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Adventures in the New Humanities: Backseat driving the off-campus Interim

Professor of History Judy Kutulas in the back seat of her car.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas preparing for her role as the backseat driver of advice for this off-campus Interim.

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.

Any St. Olaf College graduate can recall the joys of the off-campus Interim, whether it was going somewhere warm, somewhere adventurous, somewhere fulfilling, or somewhere unexpected. Off-campus interims have traditionally broadened our students’ horizons and, in some cases, let them explore future vocations. They are some of the best liberal arts opportunities we offer our students.

This school year, the concept of the off-campus Interim has changed significantly. No visits to the London theaters or Cuban museums or Andean clinics will be happening this year. Instead all the Oles taking Interim will be rediscovering the splendors of home or some facsimile of it and practicing — I certainly hope — some different adulting skills (i.e., cleaning, cooking). But they will also be studying. And this is going to be an adjustment for a whole lot of people.

I, for one, will not be partaking of this particular teaching experience. Interims and I do not have a good relationship. Something always goes wrong. Let’s just say that for the benefit of all who are part of the St. Olaf health insurance pool, I took myself out of the Interim business a few years ago.

Not teaching Interim, however, has not stopped me from having opinions about how it ought to be taught. I am a teaching chair after all.

Please note that I have chosen a non-popular-culture metaphor for this post, inhabiting that annoying know-it-all persona, the one who isn’t driving the car, but knows how it should be driven, how you should get there, and what the fastest route is, no matter what that nice Ms. GPS says.

I intend to backseat drive your Interim for you.

But before you start the engine, let me just acknowledge your misgivings, albeit not about the wisdom of letting me into your back seat. Nobody has any real idea about what lies ahead. The on-ramps, the detours, even the destinations are a bit up in the air. It’s okay to feel like this trip requires a different class of license than you’re qualified to drive. You can’t do Interim on auto-pilot this year. You have to pay a lot of attention to the road. But in a world where you can see your gas tank as half empty or half full, you should choose half full. Now is the time to, and here I quote Supertramp (since popular culture was bound to find its way into this post no matter what), “take the long way home.”

There’s always a scenic route. Let’s find it!

A cartoon of two drivers in a car with the thought bubble "Where's the 2021 Interim on-ramp?"
“Nobody has any real idea about what lies ahead. The on-ramps, the detours, even the destinations are a bit up in the air. It’s okay to feel like this trip requires a different class of license than you’re qualified to drive. You can’t do Interim on auto-pilot this year. You have to pay a lot of attention to the road,” writes Professor of History Judy Kutulas, who shares this cartoon to illustrate her point.

Like many backseat drivers, I’m directionally challenged, making me the perfect person to offer you advice as you negotiate the all off-campus Interim. I never know where I’m going exactly. I’ve gotten lost in Northfield. I’m very well-versed in the long way home … or (sorry, but there’s already a second song title looming ahead) “the long and winding road.”

First rule of the Interim road: follow the rules of the road. The goal is still to stimulate young minds, have students practice useful skills, think ethical thoughts, do good, be creative, and treat one another with respect. It might seem obvious, but it really helps to keep that in mind.

First rule of the Interim road: follow the rules of the road. The goal is still to stimulate young minds, have students practice useful skills, think ethical thoughts, do good, be creative, and treat one another with respect.

As we’re off-campus, though, you do have to remember that the rules of the road also need to be balanced against the realities of the class’s shared trip down the information superhighway. There’s a range of metaphorical autos your students could be driving, everything from Jaguars to junkers. You need to make sure everyone has equal access. As you think about how much road to travel on any given day, make sure everyone has the horsepower to get there. Mind your speedometer too. That driver wearing the Zoom equivalent of aviator sunglasses — the camera turned off — might be looking pretty confused if you go too fast.

A TripTik, "that lovely document the auto club used to provide with itineraries and driving advice."
A TripTik, “that lovely document the auto club used to provide with itineraries and driving advice.”

As someone who taught a fully remote class this fall, I can opine with some authority that your syllabus needs to be like what those of us who are old remember as the Triptik, that lovely document the auto club used to provide with itineraries and driving advice. I realize the idea of an itinerary might seem counterintuitive when you don’t know quite where you’re going, but even if there are detours along the way — and there will be — the reasons for the trip, your assurances of safety and support, the titles of any guidebooks you’ll be using, and what the class can expect of you and you of them during your road trip is vital to establish beforehand. How else will the class know what to pack?

So, think about a comprehensive syllabus. And think about it sooner rather than later. Why? Here’s one of those detours I’ve been threatening to drag you on. What if you drafted up the syllabus and sent it out early for input from your class?

I have always meant to send out a syllabus draft for student input and never quite gotten around to it, but I think it is a really intriguing idea and a way to signal to the class that you want and need their input on destination and route (and let’s face it: the all off-campus Interim is the moment when you do most need the class’s input). There’s also a cynical and calculating part of me that suspects that most students will mean to comment and not get around to it, earning you goodwill. Of course, maybe they will all respond. If anybody does respond, listen. It’s not giving up control, it’s collaborating — and, like this bossy backseat driver just said, this is a moment when you can most benefit from collaboration.

One detour that should not be happening is rush-hour avoidance, also known as time shifting. Your class needs to happen when it’s scheduled to happen. Students made their choices based on their realities, so if they picked an 8 a.m. class but live in Portland, then they planned to be present at 6 a.m. their time, just as every other person in the class chose intentionally. This is one of the rules of the road you absolutely need to honor.

Still, your two hours of class time per day don’t have to be one long Zoom. Indeed, they should not be one long Zoom. Zoom butt should not be a class souvenir.

There need to be some pitstops or rest stops. Under ordinary circumstances, you’d give your Interim class a break, wouldn’t you? It’s even more important in a virtual classroom. Remember the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, take your eyes off the screen for 20 seconds by staring at something 20 feet away. But go deeper, encourage stretching, coffee breaks, bathroom breaks, or if you want to take this metaphor really seriously, the acquisition and consumption of car snacks. Doritos, anyone?

The standard rule of thumb with respect to what happens in the classroom that I assume applies even more to the virtual classroom is to change up every 20 minutes, which is six different modes in a two-hour class if I did the math correctly, and also nicely corresponds with the 20-20-20 rule.

I can see two possibilities here, depending on what kind of teacher you are and how much you and your class might crave predictability on the road. You can listen to the next installment of the same podcast each day or you can go wild and roam the radio dial while you drive. This might surprise you, but in Interim, I actually prefer the former strategy to the latter. Two hours, five days a week is a lot of concentrated time to fill and it has helped me organize myself to have predictability. Predictability also means scheduling, which can mean dividing up responsibility for some class segments, switching drivers for part of each day’s trip. If I’m being too opaque here, I mean that for part of each day a pair of students might be responsible for leading the discussion or presenting information or any of the dozens of variations on the concept probably all of you practice during Interim classes. You can’t just improv any of that, but have to give people the opportunity to prepare. Of course, with a new Interim — and interim this year is certainly new — spontaneity and improv are going to be inevitable some days. Just go with it.

Either way, you’re going to need breakout rooms. People need to switch seats. Traditionally, if one can use that word for such a new phenomenon, breakout rooms serve one of two functions. They can be hubs of pre-discussion or places where groups of students pursue collaborative learning and submit that old standby, group work. The first rule of group work, remember, is a tangible product, which is true in all semesters and all sorts of learning situations.

Breakout rooms give all of the passengers the opportunity to comment on the scenery along the way. Pre-discussion in small groups really does enhance the quality of the full-class discussion afterwards, especially true for first-year students, I’ve found, who might be nervous or timid about speaking up if they haven’t tested out their opinions beforehand. Some instructors divide their classes into semester-long groups and others rely on the randomness of the Zoom break-out room for short bursts of de-centered discussion. If you opt for the former, let me remind you what Professor of Social Work Mary Carlsen said at the beginning of the semester: make sure your groups don’t cluster students by some category, like sticking all the international students into one group. Also, remember the function that enables you to drop in on groups.

It is possible to do a virtual virtual class. Films don’t show all that well via the shared-screen mode, even if you “optimize screen sharing for video clip.” If, under ordinary circumstances, you would show a one-hour documentary to your class and then discuss it, send them the link, let them watch on their own time, but then start the class an hour later the day you discuss it. It seems only fair.

I’m struggling with a road-trip analogy to talk about how students will demonstrate the mastery of content and/or critical skills and coming up a bit short because, theoretically-speaking, these can be mostly transplanted wholesale, except for labs and performance. That doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to papers, quizzes, or posters, though. Oral presentations or panels work particularly well on Zoom, but so can podcasts or short videos and there are plenty of people in the Digital Scholarship Center at St. Olaf (DiSCO) to offer tech support. Traditionally, at least in the last few years, our off-campus Interims have offered blogs that detail class learning, modern travel diaries, or travelogues. Personally, I love a good blog post and have found students love to write them. Of course, you could also go full-tilt out there and have TikTok day. Variety is the spice of life.

Whether or not you take any of the above detours, certainly consider handing over the steering wheel — or at least the map (does anyone use maps anymore?) — to your students. You might notice that a lot of my suggestions above, like sending out syllabus drafts or lots of breakout rooms, recenter the class to empower students. This is a trend in education — one that, when done well, creates a more inclusive classroom, although not automatically a more equal one. That’s something you have to referee yourself, which is a set of skills you should be cultivating. Teaching and learning is a two-way street or, to return to my metaphor, you need to take turns being driver, navigator, and passenger.

Teaching and learning is a two-way street or, to return to my metaphor, you need to take turns being driver, navigator, and passenger.

I learned the value of activating the class as collaborators the hard way one year when I had laryngitis for the whole first week of the Interim semester (see why I don’t teach Interim?). That would have been a full 10 hours of me quietly croaking my way through the syllabus while 30 students craned to listen. It became obvious pretty quickly that neither lectures nor teacher-led discussions were going to work until I got my voice back, so I quickly improvised and made the students take the lead. Yes, it was an improv out of necessity, but I have to say, it was a better class. We did a lot of small group work and hands-on learning with primary sources, which, at least in a history class, would be still pretty possible at a distance. Class gelled quicker too, especially useful in an online class, and came in handy for me when I later sliced open my heel one day and the class, like Celine Dion’s heart, had to go on without me while I staunched the blood.

Our students really step up to the plate when given responsibilities. I would caution, though, that however you evolve your format to give students more control over the class, it is still up to you to make sure that the same rules of the road apply, that all students feel safe and respected. In-person or apart, everything happens faster in Interim, so you need to stay on top of things.

Here’s a question for you: who else is going to be in the car that I’m backseat driving? The online format lends itself to Zoom guests and the pandemic makes guests more possible than when you had to persuade them to venture out into the January cold. There are all sorts of people you could invite, including the authors of texts you use, alumni, your colleagues, and, of course, your pets, who really should make an appearance at least once. Depending on the class, you might even ask your students. It was serendipity, for instance, that delivered someone’s grandfather, a civil rights activist, to my husband’s Civil Rights Revolution course last spring, a class member who shared. I understand she cringed a bit but still was gracious, and I don’t think her grandfather revealed any embarrassing secrets about her.

A caution learned the hard way: have a plan for contingencies. If what Associate Professor of English Jennifer Kwon Dobbs calls “Zoom gremlins” do their work, you need to undo it. Check your Zoom settings beforehand and stand ready to intervene. Remember, you could become Sandra Bullock in Speed at any second, taking over a runaway bus.

Let’s talk texts. Cars today come equipped with elaborate screens for a reason: to provide a wealth of information and entertainment at your fingertips. One of the best ways to facilitate full participation in your classroom is to make course materials easy to access and cheap, if not free. It’s not just the cost; for our international students, it isn’t always easy to acquire textbooks in a timely fashion. At the very least, check for electronic copies, but let me also remind you that our library is stocked with an amazing number of accessible-from-off-campus resources, databases full of scholarly articles and primary sources, online documentaries you can clip into segments, online references, and even experts who can package information for you (a.k.a. our wonderful librarians and archivists). Off-campus Interims traditionally require portable texts and yours ought to, too. You need to save room in the car for me, your backseat driver, after all.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas as a child, in a black-and-white photo, leaning out of a car window.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas has been backseat driving for a very long time, as this photo from her childhood illustrates.

I have it on good authority that a significant number of you are — shall we say — routinely tardy about submitting textbook orders, says someone who smugly submitted hers a while ago. Try some alternative resources that are also free and a click away for your class.

So, different structures, different voices, different kinds of texts, and different assignments; this trip is looking interesting.

So, how about some different assessment?

Labor-based or contract assessment is big right now. These are designed to give students power, promote equity, and are part of anti-racist teaching strategies. They challenge the “objectivity” of standards that might be used and, especially in creative work, can be implicitly biased. Instructors provide feedback rather than grades, which are negotiated based on attendance, completed assignments, and other measures of participation.

As a backseat driver, I’m directing your attention to these assessment possibilities. As someone who, come January, will be one semester away from retirement, I have the luxury of not having to decide whether to hit the brake or the gas on this one, but can definitely see the pros and cons. For more information, take a look at Peter Elbow and Jane Danielewicz’s piece on “Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching,” check the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts’s resources on anti-racist teaching, particularly Asao Inoue’s piece on “Anti-Racist Writing Assessment Ecologies,” or ask around. Some of your colleagues are already using these methods. The Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts ran a session on labor-based grading and the recording should appear on their website soon. Labor-based grading is worth a look and, increasingly, your students expect to have more input into the assessment process than those of us who went to college in the last century did.

However you plan to assess students during Interim, it is imperative that it be clear, fair, transparent, and timely. Don’t drive into a grading tunnel without turning on your headlights. If we’ve learned nothing else from our still-limited experiences teaching online, we’ve all discovered, often the hard way, that online grading is more confusing for everyone, teacher and students alike, and there’s a Minnesota-in-spring number of potholes, some deep enough to break an axle. It is equally true that, on or off campus, students steer into unfamiliar fields typically during Interim and, thus, need really clear feedback. Think of them as having “How’s my driving?” bumper stickers on their backs.

Finally, remember that the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts is going to be offering an inspiring travelogue for St. Olaf faculty members about teaching Interim online without the labored backseat driver metaphors. It’s called Unleashing Creativity, Increasing Flexibility: Teaching Interim Online! The exclamation point alone should alert you to the fact that the presenters undoubtedly have more enthusiasm and energy than you can probably muster right now. Fellow faculty members, let them inspire you by signing up here.

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.