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Adventures in the New Humanities: The light at the end of the tunnelen

A photo of the entrance to Norway's 15-mile Lærdalstunnelen.
In this “Adventures in the New Humanities” blog post, Professor of History Judy Kutulas says we’re starting to see the light at the end of the very long COVID-19 tunnel — which has felt almost as long as Norway’s 15-mile Lærdalstunnelen, the entrance of which pictured here.

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.

Did you know that there is a tunnel in Norway that is 24.5 kilometers (15.23 miles) long? It’s the Lærdalstunnelen, and while its creators go out of their way to keep you distracted from its length and the claustrophobia it might induce, it is still one L-O-N-G and confining tunnel. You can drive through it via YouTube if you are interested, although it hardly substitutes for the real thing.

Well, folks, we have been driving through the extremely lengthy COVIDtunnelen for more than a year now and no manner of turns to keep us engaged or fancy lights to calm our nerves can quell our impatience to be out. Moreover, we can see the faint light at the end of the tunnel, scary but tempting.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas took this photo inside Norway's brightly lit Lærdalstunnelen.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas took this photo inside Norway’s brightly lit Lærdalstunnelen.

We are definitely in the tunnel’s second half, so it’s really time to start thinking about the post-COVID world. For the purposes of this post, that does not include any travel plans or lists of restaurants we intend to try or movies we want to see in a theater. Instead, I am about to explore pandemic teaching as a learning experience — with caveats.

Even though the pandemic has dominated our lives, a bunch of other things have happened in the past year-plus too, a list almost as long as the Lærdalstunnelen itself. The American social fabric is badly frayed, revealing a lot of practices, customs, and institutions that aren’t working and certainly aren’t promoting equity and safety for everyone. The level of violence is rising, particularly against people of color. In January some people stormed our national capitol. “Truth” and “fact” seem to be losing their meanings. We are emotionally exhausted, disheartened, scared, and worried, living day-by-day.

But we aren’t done yet. Consider all that is happening on our campus right now. We have committed as an institution to equity, inclusion, and anti-racist practices, things we are now trying to implement that are not always going smoothly. We are launching a new curriculum, approving new courses at a furious pace while redoing majors. Change brings resentment in our zero-sum academic environment, where it sure feels like some departments and programs gain and others lose. Even the new residence hall construction disorients and sometimes confounds those of us navigating our ways to campus. We might be excited to exit the tunnel personally, but professionally speaking, what’s out there is pretty intimidating.

I will confess that 30+ years of teaching made me pre-pandemically cynical about students and some of the stories they told me, especially the ones that sounded suspiciously like excuses or requests for special privileges. What I realize now is that whether or not these were also excuses, they were students asking me to see them as fully realized human beings even when they couldn’t or didn’t meet my professional expectations of them. In retrospect, I hope I was kind. I know I was sometimes inflexible and often thinking less-kindly thoughts as I grudgingly acceded to their requests. Everything about the last year reinforces the importance of hearing what was unspoken in those requests, to recognize our students as people, to accept that one-size-fits-all teaching might seem fair, but isn’t always, to recognize that our students might be hurting, struggling, or confused. Let’s call that post-COVID lesson #1.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas in front of a Boldt Construction sign on campus that captures the key message she took away from the COVID-19 pandemic: "Realize what's possible."
Professor of History Judy Kutulas in front of a Boldt Construction sign on campus that captures the key message she took away from the COVID-19 pandemic: “Realize what’s possible.”

We seek diversity of many kinds as an institution and have put policies and programs in place to facilitate that. Now comes the harder work: to serve our more-diverse and very weary student body equitably, individually, and kindly.

Our students, though, are not the only people in need of care right now or in the future.

To come at the challenges that await us from the other side of the equation, I quote my spouse, Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald: “I’ve never worked harder in my life.”

One of the more disorienting elements of pandemic teaching has been the puncturing of the boundaries between our personal and professional selves, true of students as well as faculty. It’s not just a lack of privacy; it’s the undermining of most of the conventions and even pretensions of what professors do, not to mention how we spend our days.

We are on call 24/7. Michael, for instance, routinely holds Sunday afternoon office hours and sometimes plays remote chess on the weekends with one of his advisees. He used his first “rest day” to try and get caught up with grading. It took him three tries to record a Panopto video for his asynchronous class last week because of interruptions and technical glitches. His students call his cell phone all the time, including one who had a question about the midterm while he was in the bathtub. More than once he’s been wide-awake and feeling anxious at 5 a.m.

How are we on the teaching side of the equation going to take care of our tunnel-weary students when we are weary ourselves?

Whatever our new normal looks like, it needs to be sustainable — for students, for teachers, for the institution. This needs to be lesson #2. I would like to suggest that while we should not forget the wholeness of our students and need to let go of some of our notions of what it means to be an academic, we should at the first opportunity reestablish some version of personal lives, personal time, and personal space.

Thus, I think that while Zoom definitely has its place in future academe, it should be used judiciously precisely because it is intrusive rather than supportive. And there you have it, lesson #3.

Zoom leads to passivity that can mask who knows what. Assistant Professor of History and Asian Studies Stephanie Montgomery has been teaching asynchronously and online for so long that she’s more than a bit nervous about stepping back into a classroom. What she calls the great “Zoom void,” a great unknown where everything might be going stupendously well or invisibly terrible or somewhere in-between, is no safe refuge for anyone. There seems to be much greater room for misunderstanding, anger, or complete disengagement in a classroom when the camera is on.

Still, we should not let all that practice in Zooming go to waste, but look for the learning experiences we can bring with us out of the COVIDtunnelen. And I think there are some. Most of us have let go of the finger puppets, puppies, and silly hats we used early on to grab our students’ attention. Instead, many of us have learned, as Steph has, the importance of mixing it up, of making sure your class offers enough variety to serve everyone. That’s lesson #4, for those of you who are counting.

Mixing it up helps with everybody’s energy levels, but it also helps to bring equity to the classroom, serving students with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and learning styles. Variety also improves collaborative possibilities as students work together to figure out the latest classroom challenge. It’s not entertainment. It’s teaching that facilitates the learning.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas with the finger puppet of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that she incorporated into one of her courses.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas with the finger puppet of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that she incorporated into one of her courses.

Of course, as Professor of Economics Tony Becker points out, there are fields where nuts-and-bolts kinds of things can remain recorded and available to students outside of the classroom so that class time can be devoted to more active kinds of learning in a flipped classroom. Ah, yes, the value of the flipped classroom, lesson #5. Zoom has helped a lot of us think more about matching what we are teaching to how we are teaching it.

Professor of Philosophy Corliss Swain has found a systematic way of promoting student engagement in the online class. It’s the Moodle forum. Yeah, I didn’t see that coming either. To encourage discussion, she poses a “thought question” before class and has people post a thought in response. She sees multiple benefits that can be reaped when she returns to in-person teaching as well: “People who like to think before they talk have time to think, I feel comfortable calling on people because I know I won’t embarrass them, and everyone is more prepared to talk.”

Across the semester, she has also been escalating the class’s interactions with the forums, at first posting, then having them read each other’s posts, then asking people to comment in class about one another’s posts. It makes perfect sense, building individual confidence as well as community interaction, promoting active reading, and helping students practice discussion. An intentional student-centered plan like that will continue to serve her classes well in the post-pandemic future.

So — lesson #6 — be intentional, which is to say, actually spend a moment thinking about what strategies you’ve used right now to promote engagement and equity under difficult circumstances that might have post-COVID wings. In short, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As we leave the darkness, I think many of us plan to bring some new grading strategies as well. One of the trickier curves we’ve had to negotiate in our tunnel is trying to assess when our field of vision is not always clear. One typical choice whose post-pandemic survival, I suspect, will be considerably debated, is the use of more class assignments, each counting for less of the whole grade. Of course, there are those among us who would advocate for grading contracts that give students control over what counts how much and displace assessment in favor of feedback. Whatever the specific choices people make in the future, I hope they will remember to factor in equity, whole-student-ness, and sustainability. Lesson #7? Rethink your assignments, matching them to course goals; also, rethink your grading practices.

You might want to sit down for lesson #8, which might also be called class 2.0, the reboot.

Yes, you read that right. Not only am I suggesting that exhausted and stressed you devote some of a summer so full of workshops that resentment is already brewing, I am suggesting it will be worth the effort. I know because I already did it.

Why? It’s a whole new world out there, remember? And we are different people. It’s spring, a time of rebirth and renewal. There are a million reasons not to, and everything to be gained from at least thinking about rebooting.

For me it was a big leap of faith. I’ve been teaching U.S. women’s history now for just about 30 years, a class through which literally hundreds of St. Olaf students have passed. It serves a diverse student population of various majors and concentrations and a lot of general education students. It’s not uncommon for me to get notes on course evaluations or at the bottom of final exams that read “this course really opened my eyes.” In short, it’s a class that gets the job done. You’re probably wondering why, then, reboot it. Honestly, it came about mostly by accident.

Without really meaning to, though, once I practiced lesson #6 above — intentionality — change cascaded forth and I just went with it.

It started with the readings. Last year this class went on online abruptly and it became a lot harder to use the books I had already assigned, so I went in a different direction that seemed better suited to the Zoom void: I assigned a textbook that includes scholarly articles, excerpts from important monographs, and primary sources.

That choice turned out to offer unexpected advantages. For one, I discovered that while my old reading list was carefully selected to offer coverage in an “about” sort of way (a book about enslaved women, one about a Japanese-American family and internment, etc.), shorter analytic articles interspersed with primary sources went beyond “about,” helping students to see patterns and draw connections, to examine the past analytically instead of learning about it.

The grandmother of Professor of History Judy Kutulas poses for a photo with her children and niece in 1933.
The grandmother of Professor of History Judy Kutulas poses for a photo with her children and niece in 1933.

I enhanced what the reader provided with statistics, biographies, material culture, video streams, and pop cultural artifacts, adding enough variety to engage everyone with something and make everybody an expert in something at some point (lesson #4). I told my Greek grandmothers’ immigrant stories in ways that I hope encouraged my students to insert their family stories into our narratives. Instead of essays and papers, my students are building virtual museums, analyzing posters and advertisements, and using St. Olaf yearbooks (lesson #7).

And then partway into the semester, eight people were murdered outside of Atlanta, six of them Asian-American women, just as the class was talking about immigration and reading an excerpt from Judy Yung’s wonderful Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. If any moment required that historians-in-the-making confront the present through the past, this was it. I sent the class links to opinion pieces in the New York Times, including one that cited Yung’s work. I reminded the class about readings we had already done about indigenous women and Black women, intersectionality, and white male gazes, and then we talked. It was both a teaching moment and a human one because, as I reminded the class, you can’t make change without understanding what needs to change and why.

I’m trying to make sure my intentions, expectations, and even my logic are all perfectly clear. In advance of each class, I send out something that I think will help students make sense of the day’s work, whether it’s a PowerPoint onto which they can take notes, a handout, or even just a question. I’ve done less-intentional versions of this in the past. This more thoughtful version took shape early in the semester following a Zoom meeting with a student to discuss their accommodations. The student said, “It helps a lot to have some structure for taking notes.” And then I also heard what was unspoken: that your support can give me better access to the class, reduce my anxiety, and lessen my load.

Overall, the class is going well. I can tell that the students are doing the reading and applying it. They seemed to enjoy one of those unorthodox assignments I like to invent, contributing to an online museum of 19th century American women’s lives. I enjoyed looking at their entries. I even enjoyed grading their entries because they made me want to have conversations with them, which I sometimes did via email. The scolding voice of Mrs. Cox, my 12th grade English teacher who was a stickler for grammar, never came out of my mouth. Everyone is showing up to virtual class or, if they aren’t, have been candid with me about their reasons why not. And I have taken their words for it.

Truthfully, and maybe it’s just because it’s my last semester, it’s been satisfying. I feel more like their ally than the adversary who holds their GPA in my hands. I feel like we have all developed, as Aretha would say, respect for one another as we TCB, take care of business.

I started this post thinking I would offer some tips for retooling when we reach some semblance of the New Normal, and here I am ending it with the advice that you rethink everything you do as a teacher. There are a million reasons why you shouldn’t and two pretty compelling ones why you should: one benefiting your students and one liberating you from the past. Don’t just finally get a haircut when the magical moment when you safely can finally arrives; shed some of your old teaching self too. It’s liberating.

Of course, that could be because as we reach the end of the COVIDtunnelen, I’ll be taking the avkjøring marked “retirement.” (Associate Professor of Norwegian Kari Lie Dorer, I sure hope I got that word right because I’ve been waiting my whole life to put a slash through an o.)

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.