Adventures in the New Humanities: A Blog by the Boldt Chair
This is the inaugural blog post in a new series by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.
It’s not easy to be an academic humanist at the present moment. I suspect we can all recite the litany of reasons why, most way beyond our control: technology, current academic trends, and, of course, the reduction of higher education to a bottom-line return on investment right after graduation. There also seems to be a popular false equivalency between the humanities and the musings of dead white men.
Some days it feels like the whole world regards those of us in humanistic disciplines as crotchety old traditionalists who only recently gave up our quill pens for typewriters in the protection of some sacred canon. When I pitch history classes to first-year students, it’s like I’m recruiting for a cult I have to entice people to join, promising whatever I think might persuade young people who Marketwatch says spend 11 passive hours a day peering at screens to enroll in my classes. Seeking solace in my disciplinary community yields no happier experience as I encounter dismal reports about shrinking publishing opportunities and predatory for-profit journals seeking to take advantage of my desperate need to publish lest I perish by making me pay for a byline.
At the Admitted Student Days our Admissions Office regularly hosts for prospective students and their families, I might as well be a fossil standing quietly in the corner while everybody’s parent asks about chemistry, environmental studies, or econ. I could have been one of those well-behaved women — the ones who don’t make history — in response; but being me, I decided to think big and outside the box. So I applied to be the next Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, choosing as my theme for the next three years remaking the humanities for the 21st century. Did I mention that I am academically fearless to the point of near-recklessness and not much possessed of Midwestern modesty?
I applied to be the next Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, choosing as my theme for the next three years remaking the humanities for the 21st century.
I have narrowed down my program to three tasks:
- Getting my fellow humanists excited about new pedagogies, technologies, and ways of defining and working with our “texts.”
- Helping us negotiate modern scholarly realities, both the good and the bad.
- Encouraging the parts of the universe we can affect, the college, to help to showcase our vibrancy, utility, and value in the modern world.
Blessedly I can count on the work already done during St. Olaf College’s Digital Humanities on the Hill grant and the ongoing work of the Digital Scholarship Center at St. Olaf (DiSCO) to prevent me from reinventing many wheels. Still, as most Boldt chairs pursue narrower projects with a specific theme (film, travel writing, “stuff”), I have a feeling the guest speakers, book groups, and seminars that have been the mainstays of previous Boldt programs will only get me part way. Mine, I think, needs to be a partly hands-on program with me as volunteer-in-chief. Which leads me to this blog.
A blog accomplishes a lot of my goals at once. It allows me to try out a new way of writing, one with pedagogical possibilities as well as serving as an alternative way of disseminating scholarly work. It also requires skills we in the humanistic disciplines need to teach our students in this oh-so-googleable world, including the ability to locate, evaluate, and synthesize the most credible and relevant sources from among the millions we can turn up while sitting in our pajamas. Additionally, it allows me to write in a less-scholarly voice better attuned to the realities of a world where a lot of people are interested in humanities subjects, but not humanities majors.
It is my hope, moreover, that writing a blog accessible to my colleagues that is on the college website gives me a platform from which to share my Adventures in the New Humanities, which is what I’m calling this endeavor. I intend to sample all sorts of new things and see if I can’t bring at least some of my colleagues along with me, raising our visibility.
Since I’m advocating for a humanities that is a little less ivory tower and a little more vernacular, let me phrase it this way: we in the humanities need to get our mojo back.
Since I’m advocating for a humanities that is a little less ivory tower and a little more vernacular, let me phrase it this way: we in the humanities need to get our mojo back. That’s what I hope to help everyone do. And what I intend to report here is how it all went, just in case you are too busy or maybe a little uneasy about this whole “New Humanities” thing. So, stand by as I don my pair of virtual reality goggles and noise-cancelling headphones and plunge headlong into the future.
Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college.