Adventures in the New Humanities: “And in the end …”
This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.
Just in case you wonder what it’s going to be like to approach the end of your teaching career, I’ll tell you, based, at least, on my experience. I’ve been dancing around a lot; I have used the phrase “What are they going to do, fire me?” more than once in class; and my grading is proceeding at a snail’s pace because, well, what are they going to do? I’ve come to think of my last-semester persona as Judy Unfiltered, someone who leans perilously close to that stereotype of the eccentric elder usually played on television or in the movies by Betty White, who, vanity insists I point out, is old enough to be my mother.
At the same time, my devil-may-care persona feels her influence is waning and doesn’t like it at all. I refuse to believe anybody younger than me knows what they are doing. I’ve squirmed my way through a lot of recent meetings rather than speak up, which I suspect may not be how the others in the virtual space would describe what occurred. I’m trying to take the high road. It’s just that I want you all to recognize that I’m taking the high road when there’s really so much that I could fix. To quote Cheap Trick, “I want you to want me; I need you to need me,” unless I burst before the semester ends and I deliver a diatribe.
Or as Judy Unfiltered would say, transitions are a pain in the butt. But, once I get past these last few weeks of the school year, I anticipate the rest of my life as one long Quiet Week without course planning, grading, textbook orderings, reports to write, assessments to tabulate, budgets to reconcile, or meetings to attend. Now you see why I’ve been dancing.
Still, I do have one big regret: teaching Judy — yes, I am very multifaceted — is firing on all cylinders. I feel like I’m at the top of my game. This could, of course, be an illusion supported by students enjoying Betty White Judy, who is fun and convention-defying, but may not be actually teaching anything. Of course, my comedy seminar just hit a unit on sitcoms, so I’m in my element and it didn’t hurt that I learned last week that an article I wrote about Friends seems to be the focus of a masters’ thesis somewhere in Germany.
Experience, of course, helps achieve teaching excellence; but it isn’t just practice that makes for perfection. The Boldt Chair helps as well. I’ve learned a lot by being a Boldt Chair, as well as close encounters with the Boldt of previous kinds. Does this elder need to explain that popular culture reference?
It seems appropriate in my last Adventures in the New Humanities blog post to talk about how Boldt-ing — which is a teaching chair — has made me a better teacher.
My relations with the Boldt Chair date back to the very first one, held by the late St. Olaf professor of history, American studies, and environmental studies Jim Farrell. I’ve never been good with dates (I appreciate the irony), but I believe it must have been the spring of 1993. There was a seminar, a Boldt element that seems to have gone by the wayside. It was for the about-to-be-tenured to contemplate teaching in the Humanities and how to be intentional about our own careers. We read books about academics and wrote career goals and steps we could take to realize them. It was a moment to think about who we wanted to be as academics.
Watching Jim Farrell lead that seminar was, at first, a mystery. I knew he was a popular professor with students even though he was the least pretentious and showy of instructors and almost shy. My undergraduate years were filled with a lot of grandstanding professors with oversized personalities who entertained large lecture halls of students with colorful anecdotes about historical actors, classic sages on stages dispensing knowledge. Jim, though, wasn’t dispensing. He genuinely wanted to hear our opinions, ideas, and thoughts. He saw learning as a collaborative adventure and himself as its almost-invisible facilitator.
Like a lot of faculty who aren’t white men, and one who started her St. Olaf life as a faculty wife, claiming authority in the classroom had been a big deal for me. I thought I needed to be some version of that sage on the stage in order to command respect. I felt like I couldn’t risk losing control by letting students do more than respond to my questions. What if they challenged me?
It was probably something I would have grown out of in any case, but working with Jim definitely sped up the process. He modeled a different way forward, one where you entered the classroom excited about what could happen rather than worried about what might happen. I’ve lost control on occasion, but nothing so awful has happened that it would have been worth the risk of never letting go. Students much prefer to be active collaborators rather than audience. And, yes, I realize that certain kinds of privilege also shaped my outcome.
My next Boldt experience came in another Boldt seminar, taught during Interim by then-Boldt Chair Professor Emerita of English Diana Postlethwaite. Diana’s Boldt mission was to bring film studies to Olaf. As such, she convened the Interim group to learn the basics of using film in our disciplinary classes by acquainting us with many aspects of film. We watched and read about classics. We plunged into film theory. We dissected scenes. We worked in groups. Another collaborative adventure, this one tackling something that interested me, but for which I had no academic training whatsoever.
Ah, that really was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between me and film (a very subtle film reference for my fellow elders). I helped make film studies a reality at Olaf; I was on a Film Studies task force; I taught the first class and a couple more since then. I tested myself about a million times in the process. When you try something new, you have to constantly fight to keep your balance, just like when you exercise on one of those giant balls in Tostrud. The result strengthens your core. The timid person afraid to lose control is now strong and anything-but-silent. In film terms, I have become an auteur.
Which gets to my Boldt Chair tenure. I picked new humanities as my theme for a number of reasons. Most of what I do timewise, subject-wise, and resource-wise falls into that rubric, so it’s what I know best. It’s also where more and more of the humanities students we teach want to be. It’s not just that those of us in the humanities teach fewer majors overall and more general education students these days; so too do the majors want relevant, interdisciplinary, creatively challenging, civically engaged classes right now. Capturing what I wanted to do in words proved tricky. I understand that my application was the vaguest ever submitted in Boldt history. Indeed, I had to rewrite it to make it palatable for more public consumption.
Still, consider how it worked out. My tenure as the Boldt Chair coincided with the creation of a new curriculum and a pandemic, two things that have required flexibility and creativity, elements of what I preach. We’ve all had to dig deeper than we ever imagined, be willing to collaborate, and cede some control in our classes. We’ve all had to adjust and adapt and learn to read the Zoom room — again, things I apparently couldn’t quite put into words in my Boldt application, probably because I was blessedly ignorant of Zoom.
My tenure as the Boldt Chair coincided with the creation of a new curriculum and a pandemic, two things that have required flexibility and creativity, elements of what I preach. We’ve all had to dig deeper than we ever imagined, be willing to collaborate, and cede some control in our classes.
Wearing the mantel of new humanities has taken me in so many valuable directions. I pushed myself to take advantage of the array of opportunities for teaching development we have on this campus. I listened to my colleagues, students, and alumni to get their perspectives and opinions. I banished as much of my cynic as I could. I took apart my courses and tried to rebuild them like some kind of demented academic mechanic rebuilding an engine. I made myself try things even when I was skeptical. I tried to put myself in my students’ shoes as much as possible.
There were failures, but I really do feel able to tackle just about anything. So, with the audacity of Judy Unfiltered and knowing that this is my last opportunity to have a public forum, here are my top five lessons in the new humanities. Like any good top-40 radio station, we’ll be counting them down because — you never know — disc jockey could be my new career.
#5 – Remember that it’s a marathon not a sprint — and remind your students that this is the case as well. Especially in the humanities, part of our job is to engage the curiosity and creativity of people who often don’t intend to devote their lives to our disciplines. Still, if we hook them, they’ll keep reading, listening, viewing, and learning all their lives. We impact people’s lives, even when we don’t see it in the moment.
#4 – Enjoy what you do. Let’s face it, we aren’t in it for the megabucks. We worked hard to get where we are, so we might as well enjoy it. Enthusiasm goes a long way in the classroom (oversized personalities don’t hurt). Like any other job, ours have downsides. The real pleasure comes with the student interactions, so enjoy those moments. Most jobs don’t have as many satisfying parts as ours do.
#3 – Don’t labor alone. Why would you when there are so many incredible resources out there to help you? As the Boldt Chair, it has been my privilege to sample a lot of them. There are a lot of people and resources to help you be a successful teacher and to help your students realize their full potentials as human beings, as members of communities, and as citizens. I benefited from previous Boldt Chairs. I hope you have benefited from me shining a light on some of what the college has to offer. Take advantage of the next Boldt Chair’s initiatives and projects as well. Get some help with the heavy lifting!
#2 – Never be afraid to fail. Give yourself permission to be less-than-perfect at some things at some times. Let go of that little haloed figure in the academic robe perched on your shoulder who is judging you, undermining you, or telling you that everyone else is doing it better than you. Take the chance even if it scares you. I came here as an academic spouse; I was not the first choice as a hire; and I did not get the Boldt Chair the first time I applied for it. But it all worked out.
#1 – Evolve. That’s the essence of new humanities to me, that you grow as a teacher and scholar by trying new things or old things new ways. If education is a process rather than a goal (see #5 above), then its essence is change, and that includes you. If I had to choose one word to describe how it feels to step out of your comfort zone, it would be exhilarating. Why do you think graduates joyfully throw their caps in the air at the end of the ceremony? They are celebrating how much they have grown.
We have reached the end; however, I am not quite ready to go quietly. You didn’t really think that someone who has spent three years making popular culture references would depart the Boldt Chair without an Oscars speech, did you?
Thanks to Provost Marci Sortor and Associate Dean of Humanities Colin Wells for their support. Thanks to Professor of Philosophy Corliss Swain for suggesting I apply for the Boldt Chair in the first place. Thanks to Kari VanDerVeen and the folks in Marketing and Communications for making my first concrete Boldt plan (this blog) a reality. Thanks to the Boldt family for creating this opportunity (side note: I got to talk to Patricia Boldt, who is an amazing role model of dedication, curiosity, and enthusiasm in her 90s. She may just be Betty White). Thanks to the people in my department and all the interdisciplinary programs I love. Thanks to the “rowdy girls,” the women with whom I entered and with whom I shared challenges to what sure seemed like a gendered status quo and, in some cases, maternity clothes. Thanks to Jason Paul, Ben Gottfried, Ezra Plemons, Jillian Sparks, Kristell Benson, and Dana Thompson for so much technical support and ideas, especially thanks to Dana for the many times he answered my “help” wails from a classroom. Thanks to our students, who make me optimistic about the future of the earth and the people on it. Thanks to my friends and family for helping to keep Judy Unfiltered a little under control. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
And now, if I can switch from Oscar talk to Olympic opening ceremonies, Associate Professor of English Carlos Gallego, I pass the Boldt Chair torch on to you, confident that you will make it your own in ways that enhance us all.
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. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.