Adventures in the New Humanities: It’s a noir semester
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.
A funny thing happened on the way to this post: busy-ness. My original plan was to write a straightforward commentary on how professors were coping with the semester, figuring that by using other peoples’ voices, I wouldn’t have to come up with one of those cute popular culture metaphors I overuse. I sent out about a dozen inquiries via email to see how my colleagues were doing. But then, mostly silence followed and things began to feel sinister. Suddenly, my popular culture metaphor presented itself — although, as it turns out, maybe it’s not so cute.
I recognized that sinister feeling as something my film studies class has been examining: film noir. Noir is a style of film epitomized by 1930s detective films like, most famously, The Maltese Falcon. It peaked as a genre after World War II with films like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice and then had a neo-noir resurgence in 1970s films like Chinatown.
In noir, the plots are convoluted and we inhabit a limited point of view so that, as viewers, we only learn the truth little by little when our anti-hero does. Keeping us off our games, moreover, is the classic noir femme fatale, seductive, dangerous, at least as smart as we are, bent on distracting us, redirecting us, and keeping us from the truth. Visually, noir is, as its name should suggest, dark, often punctuated with off-kilter shards of illumination that reveal, at best, partial pictures (think blinds). So, like the classic noir anti-hero, when nobody got back to me, I got a bit paranoid.
Still, I had my metaphor: noir. Sure, some days are sunny and the changing leaves against a vivid blue sky are visually stunning. Fall leaves reflect golden light, not darkness, but noir is lurking. As the number of sunlit hours decreases and fall weather arrives, noir descends. Nothing feels quite as open, possible, or even cheerful as it did a few weeks ago. Halloween is just around the corner, the scary season perfect for noir. And there’s nothing like a record October snowfall to make you confront the upcoming season of winter. All too soon, we’ll be feeling its claustrophobic embrace.
So, let’s just make it official: it’s a noir semester.
Like 1970s-neo-noir, my noir semester has a deceptively calm surface. Actually, in many ways, the semester’s affect — and film studies people do love to discuss affect — is ordinary. I’m surprised by how many familiar things have happened this semester — and by that I don’t mean new-normal ordinary stuff, but ordinary-ordinary stuff. My classes contain the usual mix of students of varying levels of skill and interest. People show up to Zoom office hours with familiar questions. People who ask for extensions or turn in late papers offer the same excuses. Typical events are marked on my calendar, like quiet week and finals. I complain about the same things I typically do: too many meetings, too much grading, not enough sleep.
Juxtaposed against the ordinary, though, is the disorienting. As I complete my ProtectWell app in the mornings, I linger over possible COVID-19 symptoms and the hypochondriac in me takes over. As a student just gave the same reason for not coming to class, emailing me that “I’m just kind of paranoid about COVID,” I guess I’m not the only one who finds that app both helpful and malign. The other day when nobody in my 8 a.m. class logged on to Zoom until 7:58, I wondered if there was some sort of student plot against me. Every time I travel to campus, I’m freaked by the absence of a familiar landmark as the President’s House is now erased from the face of the earth. C’mon, that’s unsettling. Even the little lending library in front of it has been removed — just not its pedestal.
Like any good noir anti-hero, my confidence has gradually eroded as I confront a world that is not what it seems. I’ve been teaching for over 30 years now, so I usually bounce back pretty quickly and don’t take it personally when there’s an uninspiring class session. Now, though, I feel like that Scandinavian noir detective who has found the case so perplexing that he’s lost a bit of his mojo partway into the film. Yes, I mean Wallander; I have no tattoos, dragon or otherwise.
Like Wallander, moreover, I labor alone, which adds to the disquieting undertones of the season. My visits to campus are short and purposeful, but never completely productive. My routines are so disrupted that I rarely finish my tasks, even with a list to remind me. Still, there is no point to lingering. There are few colleagues in the hallways or by the copy machines to catch up with. Campus feels too quiet and too empty. Virtual meetings are the same way, conduct your business and hit “leave meeting” as quickly as possible since there’s always something more to do in a world undivided into home and work parts.
The consequence is a certain measure of paranoia. Perfectly ordinary things do look sinister. If the ProtectWell app assessed our psychological well-being, I fear few of us would be allowed on campus on any given day.
We are just trying to get through, the day, the week, the term, our lives until we can . . . well, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? What will the future be like after COVID-19? We can’t know; we are still living with fingers crossed that we make it to the end of the semester without having to send everybody home.
We are just trying to get through, the day, the week, the term, our lives until we can . . . well, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? What will the future be like after COVID-19? We can’t know.
It’s like running in place even though, on some alternative timeline, time marches on, leaving us behind. For some it’s a crucial tenure year; for others, there’s a baby on the way or a travel grant that maybe won’t be cancelled. The New York Times recently ran an article about female academics worried about meeting tenure markers because of home responsibilities. For our students, it’s a significant part of their once-in-a-lifetime college experience. For me, it’s my last year and there is much to mourn and little to savor.
Last spring was beyond noir. We lived for the promise of tomorrow. Now the very idea of tomorrow is our femme fatale, an illusion, a moving target.
Faculty, so far as I can tell, are taking care of one another. In a race and ethnic studies Zoom meeting, Associate Professor of English Jennifer Kwon Dobbs started us off by giving each of us a chance to speak our piece, to report our frustrations or successes. In a family studies meeting, Professor of Social Work and Family Studies Mary Carlsen ’79 did the same thing. My department chair, Associate Professor of History Anna Kuxhausen, recently organized a spur-of-the-moment departmental un-meeting in Way Park so we could play with her new puppy. I get solicitous emails from my emeriti buds, Associate Professor Emerita of History Dolores Peters and Professor Emerita of Religion Maggie Odell, asking what’s new. My spouse, Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald, might have a scone from the bakery waiting for me when I finish my class.
Moving into the second half of the semester, we all anticipate that collective crash, the moment when too little sleep catches up with all of us, the path forward seems fraught, and the dangers loom more than the achievements. But in my noir semester, I can no longer feel certain that the ennui anyone is feeling is actually ordinary.
You can’t read a facial expression behind a mask. The before-class silence can be deafening when students are socially distanced and staring at their phones. I can’t remember any more if all that phone-staring is normal or not. Has a student turned off their camera in a remote class because of unstable internet or because they are curled up in a fetal ball? We have some of the usual ways of identifying students in distress, but these days anxiety is easy to suspect and harder to spot.
Has a student turned off their camera in a remote class because of unstable internet or because they are curled up in a fetal ball? We have some of the usual ways of identifying students in distress, but these days anxiety is easy to suspect and harder to spot.
Much of the reason I am feeling noir-ish right now is because of the transitive property, which I believe I am using correctly here. To borrow from the logic of a 1970s self-help book, if I’m not quite OK, then probably my students aren’t either. It keeps me awake at 3 a.m.
We are a liberal arts college and holistic in our approach to students. We as faculty are rarely cavalier about struggling students. We care. We worry. We want to help. We are not going to be the ones uttering that famous last line in Chinatown, urging the anti-hero detective to “forget it,” because some things are just mysterious or evil or unimportant.
We are a liberal arts college and holistic in our approach to students. We as faculty are rarely cavalier about struggling students. We care. We worry. We want to help.
Ordinarily, at this time of the semester, students are feeling a bit down. Ordinarily, most of us respond with that tried-and-true mood-boost, passing around a bowl of Halloween candy. As Rhoda, Mary’s best friend and neighbor on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, long ago said, “cottage cheese solves nothing; chocolate does it all.” It’s a momentary fix, granted, but in that moment, most everyone is in their happy place.
In our noir semester, we can’t even use chocolat noir to medicate a class, so we have to get creative. In fact, it’s more imperative than usual that we remind our students that we care about them. The other day I gifted all the students in my film class with a cheerful, homemade, flowered mug, which really animated the class. I realize this is not a solution for everybody, but I would urge you to think about giving just a little more of yourself this term. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture. Maybe invent a Mad Libs relevant to your class, declare crazy socks day, or have the class joke emblazoned on decals or buttons. Classes feel impersonal right now, so make it personal.
As for the students experiencing more than mid-semester weariness, I’ve vowed to let go of that Minnesota nice that didn’t come naturally to a Californian anyway and just be blunt, asking students outright if they are OK. If a student indicates that they are having mental health issues, I’ll try to do a quick lay-person’s assessment of the level of need and act accordingly. In most cases, the Counseling Center can provide immediate and by-appointment assistance. Here’s the link to keep handy if you haven’t bookmarked it already. So far, I’ve found that students are perfectly willing to share their personal struggles if you ask. Sometimes you have to ask more than once. For students not coming to class, get the Dean of Students Office involved. They see a bigger picture of the student’s well-being than you do.
Don’t forget that anxiety and depression can’t be patched with a Band-Aid. Knowing someone cares enough to ask is very comforting, but it’s generally not in our wheelhouses to “fix” students’ mental-health crises. We can, however, address the parts that overlap into our classrooms.
Academic success is harder when you are struggling with anxiety or depression. Just getting out of bed for class is tough and once you’ve dug yourself into a hole of missed deadlines, everything feels hopeless. The Center for Advising and Academic Support can help students break down big classroom challenges into smaller parts. Here’s their link. Do remember, though, that this is not the end of your involvement. Keep checking in, doing so [and here’s where it gets really hard] without adding to their noir.
I’m finding advisees need more attention than usual this term. Appointments that used to conclude in 20 minutes are stretching out to 40 minutes or an hour. Only some of that extra time is related to all the window-juggling that goes on while advising via Zoom. The rest I’d ascribe to pandemic indecision, a sense of unknowing that makes planning next semester scary.
Sometimes just listening can be a big help. By that I don’t mean that any one of us should be setting up a psychiatric help booth like Lucy in the old Peanuts cartoons. I’ve come to realize that even students living on campus and taking mostly in-person classes feel somewhat isolated. I’ve decided to assume that it is significant when students get on Zooms early. I figure they want to talk and want me to get the conversation going. I never make consequential pre-class chit chat. I ask about hometowns or majors or to find out something about pandemic student life, like how the dining hall is working. Of course, maybe word’s gotten around that I do make conversation with the early arrivers in my remote class, which might explain that Zoom everyone logged onto at the last minute. If that’s the case, at least they’ve been talking to one another about how their professor makes awkward small-talk if you log on early.
The social isolation students living on campus feel right now is only magnified when you don’t live on campus and are taking all remote courses. Talk about noir. Your roommates are also your siblings; your dining hall companions your parents. Lately, how overworked we all are has been a popular topic of conversation with both on-campus and remote learners. Everyone loves to complain.
Distance students often long for a little extra academic engagement, perhaps just to remind themselves that they really are going to college. When a discussion got really cooking in my America Since 1945 class, which, as a remote class, includes a lot of students not living on campus, I offered to stay on Zoom longer and about a third of the class took me up on it. Half an hour before the next class, a student in Vietnam logged on to say “I can’t stop thinking about Monday’s class.” Her enthusiasm certainly helped my mental health.
It’s a noir semester and, as such, we need to do what we can when we can, even if it leads to what Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology Marc David calls Zoom butt, that tired feeling in a certain part of your anatomy after a long day of being pandemically professorial.
But just now, my own femme fatale, the latest episode of The Great British Baking Show, seems to be seducing me away from my grading.
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.