The academic study of geographical regions and their populations is in large part a creation of the last half of the 20th century. Ozarks Studies, one segment of this larger movement, has been around for at least three decades but in many respects is still in its infancy. For much of the 20th century the vast majority of books and articles written about the region were produced by folklorists and journalists who tended to highlight the Ozarks’s eccentricities and contrast its archaic ways with the modern developments of progressive America.While an understanding of Ozarks folklore remains a vital element of Ozarks Studies, the past generation has produced scholarship representing a variety of disciplines, from geography to literature and from history to anthropology. As more and more scholars turn their attention to the Ozarks and apply their creative energies to understanding the region’s past and present, the field of Ozarks Studies will emerge as a viable and valuable component of American regional studies. In addition, it will reveal to scholars as well as Ozarks residents a region rich in heritage but more complex and diverse than has long been portrayed.
Missouri State University has for years taken the lead in the study of its surrounding region. In the 1970s a core of scholars emerged at (then Southwest) Missouri State University and began to produce significant scholarly works on the region. Among these were geographers Milton Rafferty and Russel Gerlach, English professor Donald Holliday, historian Robert Flanders, and theatre professor Robert Gilmore. In 1979 the university established the Center for Ozarks Studies, and in 1987 the Center began publication of OzarksWatch, a scholarly magazine that nevertheless remained accessible to general readers. Although the Center for Ozarks Studies closed in 1995, the spirit of Ozarks Studies would continue into the new millennium with the creation of OzarksWatch Video Magazine, a series of thirty-minute public television episodes highlighting the history and culture of the region, and the Ozarks Celebration Festival, a weekend-long display of regional music, crafts, and heritage each September.
From an academic standpoint, Missouri State University in recent years has renewed its earlier goal of leading the way in the study of the Ozarks through the creation of the Ozarks Studies Institute, the development of an annual Ozarks Lecture Series, and the establishment of the university’s first endowed professorship in Ozarks Studies. The coming years will see an expansion of Ozarks Studies course offerings, and plans are underway for the development of the region’s (and world’s) first minor in Ozarks Studies. The early 21st century has already witnessed the growth of Ozarks Studies as a field of academic exploration, and Missouri State University intends to develop ways to encourage and promote the study of the region for the benefit of scholars and Ozarks residents alike.