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Adventures in the New Humanities: Houston, we have disruption

Students in Associate Professor of Art and Art History Peter Nelson’s Interim 2019 Graphic Design course review each other’s work.

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.

An Interim class was my first St. Olaf teaching experience: 30 students intensively studying the U.S. and World War II in the basement of Old Main. It did not get off to a good start. The first two days of class, which — remember — equates to more than a week’s worth of regular-semester classes, I had no voice. From some croaked early discussions, we moved on to writing letters in the voices of Americans affected by the war, watched Casablanca and Bugs Bunny cartoons, ate some very-raisin-y cake made without rationed goods, and dissected World War II propaganda posters. A panel of military veterans visited the class one day to talk about their experiences. One, in response to a student question, mused about what it felt like to kill the enemy. It was an electrifying moment I’m pretty sure nobody in the room will ever forget. It would have been a perfect semester except for the lost voice, one blizzard, my Honda Civic being hit and spun by a garbage truck, a bad cut to my heel, and food poisoning.

The tight timeframe and weather would seem to make Interim ripe for all kinds of chaos. January, in Minnesota, is a month of illnesses, blizzards, freezing pipes, dead batteries, spinouts, and other potential complications. But it’s also a time for some of the best and most exhilarating teaching opportunities we get. Our off-campus Interims get all the glory, but our on-campus ones deserve a cheer as well, which I’m about to give them. But first, my metaphor, which relates to the title of this post, which I hope you recognized.

“January, in Minnesota, is a month of illnesses, blizzards, freezing pipes, dead batteries, spinouts, and other potential complications. But it’s also a time for some of the best and most exhilarating teaching opportunities we get.”

My Reel America class just watched Apollo 13 (maybe now you catch my reference?). One of our favorite parts of the film was when the engineers at Mission Control must literally figure out a way to put a square peg in a round hole to keep the crew breathing clean air. Doing so requires them to improvise from materials at hand. Thus, Mission Control engineers build a contraption and instruct the Apollo 13 crew on its construction. Their first direction, they concede, is unorthodox: rip the cover off the flight plan to use as something else, to which Kevin Bacon replies, “with pleasure.” Interim asks instructors to rip the cover off the flight plan of their teaching and do something else with it.

Interim is pretty much licensed as something different. It’s a rare student who is able to spend all their required three Interims off-campus, and there is perhaps a certain amount of disappointment at the notion of spending January on campus when your friends are somewhere warmer or more exciting than Northfield — just like those Apollo 13 astronauts, who had to settle for the less-dramatic next mission to the moon rather than the heroic first one. Little did they know . . .

Students look for novelty when choosing their Interims on the Hill. Novelty can take several forms. Some want a gentle way to tackle a general education requirement that scares them a little but seems manageable in a shorter timeframe. Others want to indulge themselves in an interest they don’t generally have room for in their busy schedules. Either way, they don’t know it, but they’re looking for disruption — and we stand ready to disrupt.

Disruption is a relatively new academic concept that it turns out Oles have been practicing for a very long time. It’s dismantling the flight plan to fit a square peg in a round hole. Disruption may sound destructive, but, in fact, it’s inventive and creative and it breaks old habits that have maybe gotten a little stale. And disruption tends to be more inclusive, which is why Interim classes are so often filed with neophytes and eager amateurs.

Students in Assistant Professor of Physics Alden Adolph’s Interim 2019 Introduction to Engineering Design course work collaboratively and creatively.

Off-campus Interims are obvious disruptions, but on-campus Interims also disrupt. Maybe students still live in the same places and eat the same things, but their Januarys definitely aren’t going to be St. Olaf-as-usual and even first-years recognize that. Certainly, my first-year advisees showed up to our advising meetings this fall with lists of Interim classes that looked nothing like what they’d already taken or hoped to take in the spring.

Like their students, St. Olaf professors welcome the prospect of disruption and begin fantasizing about it long before the first snows fall.

On-campus Interim disrupting starts with a great topic. It’s not just what can we live and breathe and think about for a solid month; it’s what topic or subject lends itself to a variety of approaches, teaching methods, inventive ways of evaluating students, and collaborations. It’s not filling the time and space; it’s filling the time and space imaginatively and interactively. We are with Kevin Bacon on this and rip the cover off the flight plan with pleasure.

One has only to look at our current Interim offerings to see that disruption has occurred long before a class steps into a room: Musical Acoustics, Zen and the Art of Judo, Capitalism, Hamilton, Tolkien and Theology. You can be part of mounting a whole theater production during Interim, learn world dance traditions, or study aspects of cinema or theater or literature in a number of different cultures (Japan, Germany, Norway, and the ancient world by my count).

Disruption doesn’t diminish education, but enhances it. These classes are about as liberal artsy as the liberal arts get. They more commonly fall into the part of our liberal arts curriculum we identify as the breadth of general education rather than the depth of a major, although you can also find that too. For many students, though, Interims are opportunities for sampling. And for professors, many are ways to fit that square peg of our expertise into the round hole of a hobby or interest, just like in Danny Munoz-Hutchinson’s Zen and the Art of Judo course. Many are interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. Many are new humanities on a stick. Houston, we have lift-off!

Interim moves fast, which disrupts our usual teaching rhythm. Two hours a day, five days a week for a month is very different from 55 minutes three times a week for 15 weeks. The timeframe disrupts the pace of reading and assignments. So too does it impact the classroom itself. According to specialists, we ought to be changing things up in our classrooms every 20 minutes or so for the sake of attention spans, which means five or six change-ups per Interim class. That’s a lot of variety. Every instructor reacts differently: collaborative projects, small-group discussions, unusual challenges or projects, improvised yoga. Last January Professor of History Steve Hahn disrupted his Great Conversation section by having them discuss their day’s topic on the ice at the new St. Olaf Ice Arena. And not to switch film metaphors mid-stream, but do you want to build a snowman? There’s nothing to say you can’t do that while discussing the topic du jour in your Interim class.

Professor of History Steve Hahn’s Interim course took their discussion to the St. Olaf Ice Arena. Photo courtesy of Josie Abbott ’22.

A lot more hands-on learning happens during Interim: visits to the maker space or DiSCO to make podcasts or videos or play with the tech, in-class debates, collaborative projects, cooking and dining experiences, field trips, films, interviews. You have to get creative. You’re flying without a flight plan, remember, and doesn’t it feel good?

Collaboration happens more frequently during Interim, too. Classroom spaces really come alive with energy. They’re always alive with the sound of learning, but the general disequilibrium of Interim somehow seems to make teachers talk less and students talk more. Maybe I’m not the only person to develop laryngitis during Interim. I suspect, though, we are all more willing to take risks during Interim, students as well as teachers.

“Collaboration happens more frequently during Interim, too. Classroom spaces really come alive with energy. They’re always alive with the sound of learning, but the general disequilibrium of Interim somehow seems to make teachers talk less and students talk more.”

Students find it easier to be all-in in one class than four, so that even if they are initially hesitant about the class, they generally end up engaged. Many bring the enthusiasm of novices or the excitement of enthusiasts to the classroom. I’ve been asking Ole alums about their Interim experiences, with some interesting results. Many remembered feeling scared some of the time or “in over my head,” as one said. All, though, loved Interim, both for its intensity and challenges. I’m not surprised. After all, the cover’s been ripped off their flight plans too and we are all, like the Apollo 13 astronauts, floating weightlessly in the cold and February’s starting to loom in our windows.

A few years ago, I taught an American Studies class called Sitcom America during Interim that completely surprised me. It attracted a disproportionate number of international students who I thought were looking for a quick peek at U.S. culture. Boy, was I wrong. Sitcoms are one of our most successful exports, and my international students knew American sitcom culture inside and out, only from different perspectives sometimes. This made for lively discussions and new friendships. Full House, it turns out, is an international favorite that almost everybody watched in reruns as children. Seinfeld was not because, as more than one student opined, “they aren’t nice people.” If anybody is rolling their eyes out there, I’d just like to say that by complete accident the class ended up being absolutely state-of-the-field for American Studies, very transnational, which led logically to discussions of reception theories, economics, technology, and censorship.

In four weeks, the class went from Father Knows Best (which the class hated) to binge-comedies on Netflix. We used phrases like “breaking the fourth wall” and “three-camera style.” We debated what happened when a sitcom was animated, like The Simpsons. We moved around the classroom a lot. We worked collaboratively. My students spent a month subjecting something seemingly ordinary, like sitcoms, to rigor and analysis. I got to use expertise I rarely get to use during a 15-week semester, not to mention the beginning of an article about Friends. It was a magical time, and, for the first time ever, I didn’t lose my voice, develop an infection, or have something bad happen to my car, although I believe the daytime high one day was -14˚.

“We moved around the classroom a lot. We worked collaboratively. My students spent a month subjecting something seemingly ordinary, like sitcoms, to rigor and analysis.”

Still, snow and cold are part of the disruption of Interim. Everything takes longer — dressing, starting cars, walking — which slows us down even though the pace of Interim is vastly accelerated. There’s a shared suffering that bonds us and becomes a sort of survival test we are determined to pass. A lot of regressing happens during Interim, even if you don’t spend the month watching Full House. There’s the childish joy of a fresh snowfall and the wearing of goofy hats and boots so fuzzy they might as well be teddy-bear feet. There’s traying down Old Main Hill. Inevitably, at some point there is hot cocoa and donuts or popcorn. The break in the middle of class becomes like an indoor recess.

What happens outside the classroom during Interim is also sort of magical. In January, nobody wants to be alone. Tostrud Center is a happening place, with students, faculty, staff, and our retired community all gathered to fight off any winter blues through exercise and conversation. The Cage hops, too, and there are more people lingering there before beginning the trek home. Students have waxed lyrical about blizzardy weekends stuck on the Hill, eating Pause pizzas, watching SAC movies, and revisiting such childhood favorites as Legos and Playdoh in the Cave. We all coddle ourselves during January, practicing more self-care than we often do the rest of the year. Everybody actually sleeps.

They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and while those who stay on campus in January may be reluctant to share their adventures with their friends returning from the Rome, Ecuador, or Ghana off-campus Interims, what happens in Interim here on the Hill doesn’t stay in Interim. Rather, it grows us all. Once that cover of the flight plan comes off, it’s never intact again. Interim is going to affect the rest of our teaching and our students’ learning. And when we run into that January student in April, we’ll exchange some meaningful smiles about the pleasures of the disruption of the ripped-off flight plan. Maybe we didn’t get to the moon, but we did take a pretty interesting, often-unexpected trip.

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.