Lyn Macgregor, associate director of the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies, is a community sociologist. She participated in the 2017 River Tour and collaborated with the 2019 River Tour. Macgregor received her B.A. from Boston University and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation, an ethnographic study of Viroqua, Wisconsin, was published as Habits of the Heartland: Small-Town Life in Modern America. In this interview she discusses rural education, public programming, and current research projects.
You were a participant on the Wisconsin Idea Seminar in 2017. What did you take away from the experience? I thought I knew parts of Wisconsin fairly well before participating in the Seminar. I had lived in the state for many years, yet I learned so much. I was reminded again of Wisconsin’s richness; of how much there is to see, do, and learn in our proverbial backyard.
Thanks for helping to inform and shape our learning about K-12 education in rural Wisconsin during our recent 2019 “River Tour.” Why is it important for Seminar participants to get a sense of the successes and challenges that school districts face in rural areas? First, about 20% of the students we teach and work with on campus come from rural areas. We owe it to them to understand a bit about the school districts they attended before they arrived at UW. In addition, public schools are a great window on the communities and states they serve. In small communities public schools may be one of the few institutions that serve the whole community, and a school with a great reputation can improve a town’s economic prospects. When we look at some of the features of public schooling in the state, such as Wisconsin’s school funding formula and open enrollment and see how those features impact small districts, we can learn a lot about our state’s history, politics and values.
How does the Wisconsin Idea animate your work? I hope that the research projects I’ve been doing lately ultimately help administrators and teachers around the state, and also help our state policy makers understand the work that administrators and teachers do every day. The work I do for the Holtz Center is directly connected to the Wisconsin Idea. Bob Holtz, whose bequest funds the center, was very concerned about creating more opportunities for people on and off campus to think about the ways that developments in science and technology impact people and society. Each year, we run a series of public-facing programming called Science and the Public which is designed to do just that, and we try to do it creatively. Last year, for example, the series was about climate change and “Imagining the Future in Uncertain Times.” In addition to a panel discussion on the topic, we also hosted an Adult Swim event at the Madison Children’s Museum called Apocalypse Wow! The event invited participants to think about some of these very serious issues in a more lighthearted way. This fall we hosted two events that riffed on the themes of this year’s Go Big Read book, The Poison Squad. The series was called “What is Food and Who Decides?”, and explored current issues in science, technology and food regulation. One was a panel of campus experts from campus on milk, meat and food law to the Oregon Public Library, and the other brought together chefs, food scientists and entomophagy advocates together at the Meadowridge Public Library for a panel and tasting of foods made from insects. In the spring of 2020 we’ll be hosting a series on Technology and Elections to which the public will also be invited.
You wrote Habits of the Heartland after living in Viroqua, a town in Vernon County in the state’s Driftless region. Can you tell us more about the book and that experience? That project was inspired by research with a long history in UW-Madison’s Department of Sociology. In the 1930s-40s, UW sociologists and their students fanned out across the state to answer a variety of research questions, looking specifically for communities that varied in their ethnic identities. I was interested in studying small town life at the turn of the 2000s and started with a list of many of the communities studied in the 30s and 40s given to me by Bill Sewell Sr. who joined the department in 1946 and was then in his late eighties. I visited nearly all of the towns on that list and ended up in Viroqua because even a quick drive down Main Street indicated that it was a town were something unusual was happening: it had a Walmart as well as a vibrant Main Street business community. Its population was growing at a time when many small towns were shrinking. I moved there for two years to find out what made the town different, and what Viroqua night be able to tell us about how we make communities today. What I found was that though residents shared a commitment to ideals they associated with small town life they had very different ideas about how to make that community (and whether it was something that had to be chosen or cultivated on purpose at all), and those differences sometimes made it difficult for groups of residents to understand each other and work together.
What drew you to the University of Wisconsin-Madison? When I applied UW-Madison, there were several ethnographers in the Department of Sociology’s faculty whose work I admired, including Nina Eliasoph, Paul Lichterman, and Mitch Duneier.
Your role at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research has led you to visit school districts across Wisconsin. Can you tell us any current projects? Our research team was looking for promising practices that administrators and teachers are using to improve equitable educational outcomes, particularly in schools with higher rates of students experiencing poverty. We visited eight elementary schools and five high schools across the state and in communities of various sizes from the very small and remote to schools in very large districts. Everywhere we went we met teachers, staff and administrators who are working incredibly hard to serve their students. Another concern we heard in every single community was a lack of adequate mental health resources for students and their families, a problem particularly acute in rural areas. Schools also varied in many ways, such as in the ways they implement programs such as Response to Intervention (RTI) and special education.
You moved to Wisconsin from the east coast, right? What were some of your first impressions? I distinctly remember becoming aware of interstate stereotypes about driving skills. Apparently, Wisconsinites feel the same way about Illinois drivers that Connecticut drivers feel about drivers from Massachusetts and New York.
Where do you like to take people when they visit Wisconsin? Of course no first-time visit to Madison is complete with out a visit to the Memorial Union Terrace or the Dane County Farmer’s Market. If my family has a visitor who is staying longer, we try to get them to Door County.
Is there any advice that you would like to share with participants going on this year’s Wisconsin Idea Seminar 2020 Bay Tour? Approach the trip with humility and an openness to wonder and surprise. Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of the people that you meet, or imagine what it would be like to live in the communities you visit if you were a person different from yourself—as a teenager, for example, or an elderly person.
Hello, Wisconsin! Stories of the Wisconsin Idea is a profile series that highlights the remarkable ways Wisconsin Idea Seminar alumni, collaborators, and others are animated by the Wisconsin Idea on and off campus.