St. Olaf College | News

Adventures in the New Humanities: Are we there yet?

Image of St. Olaf faculty Zoom meeting.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas says this recent faculty Zoom forum on teaching “was simultaneously reassuring and intimidating.”

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.

[Warning: On this metaphorical car trip, I seem to be listening to a radio tuned to the 1970s and 1980s.]

After a weekend of fielding paper drafts for a course with a writing credit, it was a relief to have two successful synchronous class meetings Monday morning. I celebrated with a homemade mocha, a hat tip to the cup of hot chocolate I’d undoubtedly be filching from the Econ Department’s Hot Cocoa Mondays if the semester had turned out differently. But I spent the afternoon emailing the students who I haven’t seen or heard much from lately, which is demoralizing.

Tuesday, I struggled to compress what, under other circumstances, would have been a leisurely interactive lecture on Watergate into a 15-minute narrated Panopto PowerPoint. It took three tries to hit 17 minutes, which is when I declared victory. That afternoon I held virtual paper-writing office hours and a third of the class showed up.

Wednesday’s students were engaged and one stayed on to talk about his future. That afternoon, though, brought emails from overwhelmed students asking for paper extensions.

Thursday was packed with virtual meetings, including a big faculty Zoom forum on teaching that was simultaneously reassuring and intimidating. The reassuring part — that nobody seems to know how to upload a Panopto video — is so true of me that I spent good chunks of the evening addressing the fallout from it.

Friday morning, I forgot to hit the record button on a synchronous lecture and had to recreate the conversation in an email to the quarter of the class not present that day. By Friday afternoon, after yet another Zoom meeting (“We’re wearing hats,” the organizer declared), I’d finished off the supply of chocolate my colleague Associate Professor of History Abdulai Iddrisu brought back from Ghana. And then I curled up in the fetal position on my couch, my hat by my side, and wondered if chocolate counted as dinner.

And so goes another week of roller coaster distance teaching: high highs and low lows.

All my metaphors about this semester seem to involve movement, some of it purposeful and some of it not: rocketing, inching, running in place, running in circles, the endless repeating circuit of a loop-to-loop carnival ride, or “running on empty” — although, to be fair, often by April I’m quoting that particular Jackson Browne lyric on a Friday afternoon.

We are sheltering in place, which sounds static, but isn’t. We must make progress through a lot of unknown — and unmapped — territory.

We are sheltering in place, which sounds static, but isn’t. We must make progress through a lot of unknown — and unmapped — territory. “We’re on the road to nowhere,” the Talking Heads sing as I take a brisk morning walk, a sentiment that is sometimes hard not to see as prophetic given that the date of the New Normal stretches farther and farther ahead and sounds like it’s going to be far more new than normal. Somehow it seems only right that the title of this post references the question whiny children ask on overly long car trips: “Are we there yet?”

“New Normal” is an amorphous destination, and the learning curve to master the symbolic stick shift (i.e., the technology) to get there is steep. I expected to be merely surviving distance teaching — and yet, there moments when it feels like something more. I fear that a car trip might not be the appropriate metaphor, as I’m about to suggest that distance teaching is transforming how I approach my craft. As a friend of mine from graduate school texted me the other day, “This is a lot of work, but it is giving me good ideas for teaching.” She’s right; there is much to be derived from distance teaching. I refuse, though, to invoke Transformer metaphors, so maybe my sensible and economical Ford Focus is transforming into the Magic School Bus and me into Ms. Frizzle?

I expected to be merely surviving distance teaching — and yet, there moments when it feels like something more.

No less an authority than education journalist Jon Marcus, writing in The New York Times, suggests that “Faculty may incorporate online tools, to which many are being exposed for the first time, into their conventional classes,” suggesting both a “there” to reach (conventional classes) as well as a transformation. Reassuringly, he doesn’t think the experience of distance learning temporarily will result in a rush to supply considerably more online classes. In fact, “if there’s a silver lining in this situation for residential colleges and universities,” Marcus concludes, “it’s that students no longer take for granted the everyday realities of campus life: low-tech face-to-face classrooms, cultural diversions, libraries, athletics, extracurricular activities, in-person office hours and social interactions with their classmates.”

As Kool and the Gang might advise us, “Celebrate!”

Certainly distance teaching is teaching me surprising things about closeness. If you go back to my description of my looking-for-the-new-normal teaching week, the best parts were the real-time interactions. That shouldn’t be surprising, but what is, is just how intimate those experiences feel virtually. Maybe it’s that your students are visually closer than they would be in a classroom. Maybe it’s because I can see their dogs and wall decorations and they all know my study is bright yellow. (Yes, like the famous Beatles submarine. I’ve also shown them my Yellow Submarine socks because Associate College Pastor Katie Fick says they miss hearing about our personal lives). Maybe it’s that we are all needy for contact. But actually doing the virtual thing makes me think I might incorporate some of it into my ordinary teaching.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas shows off her Yellow Submarine socks.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas shows off her Yellow Submarine socks.

Don’t worry; I’m not lazy or naïve about this. I did several dances of joy after reading Marcus’s conclusions (I’d had caffeine), but there is something to be said for some virtual office hours. They are more convenient, especially when students are working on something where quick consultations are useful. I might be more willing to hold them during evening and weekend hours, which, yes, opens up a floodgate or sets a precedent, but used judiciously would mean I would not have to try to find an open table at the Cage for drop-in office hours on a Sunday afternoon before a paper is due on Monday. I might be able to multi-task. Let’s face it: multi-tasking IS the American way.

One-on-one, our heads looming large at each other as we each sit in our own safe spaces, virtual office hours seem to make students more willing to open up. There is an interesting disruption of personal space that can shift the conversation out of familiar ruts. Also, as I was reminded as I circled the block after lunch one day and saw my neighbor’s college-age daughter sitting outside, talking to a friend via Facetime or some communications app, this generation is considerably more used to being on camera and functioning in a virtual environment than we are. In many cases, it feels a lot more familiar and safer to connect from their rooms than to have to venture into our offices, where the etiquette is more unfamiliar. I will not curate my class via an Instagram account; I would, though, hold a virtual office hour or two just to see how it goes. As for you all, to quote Fleetwood Mac, “You can go your own way.” After all, “different strokes for different folks.” (Sly and the Family Stone)

One-on-one, our heads looming large at each other as we each sit in our own safe spaces, virtual office hours seem to make students more willing to open up.

Having had a fair number of technological failures of various kinds with recordings, part of me thinks I must be crazy or reckless to imagine a future with those. In fact, there are moments when my cursor is hovering between “embed” or “link” and my eyes blur at the various sharing options in Panopto, when I think of the Ramones’ song, “I Wanna be Sedated.” Yet, I see advantages to technology. If new tasks build new brain paths in aging brains (Associate Professor of Psychology Shelly Dickinson, is that true?), then my cerebral cortex has got a new superhighway system running through it, so mastering Panopto has strengthened me.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas compressed “what, under other circumstances, would have been a leisurely interactive lecture on Watergate into a 15-minute narrated Panopto PowerPoint.” The process of compressing and sharing it, she says, “makes my brain hurt.”

So too has it forced me to package elements of my classes best described as content to be delivered that enables the much-vaunted flipped classroom. I have a much better sense of what that flipped class might look like now and will already have a lot of content prepared in advance. Hopefully the potential for a flawless delivery of these recorded nuggets will improve as time goes on, but I always remember what a UCLA professor advised his graduate students as they started teaching: fail early in the term so students know you are human. Of course, right now, I doubt that “superhuman” is the word that comes to mind to describe me, but I haven’t noticed that students work the technology all that much better than I do, so we can build brain superhighways together.

With content delivered asynchronously these days and limits to the possibilities of collaborative engagement — although I do have a student in Armenia who joins synchronous discussions fairly regularly — the question of exactly what ought to happen in a synchronous class persists. I’ve taken to thinking of it as enrichment, and that too informs the future teaching I fantasize about on long socially distanced walks.

My main criterion for enrichment is engagement: what will students find interesting, relevant, or worthy of conversation when they are staying up past midnight in Armenia to join a synchronous class? It might be connecting history to the present, focusing on something local, or something topical. The other day, after my class had watched and listened to an exquisitely narrated PowerPoint on my Moodle page about the history of child-rearing in the USA, my synchronous session focused on the following question: what are some of the things that would best secure a child’s future? The discussion not only engaged a lot of people, but students cited things they’d learned in family studies, psychology, and sociology classes. We talked about naming patterns, generations, even Aunt Becky from Full House. It worked because it breached the barrier between the academic and so-called real life. They thought about their experiences and the stories their parents and grandparents might have told through a lens I had provided them asynchronously. I suppose I can really only speak for myself, but I think the class enjoyed it too, plus I suspect in a few places, students might have launched a dinner time conversation about it while sheltering at home. You can only talk about your supply of toilet paper for so long, after all.

My latest techno-discovery is Jamboard in the Google suite. I am a whiteboarder who is happiest when she can sketch out a complex cause-and-effect tale for my classes with multiple markers. I possess various sizes of whiteboards at home, but they worked so badly that I have limited their use to propping them in front of my laptop when I need to run to the bathroom in the middle of a virtual office hour.

The best use for a traditional whiteboard in the era of distance learning.

But I did my first Jamboard in about 5 minutes, once I figured out the basics. Mine isn’t very complicated, because it was intended as a skeleton on which my students can hang ideas as they read one of our class books. All of a sudden, my mind is popping with possibilities.

One of the realities of distance teaching is the challenge we all face with sustained focus. Our students often don’t have private study spaces, we all get interrupted a lot more, and much of our brain power is diverted to supply-and-demand questions like is there enough toilet paper. Jamboard, at least for humanists, can help boil down critical thinking challenges to their essentials, after which more elegantly written arguments or displays (you can insert a photograph) with a label can be created. Yes, you can also do the latter in Google Slides, but it’s a lot fussier there.

A Jamboard session that Professor of History Judy Kutulas used for a recent class.
A Jamboard session that Professor of History Judy Kutulas used for a recent class.

To quote Johnny Nash, “I can see clearly now.” Jamboard has lots of exciting possibilities. And I would like to credit Associate Professor of Political Science Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak — who credited my colleague Assistant Professor of History Stephanie Montgomery — and the Zoom faculty teaching forum where she demonstrated it. My fellow profs are amazing!

So, definitely not on the road to nowhere, but going somewhere exciting and innovative and inventing something new. But as for when we get there, the answer is complicated and perhaps some college philosophers or psychologists would like to offer a Zoom forum on the complexities of “normal” as a concept, new or otherwise. In the meantime, Abdulai, can you please drop more chocolate on my front porch? I’m willing to trade toilet paper for it.

I’d love to hear other people’s adventures in the new, virtual humanities and you can hear more of mine if you tune into virtual chapel on the last day of classes, Wednesday, May 13, when the college will celebrate Honors Day and I will tell some tales of pandemic-ing.

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.