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Adventures in the New Humanities: We’re in the Zone, but it’s The Twilight Zone

Professor of History Judy Kutulas poses for a first-day-of-class selfie.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas poses for a first-day-of-class selfie, looking remarkably calm after taking four attempts to set up the Zoom link for her class.

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.

If you are of a certain age — or possibly even younger — there is eerie music playing in your head right now, the theme music from The Twilight Zone. I hope you aren’t tired of television metaphors yet, because I’m invoking another one. Folks, we are in The Twilight Zone, with a soupcon of what The Rocky Horror Picture Show called “a bit of a time slip,” you know, those first two weeks of online teaching to be followed by more online teaching or hybrid teaching or teaching outside until the first snow, to be followed by who knows what.

The fact that I am moving from sitcoms to science fiction is not a good sign. As Twilight Zone host Rod Serling used to say at the beginning of each episode of the series, we are about to enter a new dimension “beyond shadow and substance, of things and ideas,” which doesn’t sound so bad until you remember that good old Rod had an entire crew to write, shoot, perform, and package his Panopto-equivalences. We do not. Also, he simply narrated episodes; we get to live them.

Everyone I’ve talked to is nervous/worried/scared. The very thought of teaching seems considerably more daunting than it did last spring. Last spring was an improvised endeavor; this fall we had ample time to plan. Expectations are high. One need only communicate with a first-year student to read, or hear, or virtually see that they are exclamation-point and squeaky-voiced excited. Returning students are looking forward to returning and hoping for a version of what Warren G. Harding might have called “normalcy,” even though they too might be hearing eerie music in their heads.

And we, despite all our fears, concerns, worries, and insecurities, have high expectations for ourselves. As an institution, we have always taken teaching seriously, but in the Twilight Zone of what The New York Times calls the “strangest year,” there is no normalcy, only shifting sands.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas gives her face mask a try as she returns to campus.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas gives her face mask a try as she returns to campus.

Always-wise Associate Professor Emerita of History Dolores Peters, watching the last all-campus Zoom, observed that the moment when President David Anderson — like a narrating Rod Serling — declared that the campus coffee shop, The Cage, would not be open was the moment when The Twilight Zone theme song went from a low buzz in our ears to a soaring anthem of despair. That’s my metaphor, not hers. I’d make some rude comment about how not being able to worship at the pastry counter might be the least of our worries right now, but it’s what The Cage symbolizes: community. We are more alone than ever. Or are we?

It turns out we are not alone, and by that I don’t mean I believe in extraterrestrials.  The resources we rely on to make our courses the splendiferous liberal arts classes they usually are have been adjusted, but are still there. And for those of you feeling like that poor fellow in The Twilight Zone episode finally alone with his books following some kind of apocalypse, but with broken glasses, there are virtual places to get your glasses fixed.

I have found two virtual teaching communities to be particularly helpful. The first is the collective Moodle teaching forum. To get there, just go to your Moodle homepage and join, post your questions, and prepare to feel intimidated by your colleagues’ imaginative solutions to the challenges that face us. The second useful place for community is the informal Facebook teaching forum for St. Olaf faculty and staff.

The opportunity to share teaching strategies with your St. Olaf colleagues can, as always, happen via the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts (CILA). CILA head Mary Titus reports that CILA lunches will be virtual as long as they need to be and that since no feeding of people is involved, I should not call them CILA lunches anymore — unless, of course, Bon Appetit wants to deliver us some of those yummy pastries (hint, hint). Fall topics are likely to include discussions raised by the summer’s workgroups on such subjects as creating community, so very relevant. CILA also provides us with information about anti-racist teaching.

On that subject, two alumni of our Race and Ethnic Studies program, Israa Khalifa and Or Pansky (both class of 2020) have developed a new online teaching resource on critical race and indigenous studies as part of Race’s To Include is To Excel grant. They are being beta-tested now and Race’s program director, Associate Professor of English Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, will send all faculty members a link to them in the near future if she hasn’t already.

As for teaching enhancements, the things that generally add value and meaning to our courses, the general rule of thumb is that most everything is available, just different. Yes, we are stretched to The Outer Limits (another TV sci-fi show), but to quote Star Trek (which I presume needs no introduction), we are “boldly going” into Pandemic teaching with all the fervor of [fill in your favorite Enterprise captain’s name here. Mine is Jean-Luc].

Yes, we are stretched to The Outer Limits (another TV sci-fi show), but to quote Star Trek (which I presume needs no introduction), we are “boldly going” into Pandemic teaching with all the fervor of [fill in your favorite Enterprise captain’s name here. Mine is Jean-Luc].

Still, there are things we can know and count on. The truth, as they say on The X Files, is out there.

The Digital Scholarship Center at St. Olaf (DiSCO), for instance, will be open once the library is, probably September 3. Some of the furniture will be gone to create more physical distancing, so it will look and function differently. The DiSCO classroom will become student workspace rather than a classroom as it will only hold up to six people at once. The kinds of services DiSCO might provide your class can occur remotely, including asynchronously. Why not? They have the video studio right there. That video studio, by the way, will only hold two people now, and the audio recording rooms one person per room. I learned all of this from Assistant Director of Instructional Technology Ben Gottfried, who can probably tell you if things like virtual reality or that nifty table with the sand and the little house are even possible.

Instructional Technologist for Digital Media Ezra Plemons reports that we should assume the makerspace, the Cave, won’t be open for classes to visit. He can, however, consult with you about supply kits should you decide to conduct what might under other circumstances happen in the Cave in a more-spacious outdoor environment. If my America Since 1945 class that usually invents a 1950s suburb wasn’t virtual this term, you might have seen the latest version of Springfield USA in chalk sprawling across one of those cement circles out in the quad. I hear bookbinding kits will be awaiting students in Assistant Professor of History Stephanie Montgomery’s History 250: China, Past and Present. Remember that Ezra, Ben, and all the DiSCO folks can help you imagine alternative problem-solving opportunities to the problem-solving alternatives you usually provide your students. It’s where they excel.

Feeling intimidated yet?

Librarian for Special Collections and Archives Instructions Jillian Sparks has already been working with professors interested in enabling remote learning experiences with our Special Collections resources. Remember that a number of those relating to the college itself are easily available online. To give you some ideas, here’s the link to Jillian’s teaching guide.

Jillian can help you imagine all sorts of interesting possibilities. Assistant Professor of Writing Bridget Draxler got there first, and now her Writing 110 class will have virtual access to some artist-activist posters in one of our collections (you can see them if you click here), will speak remotely with one of their creators, and will make their own, not in the Cave this year, probably using Google Slides. Maybe that gives you some idea of the range of possibilities. Jillian can Zoom into your classes or pre-record something for your students.

If your class would usually visit the library and work with a librarian to help students plan research strategies for class projects, that can happen remotely. Head of Research and Instruction Jason Paul has been available all summer for consultations about library materials, but you can still contact him. If individual students need research assistance they can email the library or use the chat bubble that appears on the library homepage as well as each time you summon Catalyst. I’ve used that chat bubble a lot this summer and you usually get fast service unless, of course, it’s 2 a.m. and the project is due at 9 a.m.

These sorts of enhancements can provide opportunities for part of your hybrid class to be busy while the other part is in your physically distanced class. So too can they be a crucial part of a remote class where some of the students might not have ever been to campus before. They give everybody — you and your students — variety, always good. They help to remind students of the value of their educations here by showcasing the overlap between what happens in the classroom and the real world.

Did you get your course materials on reserve? It is the easiest thing imaginable, but you should also remember that some people aren’t on campus and that some who are Zooming in from abroad may not be able to get course materials so readily. If you need help figuring out how to make materials available to all students, even those studying from a distance, consult Jason Paul. He can also help with video access questions.

With respect to technology-related needs, the IT helpdesk (507-786-3236 — put it in your phone if you haven’t got it there already) will prioritize faculty needs. Everyone with a classroom should have a chance to consult with IT about what’s there before we move to hybrid teaching.

We’ve got art conveniently located on campus in the Flaten Art Museum (FAM) and art can do many things, not the least of which is getting your students thinking and engaged. Galleries in the Center for Art and Dance will be open for visits with new safety measures. Director and Curator Jane Becker Nelson ’04 is already working with faculty to set up gallery tours and object-based learning modules — both in person and virtually. Explore current exhibitions and collections, or contact Jane for ideas about integrating the museum’s resources into your courses.

If you’re thinking one way to give coherence and meaning to a class is to get them civically engaged, Assistant Director of Academic Civic Engagement Alyssa Melby’s ready for you and, like Ezra, prepared to be, as Provost Marci Sortor says, “nimble and flexible” about possibilities which, admittedly, might not be as plentiful as at other times. Here’s the Academic Civic Engagement page.

All tutoring services will occur remotely, including the writing tutors, some of whom have been embedded in all sections of Writing 107, 110, and 111. Here’s the link to the Center for Advising and Academic Support. There might be circumstances where you would want to touch base with somebody relevant in the office there. I know I’ll be in touch with Anne Berry about new college writers and distance writing in one of my classes.

The Institute for Freedom and Community has a whole fall series of virtual presentations on the theme of The Presidential Election and a Nation in Crisis, with speakers addressing everything from the election to COVID-19 to race. For further information about incorporating the fall series into your class, contact Assistant Director Erik Grell ’05.

Continuous reporting forms will trigger the attention of the Dean of Students Office, as always. As we learned last spring, it can be a little more complicated to figure out if a student is in distress, especially as they can’t always hang back after class or wander into your office hour with a concern. So, your strategy should be to err on the side of caution perhaps more than you usually would and figure that everyone feels a little lost already and having people reach out is a good thing. To reiterate on my theme, the Twilight Zone is both scary and lonely, and the Dean of Students Office can help protect our students from monsters on the wings of airplanes or reappearing hitchhikers. Twilight Zone aficionados hopefully got those references.

As I believe we heard in the all-campus Zoom, if a student, whether in one of your classes or one of your advisees, needs to speak to someone in the Counseling Center, those services will be available remotely as well. Here’s the link. Personally, I’m going to add that to all those resources we include on our syllabi and also point out there is a way to contact the Counseling Center in an emergency.

Still, our students are also resilient and forward-looking, so they may also want to be thinking about their futures beyond the Hill. If so, don’t forget to refer them to the Piper Center. Director Leslie Moore ’77 reports that they are already working on Interim and second-semester internships.

And with that, I think I’ll sign off from The Twilight Zone and think about television genres, just in case I want to turn my next post into a series of Jeopardy answers.

But first, please, everybody who is part of this collective endeavor, keep the faculty updated on useful resources and changing circumstances. We need to know. We can’t live in the Twilight Zone forever.

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.