Adventures in the New Humanities: The queen of interdisciplinary studies
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.
I am a square peg who spent a lot of her life struggling in a world full of round holes. This is particularly true of my educational life, where I always wanted something different than what was available — perhaps suggesting an admirable nonconformity, but I used to assume it was just my own quirkiness/stubbornness. I knew I could think outside the box, but it seemed like a talent of limited applicability, like being able to wiggle your ears. When I got to St. Olaf, I discovered otherwise.
I had no knowledge of the liberal arts, of the idea of being broadly educated, indeed, of being ENCOURAGED to think outside the box and take command of one’s own education.
There are some students and teachers who arrive at St. Olaf as neatly rounded pegs happy to fit into the round holes that traditional education provides, and that’s great. For students, our general education curriculum provides ample opportunities to sample, explore, and experiment and still be coloring within the liberal arts’ more generous lines. Teachers too automatically get pushed outside their training because in the liberal arts we have to be generalists. At St. Olaf, we provide a nice blend of safety and challenge.
The rest of us — and you know who you are — are seduced beyond the traditional broad liberal arts curriculum, and we somehow quickly find those little warrens of opportunity. The square hole beckons once, and then again, taking you farther afield each time. Before you know it, you’ve wandered into my territory.
I can’t claim to have created interdisciplinary studies at St. Olaf, but I am interdisciplinary royalty, having been crowned queen of it by my interdisciplinary mentor, the late Professor of History, American Studies, and Environmental Studies Jim Farrell (more on this later). As I am also an emissary of what I’ve been calling the NEW Humanities, I would be remiss in my compact with the college if I didn’t point out how much virtually any curriculum would be lacking without interdisciplinarity.
Doing interdisciplinary work at St. Olaf College is a bit like being a guerrilla. You are dressed in disciplinary camouflage, but crawling on your belly through the interdisciplinary weeds. We fly under a lot of radars (more on that, too, is coming). We are intensely, some might say fanatically, committed to our causes. We know we are in the vanguard.
Like a lot of people in my generation of Ole profs, I came to the college somewhat, shall we say, contingently. That meant that whatever anyone asked me to teach, I taught. Generally, that was the broader general education classes (GE) in the History Department so that the regular faculty could teach more majors. Some people hate teaching GE, but that’s where you can still find me, tweaking those classes intended for non-majors and inventing new ones that make more sense to a square peg like me. I can’t remember anymore if my antics caught somebody’s eye or if I just asked, but somehow I also ended up in the college’s old alternative college, the Paracollege, surrounded by people madly crayoning outside the lines. Once I started inventing new Paracollege courses (Leisure! Media! TV!), I was ready for anything.
Some people hate teaching GE, but that’s where you can still find me, tweaking those classes intended for non-majors and inventing new ones that make more sense to a square peg like me.
It doesn’t take much interdisciplining before word gets outs that you are undaunted by centuries of disciplinary conventions. Soon I was teaching sections of what was then Women’s Studies and loving the freedom as well as the level of student engagement with material that so often felt meaningful and relevant to us all. After hosting a speaker who did some really interesting stuff with women and media (also where I got my sassy voice), Susan Douglas, I ended up on the team creating Media Studies, where I got the blood lust for curricular innovation. This led to helping to create more interdisciplinary programs, like Film Studies and American Conversations. Soon, to borrow from Star Trek, I was emboldened to seek out new worlds, running two interdisciplinary programs at once and being crazy enough to try my hand at the intro to Film Studies after one January Boldt seminar and one summer faculty development grant-funded workshop.
At this juncture, I must pause and give my shoutout to Jim Farrell, who inspired and encouraged me to boldly go into some relatively uncharted territory, the same as he inspired countless students to do. I won’t quite make his record of teaching in four departments or programs outside his own (American Studies, Art History, Education, and Environmental Studies), the Paracollege, and American Conversations, although I come close (three, Paracollege, and Amcon). Here is a link that allows you to listen to his before-they-were-called-that interdisciplinary podcasts about things like escalators and Valentine’s Day. Jim was always ahead of his time.
Like Jim, interdisciplinary thinking is a way of life for those of us who prefer not to be fettered by disciplinary conventions and structures. There are costs to that mindset, but also incredible advantages. Interdisciplinary thinking makes one nimble. You learn to be flexible and trust your ability to react to the unexpected. You are open to difference. Interdisciplinary work isn’t just a methodological approach; so too is it a set of experiences that build up until they give you confidence that you can handle things. You have figured out how to put a square peg in a round hole so, clearly, you’ve got to be invincible. Where else do you think I got this ego?
Interdisciplinary thinking makes one nimble. You learn to be flexible and trust your ability to react to the unexpected. You are open to difference.
Going all interdisciplinary as a teacher had made me both fearless and insufferably confident. Women are often faulted for being timid and too self-effacing as scholars, but I don’t think anybody would ever accuse me of timidity or humbleness. I wasn’t trained for anything I write these days. Sometimes, I break new ground. I see that same confidence in students in interdisciplinary classes. They have opened themselves up to new ways of thinking and it gives them confidence. They have done something hard and flourished at it.
In disciplines, the parameters are often laid out for you; you insert yourself into a scholarly conversation, as we like to say. Step outside the disciplinary framework and you face what second-wave feminist Jo Freeman called the “tyranny of structurelessness,” which disturbed her — hence the word “tyranny” — but feels like liberation to me.
Here’s how one of my students described interdisciplinary thinking: taking two things that don’t seem like they go together and putting them together and explaining why it makes sense. You pose the question and figure out the answer.
Interdisciplinary work is problem-solving without a net, and that’s why I love it and why so many of our students crave it.
Interdisciplinary work is problem-solving without a net, and that’s why I love it and why so many of our students crave it. Did your basic psychology class introduce you to the concept of functional fixedness? Mine did, and it’s a lesson I’ve carried with me ever since.
Functional fixedness is the bias to see things as they are culturally defined to be. I suppose thinking outside the box would be its opposite, literally true, as I recall, of the example in my old psych text book, which involved a box of thumbtacks, a box of matches, and a candle to be mounted and lit. Empty the box of matches or thumbtacks, thumbtack it to the wall, and set the candle in it and, voila, you have solved the problem, but you have to get past the notion that the box is just the receptacle for matches.
Part of the point of college is to break down our inclinations toward fixedness, whether it is cultural or institutional biases, disciplinary baggage, or that infernal five-paragraph essay that high school teachers teach. It is especially important now as we turn our attention to what I think we all can agree is a pretty challenging future.
As educators, it’s our job to break down fixedness. Even when we teach the classics, we teach our students to approach them with open eyes and minds fully engaged. They need to be able to take things apart in order to understand and evaluate them. How else will they be prepared to invent new things, make amazing discoveries, or see old problems in new ways? Flexibility and creativity are absolutely necessary in life as well as the current job market.
Even when we teach the classics, we teach our students to approach them with open eyes and minds fully engaged. They need to be able to take things apart in order to understand and evaluate them. How else will they be prepared to invent new things, make amazing discoveries, or see old problems in new ways? Flexibility and creativity are absolutely necessary in life as well as the current job market.
Interdisciplinary work is one really good way to fight functional fixedness. Maybe we should put that motto on some St. Olaf T-shirts: FIGHTING FUNCTIONAL FIXEDNESS.
Interdisciplinary programs are constantly growing at the college, often the harbingers of innovation. Our students gravitate to them as they try to find their own paths through our curriculum. Some are Interdisciplinary and General Studies (IGS) junkies, like the three students in my American Studies seminar who followed me there from a history class by way of a film studies class. There are a lot of square pegs out there just embarking on searches for meaning and relevance and things that speak to them.
One of the reasons why we have a Film Studies program was that so many students were designing their own film majors through the Center for Integrative Studies that it made sense to serve that population, although I would not also discount the out-of-the-box thinking and determination of Professor Emerita of English Diana Postlethwaite doing what I’m doing now, Boldt-chairing. Faculty members thinking out-of-the-box and then acting is an equally important contributor to both the founding and maintenance of interdisciplinary programs here. That too is the liberal arts, far more dependent on individuals than big public universities with their bureaucracies.
Unfortunately, being dependent on the determined labor of square pegs is also a weakness. Interdisciplinary programs don’t quite fit. Newly hired professors shy away from them, not because they don’t call to them, but because their disciplinary chairs advise them to do so, to establish themselves in their home departments. Shared appointments are few and far between, in part because, again, they don’t fit into established categories and seem somehow to complicate tenure and promotion. Anyone who has ever run an interdisciplinary program knows it’s thankless work that comes with little reward. Numerous associate deans of interdisciplinary studies have tried to solve the unpredictable nature of their staffing, all without avail. As the creators of programs retire, the next generation is — rightly — less willing to take on the sacrifices the first generation made to bring programs into being. And since I’m close to retirement, I’ll poke at the bear of American Studies, a perfectly fine program for which I am teaching the last-ever course. Interdisciplinary programs, unlike disciplines, can just go away. The reality is that interdisciplinary programs rarely exist for purely logical reasons. They exist — or they don’t — because of the determination of people with passion to bring them into existence and keep them running.
Now do you see what I mean about the guerrilla qualities of interdisciplinary programs? Some days it feels like we are the foot soldiers in a quiet educational revolution.
If you need more convincing, consider this: A lot of our interdisciplinary programs were established after the 1960s, a moment that historians often refer to as “revolutionary” in terms of challenging the ways things were. This was also a moment when college students across the country began to seize more control over their educations. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
For a second, I’m going to revert to my disciplinary self (where, alas, I hold no royal titles) and give you a history lesson. The Paracollege came along in 1969; the precursors to two thriving current programs, American Racial and Multicultural Studies (now Race and Ethnic Studies) and Women’s Studies (now Women’s and Gender Studies) in the 1970s; and the Great Conversation in 1980, all riding on that 1960s revolutionary crest. The Paracollege may not still be with us (although our current president is an interdisciplinary-thinking product of it), but Great Con has spawned any number of interdisciplinary conversations programs, which might just as well be called learning communes (so ’60s!) as learning communities. Currently nearly a third of our first-year students enrolls in one in search of the opportunity to immerse themselves in interdisciplinary thinking.
We currently offer 18 concentrations, all of which, by definition, have to be interdisciplinary. More than a third of our students graduate with at least one concentration and the numbers graduating with concentrations have grown in the past 10 years from 239 to 314 per class. Most add a concentration as a way to personalize their programs of study and combine their interests with their future careers, like adding a Women’s and Gender Studies concentration to a pre-med major because you might want to specialize in women’s health after you leave St. Olaf, or a management studies concentration to your art major anticipating a day when you will need to manage your own arts business.
Interdisciplinary majors are growing as well. In 10 years, Race and Ethnic Studies quadrupled its number of majors, and Environmental Studies and Asian Studies are also adding majors.
Interdisciplinary majors particularly support our efforts at equity and inclusion as they are places where we, to borrow a Jim Farrell word, “complexify” thinking, challenge paradigms, and acknowledge our multiple selves and identities.
Face it: interdisciplinarity is the wave of the future. It may not be the only way forward, but it is an important place of strength in our curriculum.
So I urge all of my fellow faculty members: if you haven’t already, color outside the lines before you leave here. Teach an interdisciplinary class if the opportunity presents itself, or seek one out. You will be rewarded with engaged students and a freedom that is both exhilarating and a little terrifying, but in a good way. You may find your scholarship will be refreshed. Who knows, maybe someday there will be T-shirts, definitely camo-patterned for the guerilla qualities of interdisciplinary work, and with that functional-fixedness motto.
I urge all of my fellow faculty members: if you haven’t already, color outside the lines before you leave here. Teach an interdisciplinary class if the opportunity presents itself, or seek one out. You will be rewarded with engaged students and a freedom that is both exhilarating and a little terrifying, but in a good way.
Once you are dressed in that camo tee, moreover, advocate for interdisciplinarity at the college. Faculty play an important role in keeping them vital.
When it comes time to advise students about next fall, support the eager interdisciplinary seeker and nudge the timid ones. Judging from the former students I talk to, it’s much of what they will use often later in their lives and what they often remember most fondly about their time here.
And now, if you will excuse me, I must go polish my crown.
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.