.

Of Exit Zero, Kuppinger said: “The author’s father worked in steel, and he and his wife were looking forward to retiring with a pension. Those plans were all good. The book is the author’s personal story of how the community changed when the work is gone” and people hadn’t developed other employable skills.

One of the other texts will hit even closer to home, as the class will read Faranak Miraftab’s Global Heartland. Set in Beardstown, Global Heartland depicts a town that, culturally, is much like Monmouth – a large immigrant community, drawn from many cultures, to work in a local meat plant. Miraftab spoke at Monmouth last fall.

“How do you get a functioning culture out of the mosaic of all those cultures?” asked Kuppinger. “That’s the guiding question of this course.”