Adventures in the New Humanities: It’s all about the verbs
Oles can. Oles will.
The instructor in me wants to take a red pen to St. Olaf College’s latest brand expression because those verbs are missing objects. The verbs themselves are appealingly active, conveying skills mastered and commitment honed, yet the absence of objects is grammatically disconcerting. It was only after I got over my grammatical offense that I realized the genius of the missing objects. They represent the myriad possibilities, challenges, responsibilities, and commitments our students will undertake while here and after they leave. We are all about the whole person … and also the more active verbs.
Oles can and Oles will do a lot of different things while they are on the Hill. Some, admittedly, they will later regret. What they won’t regret is becoming involved and committed members of multiple communities. There are an impressive array of clubs they can join, offices for which they can run, and a whole Volunteer Network to link them up with meaningful service to others. So too are the courses that give them the opportunity to engage civically with the world around them, which is where professors figure in the whole verb-centric equation.
Last fall alone, there were 18 courses that offered our students academic civic engagement opportunities, everything from exit polling on election day to individualized fitness and exercise programs.
We have an Office of Academic Civic Engagement tucked into International and Off-Campus Studies. Last fall alone, there were 18 courses that offered our students academic civic engagement opportunities, everything from exit polling on election day to individualized fitness and exercise programs.
Only one of those courses was in the humanities, plus two sections of mostly humanities American Conversations (AmCon) classes. This disturbed me and presented me with an irresistible challenge to my Boldt-edness. To be completely honest, I also had a personal reason for thinking about academic civic engagement. My son, who is on the autism spectrum, participates in a wonderful Northfield Arts Guild program, the Creating Community Club, which relies heavily on St. Olaf volunteers. They were running short of volunteers, and I had hero fantasies.
My past experiences with academic civic engagement have come through AmCon, which asks students to be involved in fall election cycles, working with the League of Women Voters, serving as poll watchers, registering voters, or volunteering for campaigns. My AmCon co-teachers have always facilitated the logistics of getting people places and linked up with very little effort from me, which makes me a sort of academic civic-engagement shirttail rider. Thanks, Eric Fure-Slocum and Colin Wells!
They were so efficient that I was clueless about logistics, but at least I knew where to turn: Olaf’s wizard of academic civic engagement, Alyssa Herzog Melby (official title is assistant director), who in her previous job as executive director of the Northfield Arts Guild civic-engaged me into a position on their board of directors. We had a lovely meeting, she laid out options for me and gave me useful advice … and then I dropped the ball.
I’m pretty embarrassed about my lack of follow-through — embarrassed enough that I invested a lot of the energy I should have put into adding civic engagement to my class into justifying my failure. I started to dwell on verbs, active and passive. Maybe the humanities aren’t an active-verb kind of field. Maybe civic engagement is just harder to do in the humanities. Eventually reality took over. It might be different, but should be no harder, to do civic engagement within the humanities. Flu and the Polar Vortex might have contributed to my January lack-of-follow-through, but others managed despite much worse obstacles and undoubtedly planned much farther ahead than I did. I’ll just admit outright that it was my fault and my failure, giving you a new Ole slogan: Oles can, but Kutulas didn’t.
I’m a humanist who is supposed to be helping students develop their critical thinking skills, and yet I didn’t apply mine to the challenge at hand. Consider why I wanted to do civic engagement, for selfish reasons. Consider how I approached having my class do civic engagement, as an add-on rather than an organic part of a course. Consider that I simplistically equated civic engagement with volunteers who had to go someplace and “help” people. I used the wrong verbs, hoping and wanting rather than thinking and planning. Also, I just epically failed to do my homework.
I should have looked a little more closely at the ACE website, checking out the really exciting humanities civic engagement endeavors that happened over Interim and are happening right now, including a couple in my own discipline and one Latin class taking seriously Cicero’s call for engagement with government. How awesome is that? I should have realized that with a little advance planning, my women’s history class could have brought a women’s history month presentation to a local elementary school or that my intro American Studies class could have shared one of their readings, The Secret Life of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, with the community through the Northfield Public Library. It would have been an interesting discussion.
Civic engagement within the humanities, as it turns out, is part of something I have been championing: public humanities, bringing the skills and content of various classes to wider communities for specific purposes. In that way, the humanities become part of how we help get Oles from “can” to “will.” It also turns out that civic engagement requires something we are really good at, reflection, which makes the impulse to be active members of communities more of a reflex.
Reflect, then, on this: academic civic engagement can serve as a way to, if I may invent my own verb, real-world your humanities class. If you are worried that you aren’t perceived as teaching something relevant or notice that your students can’t imagine a range of career possibilities in your discipline, civic engagement might be your answer.
Academic civic engagement can serve as a way to, if I may invent my own verb, real-world your humanities class. If you are worried that you aren’t perceived as teaching something relevant or notice that your students can’t imagine a range of career possibilities in your discipline, civic engagement might be your answer.
But give it a lot more thought than I did. Don’t be like me and wait until January to think about February. Don’t let yourself get bogged down by logistics or helping fantasies.
But also don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. Dip your toes in by checking out the materials on the Office of Civic Engagement’s website. There are examples, parameters, and even funding opportunities. Have Alyssa put you on her calendar and brainstorm with her. I would recommend both. The sheer amount of information on the web page might initially intimidate you, but you will be glad it’s there in the end. Alyssa is a gentle dynamo, enthusiastic about her job as well as aware of the growing number of moving parts to an average course. She will not judge you if you, like me, are clueless. I know because she has not written me off as a lost cause.
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.