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Adventures in the New Humanities: Some pedagogical pampering

A “summer sprint” designed to help St. Olaf faculty members make courses more accessible and inclusive provided Professor of History Judy Kutulas with the time to sift through the college’s Special Collections — where she examined primary materials, including this scrapbook, that will inform her women’s history class assignment.

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.

I’ve already started planning one of my spring semester classes. Credit should go to the Content Development for Equity and Accessibility initiative by the St. Olaf Libraries and IT since they’re the ones who got me there. This spring, they issued a call for faculty members to apply for one of the “summer sprints” funded by the To Include is To Excel initiative. The sprints offered “time and customized support to enhance your teaching by crafting more inclusive and equitable course content.” Spoiler alert: they more than delivered.

But first, let’s pause and ask if “sprint” is the correct word to describe what transpired. I ran competitively for a lot of years, and I’m pretty sure I know what a sprint is and isn’t. A sprint demands speed and produces sweat. It makes your legs muscles ache. There’s no real brain involvement; it’s muscle memory. My sprint was none of those things (except for a little sweat — after all, it’s summer and the parts of the library I was in weren’t super well air conditioned).

“I ran competitively for a lot of years, and I’m pretty sure I know what a sprint is and isn’t,” says Professor of History Judy Kutulas, pictured here (in the teal top) during a race.

Therefore, a much more apt metaphor would have been academic spa day. I was pampered and catered to, my brain massaged, and I took a long soak in Special Collections. There were even moments when I was left alone to meditate on my project. It was luxurious. The leisurely time frame (so, again, not a sprint) and the company made even someone as adverse as I am to giving up my summer for school work happy. Did I mention there were pastries? Also, a stipend.

I learned a lot about pedagogy, space, and technology. Yet there was still time to take a few detours along the way. Do you know the story of the Schiller bust at Carleton? Now I do. More importantly, I came away with something concrete, an assignment that will bring my women’s history class out of the classroom and into the Buntrock Commons Crossroads for Women’s History Month to inform the community about the status of women at the college in the 1960s and 1970s. I also got permission to stop feeling so anxious about perfection, an important outcome that might as well have come with a lounge chair and some cucumber slices for my eyes.

The sprints were designed to help us make our courses accessible and inclusive. There were four separate sprints: mine, which involved creating ways to get students using Special Collections’ materials stereotypically reserved for “faculty or seasoned researchers”; one on universal design; one on finding and incorporating affordable course content; and, finally, one to help instructors create content for flipped classrooms. Eighteen of us took part altogether. Running shoes were optional.

Pre-sprint, I met with librarians Maggie Epstein and Jillian Sparks, along with DiSCO’s Assistant Director of Instructional Technology Ben Gottfried. We brainstormed, and they assessed my needs. I presume some planning took place without me, for then I received a schedule for the two-day sprint that included periods together and apart from my co-sprinters, Assistant Professor of Theater Michelle Gibbs and Assistant Professor of History and Asian Studies Stephanie Montgomery.

Our sprint provided us with the tools we need to be successful at our individual tasks. We each got time in Special Collections to explore relevant primary sources on our own, we got relevant technological consultations with experts like Head of Research and Instruction Jason Paul, we worked “alone, in community,” as Director of Writing Diane LeBlanc might have said, on our individual assignments, we gave and got feedback, we got some useful pedagogical resources (here’s the overwhelming favorite of the group: the Teaching With Primary Sources Collective’s website), and we learned how to reverse-engineer with rubrics.

We all agreed that while the college offers us some excellent teaching resources, there was something uniquely wonderful about the leisure of summer to commune about pedagogy. I’m admitting this grudgingly, since I have long resented the intrusion of anything related to classes in what I regard as primo scholarly me-time. I’m rethinking this attitude. Our days felt lush, unhurried, with us as the center of attention. So rather than concede that I’m okay with the encroachment of the school year on my summers, I’m going to stick with the whole spa day metaphor. It’s apt because it was indulgent.

We all agreed that while the college offers us some excellent teaching resources, there was something uniquely wonderful about the leisure of summer to commune about pedagogy.

The fact that we were all talking about classes that won’t happen until at least Interim also helped to destress us. It’s hard to feel like you are your best teaching self when you’re in the middle of the semester. Removed from the thick of things, it was easier to think bolder and feel confident that everything will fall into place when the time comes. You can think outside the box. You can actually use my mantra from my competitive-running days: “You can do this.”

Best of all, there was community, which there never is when you are wide awake in the middle of the night in the middle of the semester wondering what you are going to do with a book you ordered months before. We became each other’s cheerleaders and support group.

And Michelle gifted me the idea of disruption. When one of her classes got bogged down last year, she took them to the college’s new maker space, the Cave, for a change of scenery. A playful space to loosen people up, so logical — and yet somehow I was too focused on the outcome to think about the Cave as refreshing a stale teaching process. (You might remember that I chronicled my own experiences in the Cave in a previous post.)

In a previous ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post, Professor of History Judy Kutulas describes trying out the college’s new maker space. Her students (from left) Casey Hepburn ’22, Michael Brandt ’22, Sam Rivera ’22, Sylvie Schifsky ’22, Melissa Estrada ’22, Ha Ngo ’22, and Thomas DeLay ’22, try their hand at creating objects inspired by the 1960s counterculture they’re studying in class.

During our sprint days, we thought about process, starting with what we wanted our assignments to accomplish and working backward. Michelle considered the scaffolding of assignments that could lead up to final projects in her Interim class, asking herself what smaller skills or experiences would help her students make the leap to what had been final papers. Stephanie considered the mechanics of building a primary source archive from Special Collections sources in the Elevator app and how individual students might tag, summarize, and annotate materials for the class’s — and subsequent classes’ — collective use. I was aiming for one of the general education learning outcomes for Historical Studies in Western Cultures (HWC), “the ability to analyze historical evidence and to understand history as ‘constructed accounts’ of the past,” by having my students use archival materials to construct some accounts of the past they could share with the college.

In each case, we used rubrics to help us think about process. I know some people resist them, but they don’t have to be detailed to be effective — and they are especially useful for assignments like posters or presentations. A good place to get started is this resource from the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

I started teaching in the fall of 1979 as a teaching assistant. Back then, college teaching was considered mostly self-explanatory. In the humanities, there were lectures, discussions, and papers. Nobody needed a rubric because, somehow, everybody was supposed to know A-work from D-work, students and instructors. Everybody was also supposed to intuit the relation between what happened in the classroom and life after college, in the “real” world. Our curriculum was inclusive; our pedagogy was not; nothing was particularly accessible.

Our current pedagogical model is student-centered problem-solving, which is inclusive and empowering. The problem-solving tool kit we give students in college will carry them into realms that don’t yet exist. Problem-solving encourages collaboration, imagination, and flexibility, the trifecta of effective adult-ing. In much the same way, our sprint challenged me, Stephanie, and Michelle to problem-solve our assignments.

Our current pedagogical model is student-centered problem-solving, which is inclusive and empowering. The problem-solving tool kit we give students in college will carry them into realms that don’t yet exist.

By day two of my sprint, I was solving very concrete problems, like designing a rubric for my assignment or creating a sample poster to show my students next spring. Problem-solving a poster in Google slides was harder than I thought it would be and that was a useful learning experience, just like Stephanie learned to fine-tune her assignment once she started working with Elevator and Michelle realized that maybe the Interim time-frame was better suited to portfolios than fully realized research papers. Even when we faltered, we felt more confident of our ability to take it from however far we got in two days and finish up later on.

By the end of the “sprint,” Professor of History Judy Kutulas had several tangible takeaways, including this sample poster to show her students next spring.

As of this writing, the fate of future sprints is up in the air. The Library and IT Services Instruction group will assess and determine whether to offer some version of sprints next January or next summer. In the meantime, if you want some pedagogical pampering or do-it-yourself sprinting, we really do have a village of professionals to help get you launched. All you need to do is talk to a librarian, someone from DiSCO, Diane LeBlanc when she’s wearing her hat as head of To Include is To Excel, Mary Titus of the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts, or our Civic Engagement wizard, Allysa Herzog-Mellby. They are all creative problem-solvers who will help you revive your enthusiasm, recover your confidence, or polish up your pedagogy. And my old running buddy, Diane, might be able to help you with actual sprinting as well.

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.