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Adventures in the New Humanities: Taking stock of the semester


Students in Professor of History Judy Kutulas’s “America Since 1945” class use the college’s maker space to research and design a 1950s suburb.

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.

How you doin’?

Yes, it’s a Friends reference, which I’m employing to honor the 25th anniversary of the famous TV show — and also because it’s my job as Boldt chair to make sure my fellow faculty colleagues are all doing well. We’ve already passed the 10th academic day, the traditional moment when everybody is where they are supposed to be for the semester, and it seems like a good moment to take stock.

Are you doing well? Eating right, getting enough sleep, keeping your office desk clean? Are flu shots days on your calendar? How about teacher you? Did you make any new humanities resolutions and, if so, have you kept them?

For the most part, my academic resolutions remain unbroken, and that’s despite a pretty rocky start. It is never going to be otherwise when Richie from IT gives you a good news/bad news scenario and the good news is that whatever your office computer is doing is going to be a learning experience for him. But now I have a new office computer and, more importantly, the chaos of the transition didn’t discombobulate me too much.

Are you wondering what I resolved? The answer goes something like this: to be more student-centered in my teaching, to be clear about what students are learning and why, to plan ahead, and to meld my intuitive style (improv teaching) with some “best teaching practices,” even though the very phrase smacks of evaluation. If I were sitting in my class on the first day, I’d already have my hand in the air to ask if performing best teaching practices equals an A for the course. Of course, I didn’t write down any of my resolutions until now, so it might be hard to hold myself fully accountable.

We’ve already passed the 10th academic day, the traditional moment when everybody is where they are supposed to be for the semester, and it seems like a good moment to take stock.

My guinea pigs in this endeavor, who were told on day one that they were guinea pigs, are the newbies in my America Since 1945 class — 18 lovely faces I see Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at the inhuman hour of 8 a.m.

See how mindful I was that first morning, remembering B.C. (before caffeine) to tell them that they were guinea pigs? Nobody fled the class because I so designated them. I believe I still have roughly the same number I started with. Surely that’s a best teaching outcome.

However much I say I’m an improv teacher, I’m not reckless about it, so I began my course preparations in the summer. If I’m being completely honest, I actually started a little later than usual, but I took a vacation and came back refreshed and eager to avoid procrastination. Vacation is not unlike a flu shot, inoculating me against something that can be rampant on this campus.

While my old computer was still fully functional, I pulled up a copy of last year’s syllabus. It already looks very different than my first America Since 1945 syllabus, and I don’t mean because the first one was probably stored on a floppy disc. Twenty-first century Judy included paragraphs about accommodations, inclusivity, pronouns, and academic integrity, along with class policies concerning cell phones, laptops, and even stinky food in class (I’m opposed in most cases, if you were wondering). I have featured a syllabus section called “course objectives” for a number of years now, one that I updated last year when I re-certified the course under the revised MC-D (domestic multicultural) general education designation. That, by the way, was a good, renewing exercise, one I heartily recommend.

This time, though, I cast my net farther. I looked over my assignments, the assigned readings, reread the History Department’s intended learning outcomes along with the intended learning outcomes for the Historical Studies in Western Culture general education requirement, and then considered what I actually do in the class. It turns out my own course goals weren’t far off, theoretically speaking. My course appeared to do what it was supposed to do. I know that. How, though, will my students unless I explain it to them?

If I was going to grade myself on this — and I am — I’d give myself a B+, since my intentions were good and it was still summer, so I had at least a week before I had to articulate anything to anybody. I was planning ahead.

It’s always good to have some mechanisms to keep you on task, don’t you think? I do too, so I told my class when we ran through the Moodle site on day one that I would always post class goals there for each day. My goals for day one, for instance, read “that everyone has a sense of the class and the basic social conventions we will follow to function as a community.”

I have continued to add goals for the day, some of them reflecting skills specific to the day and others emphasizing things like collaboration or critical thinking. So far I have not post-dated a goal for the day but have added them all in Moodle beforehand. It’s a small victory, but an important one since it reminds me to think about the big picture. Minimal change for maximum benefit. Clearly that merits an A for efficiency.

I have tried to learn my students’ names ASAP because I know that’s important for the community I’ve assured them we are. Minus the Moodle participant name quiz, which I SO miss, I’ve relied on pictures in the Student Information System, had students introduce themselves to one another on the first couples of days, and tried whenever possible to use their names in class. This is never going to be my best thing, but having students who literally had their pictures taken the week before you meet them helps considerably. I’d give myself a B for learning names, but I’ve team-taught with Associate Professor of Music David Castro and he can master 30 or more names in one go-around-the-room, so probably I’ve earned no higher than a C in timely name-learning.

When planning my class, I was reminded of something Director of Writing Diane LeBlanc said to me early in the summer: the ability to read critically is becoming a lost art without deliberate cultivation.

When planning my class, I was reminded of something Director of Writing Diane LeBlanc said to me early in the summer: the ability to read critically is becoming a lost art without deliberate cultivation. If you think about some of the ways you read these days, you’ll understand why. We spend a lot of our days squinting at the information we Google on our phones — directions, weather reports, stories about Friends’ 25th anniversary. Add in the time we spend scrolling through our Spotify playlists and looking at cat GIFs our friends text, and reading deep and long is not something our attention spans easily handle these days. So not to add to your teaching burden, but you should also be teaching students the techniques of critical reading.

I felt guilt after this conversation, not to mention ambivalence toward the friend who texts me cat GIFs. I also felt responsibility, since I teach brand-new college students and use nothing but primary documents — a clear case of people who might not even know how to succeed in my course.

Thus, I introduced my first-years on day one to some “texts,” a word I deliberately used after doing some research on how to teach critical reading and learning that consistent use of the term helps students link together the different kinds of things you might ask them to read. As my introductory texts were visuals — some old photos of past Olaf dormitory life — it seemed like the perfect transition from Instagram-scrolling to critical reading.

One of the introductory texts students examined on the first day of class was this photo from the St. Olaf Archives showing dorm life on campus in 1974.

And it would have been, except that I talked too much. The students were quite good at identifying the revealing parts of the photos and comparing dorm scenes across time. I forgot to identify what we were doing as practicing critical reading skills, though. I ran out of time before we could do more than cursory introductions. A for effort and creativity; C+ for execution.

The next text my students encountered was nothing like that first one. It was a 1947 article written by the so-called architect of the U.S. policy of containment, George Kennan, that is generally regarded as one point of origin for U.S. cold war policy. To help students maneuver through this difficult text and model more historical critical reading skills, I annotated the text myself, judiciously highlighting and taking marginal notes, and then scanned it back into Moodle. This time I remembered to explain why I had annotated their text for them and what I hoped it accomplished.

Did it work? When I asked the class, they thought it helped, but then I devoted far longer than the 5 minutes I had allotted to give background, so, once again, talked way too much. I’m giving myself the gift of a B.

It seems to be a theme, the me-talking-too-much.

I found a way around the me-centeredness of the class by designating the next class as a collaborative work day. When it was time to apply the policy of containment to actual U.S. foreign policy, I created groups, set up a Google doc, and had them research and present for the class such things as the Marshall Plan and NATO. They did this well and enthusiastically, and it did get most everybody talking. Plus, it generated a class catchphrase after one group told the class that Harry Truman “freaked out” over the Greek Civil War in 1947. Since then other politicians have “freaked out” in our class and I’m pretty sure more will in future days.

Good day all around, especially since I remembered to explain that by locating reliable information on the internet and being able to articulate how what they found reflected the ideals of containment, they were practicing life-long skills. I’m giving the class an A and me an A- because I still didn’t know all their names.

Next my poor little guinea pigs visited the Cave, the college’s maker space in Rolvaag Memorial Library, an audacious undertaking when you remember that we are talking about 8 a.m. on a Monday and I have a somewhat checkered record with the Cave. Last year, I took my America Since 1945 classes there, to make some groovy 1960s artifacts, with somewhat mixed results. This year I had a clearly stated goal in Moodle “that everyone participates in the invention of a 1950s suburb” — straightforward and simple. Truthfully, though, my students were mostly along for the ride; this was, to use the language of TV cooking competitions, about redemption, me having a better new-humanities adventure than the last time around. Is that an A for good intentions or narcissism?

Students work together to research and inform the class about aspects of the early Cold War.

First, we picked a name for our suburb, Springfield, after Father Knows Best, The Simpsons, or the second-most common U.S. city name. I was not the one who suggested the name, but I stood ready to identify it as the second-most common US.. city name because I had checked in advance. Then we drew a sort of map of our Springfield on the very big white board in the Cave, adding an interstate, our commuter rail-line, and our community amenities — things like churches, a supermarket, and a library. As we did, we talked about the racial, political, and economic consequences of suburbanization. Then we drew some cul-de-sacs and talked about those for a while.

Finally, though, I sketched off three sub-divisions of varying wealth, putting the costliest in Springfield’s foothills and near its lovely little natural lake. I then informally divided the class into three groups and told each to envision a floor plan appropriate to the era and rough cost of a house in their subdivision. I had warned them for several days previously that this is how the class would end. I also reassured them several times that this would not be graded work, but an example of problem-solving. I gave each group a large piece of brown paper.

Using a large piece of brown paper and the amenities of the maker space, students collaborate on developing a floor plan for their suburban home.

First, they all googled floor plans, which was fine, and then nobody simply reproduced what they found, which was even better. Different groups debated the merits of various possibilities given the cost of their houses — one or two bathrooms, one or two car garages, fireplaces — and chose different ways of depicting their floor plans, including one that featured a construction-paper swimming pool and one that used colored popsicle sticks to designate different rooms of the house (glue gun!). I circulated and answered questions, I gently redirected if students seemed a bit off-track, and I sometimes shared a tidbit or two. I told them a story about how my father violated the unwritten code of the suburbs by fencing in half of our front yard to protect his cherry tree from cherry-picking neighborhood kids.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas and her Brownie troop stand by the front-yard fence her father installed to protect his cherry tree — a move that Kutulas says was a “violation of suburban norms.”

There was conversation, collaborative problem-solving, and fun — things that seemed lacking the last time I took a class to the Cave. One group included a cherry tree on their rendering, an homage to my father. I can tell you the name of the student who made it. I even remembered to make sure the space got cleaned up before people left.

Here’s my take-away from my second attempt at a new humanities adventure in the Cave: the learning curve might be steep, but the learning happens quickly. I avoided virtually all the mistakes I made the first time around, mostly by taking something I would do in our regular classroom and simply adapting it. I did not over-think it. I used the space in ways that encouraged collaboration and creativity. There was no graded assignment. Students learned by doing.

Here’s my take-away from my second attempt at a new humanities adventure in the Cave: the learning curve might be steep, but the learning happens quickly.

I think I earned an A, a “much improved,” and maybe even some extra credit points.

So far I have not resorted to the in-class passivity of using a Power Point, even though I really like them as an art form and the latest iteration really does all the work for you. I have not lectured. I have really tried to be as student-centered as possible and, given my early starting time, to plan ahead. What I lack in spontaneity at 7:45 a.m., I gain in parking status. I have claimed one of those six coveted Holland Hall–lot spaces every Monday, Wednesday, or Friday since the semester began.

Overall, then, how I’m doin’ is roughly B+-ish, with a few lows, but mostly highs. I hope you are doing at least as well. If you aren’t, I’m happy to listen to your problems over a cup of coffee and a St. Olaf cookie. I may not be able to help you, but I will do my best to ask useful questions. It’s a best learning practice, after all, to get you to articulate the problem and figure out how to solve it. I’d just be there for collaborative purposes and cookie money.

As for me, it could all fall apart tomorrow. I’ve already sent out the first assignment, which I thought particularly clear. Assignments, however, lead to grades, and grades mean the honeymoon is over. My class could turn on me. I did, after all, refer to them as guinea pigs. I’m still not casually throwing around their names with confidence. I might need a St. Olaf cookie myself.

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.