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Adventures in the New Humanities: What would Lucy do?

Professor of History Judy Kutulas with the "I Love Lucy" sign in her office.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas with the “I Love Lucy” sign in her office.

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.

What would Lucy do?

Okay, maybe it’s a flip question in a decidedly serious time, but the truth is, like many other people, I’ve been finding my comfort these days in the unreality of sitcoms. Unlike most people, though, sitcoms are a serious business for me because I am writing a book on them. Thus, while I find personal comfort in the predictable minor disruptions that occur and are quickly repaired in virtually any sitcom plot, I must, as a scholar, dissect and analyze those shows. You can ask the librarians if you have any doubts, as I have paged a bunch of books about the television business and ordered a lot of articles via interlibrary loans with titles like “Does Father Still Know Best: An Inductive Thematic Analysis of Popular TV Sitcoms.”

At some point, though, possibly after one too many episodes of what scholar David Marc calls the “magicoms” involving witches, ghouls, and things that shouldn’t talk but do (horses, cars), it occurred to me that I was approaching my life all wrong. Others may disagree, but I’m tired of living in a drama or a reality series where life keeps handing me too many simultaneous challenges. I want to live in a sitcom.

I’m tired of living in a drama or a reality series where life keeps handing me too many simultaneous challenges. I want to live in a sitcom.

Certainly, a laugh track couldn’t hurt right now. As I considered the rueful futility of trying to plan anything juxtaposed against the necessity of planning, moreover, I realized that I’m in what anyone in Seinfeld would call a bizarro universe, so I might as well take advantage of it. Unfortunately, like Seinfeld, my sitcom cannot be about nothing. It’s also going to lack all those sitcom staples: too many dads and no moms, a sidekick willing to support my every hairbrained idea, some really good-looking young New Yorkers hanging out at a coffee house or a bar way too much, or any cute little kids.

Still, welcome to my sitcom. As it is traditional for stars to get their name in the title, my sitcom is going to be called Hey, Judy!, a nice play on the Beatles’ tune. The exclamation point, of course, is non-negotiable. The premise of my sitcom is deceptively simple and probably deeply familiar to all of you: an academic prepares for a fall semester that will be anything but orderly and predictable.

An image of "Hey, Judy!" on yellow and white background.
“As it is traditional for stars to get their name in the title, my sitcom is going to be called Hey, Judy!, a nice play on the Beatles’ tune. The exclamation point, of course, is non-negotiable. The premise of my sitcom is deceptively simple and probably deeply familiar to all of you: an academic prepares for a fall semester that will be anything but orderly and predictable,” Professor of History Judy Kutulas writes.

Overall, sitcoms set in academe have been few and far between, limited to Community and Third Rock from the Sun. Academics did not fare well in either, but I am forging on.

The elevator pitch for my sitcom, because you must have one, is that I am an old dog who wants to want to learn some new tricks, but because it is my last year of teaching before retirement, is having trouble with the whole premise of academic life right now. Ditto the uncertainty. Ditto the multiple scenarios, looming scariness, and potential danger. The script for my last year of teaching, after all, was supposed to be laden with words like “pleasure,” “culmination,” and, if I’m honest, “coasting.” But I opened my script and the words “fear,” “flexibility,” and “unpredictable” appear much too often. In response, I’ve let out a number of Lucy-like wails.

Given my Golden-Girl age, I have more control over my fall destiny than do most of my colleagues. I was able to ask for and get accommodations. In sitcom terms, one of my fall classes will be live in front of a studio audience and the other filmed. Translated, I am teaching one course entirely online and the second as a hybrid. I was able to request a locale — Viking Theater — that made sense for one course (Film Studies) and seemed spacious enough for a seminar, as well as putting me safely up on a stage. I do love a good stage. Like several sitcom characters, I harbor the secret belief that I am suited for a career in show business, even though I cannot sing, dance, or act.

My frame of mind as I start to plan can be best characterized as resistant. Let’s just acknowledge that nobody is happy about having to start the school year early and while facing so many unknowns that require that you think about contingencies and deal with the unfamiliar and unpredictable. I also harbor a lot of ongoing course-planning fears. If I don’t sneak up on my planning and then, to cite the title of a sitcom I’ll probably be writing about at some point, take it one day at a time, I panic and curl up into a little ball, fearful about making one small bad decision that will snowball into the failure of a course. It does have a sitcom sound.

Experts — and I’m not really sure what to call the field they are experts in (is there a field of procrastination studies? It would be a growth field and a really good sitcom premise), so let’s just call them experts — advise people like me to break down bigger challenges into smaller pieces. I can do this. I mean, in one episode of I Love Lucy, Lucy wrote a whole operetta without any expertise and Michael Scott on The Office opened a rival paper company to Dunder Mifflin with no capital at all, so surely I can plan my courses, right? I have both expertise and experience going for me and more than 30 years of teaching, even if I’ve only ever taught half of a semester online.

A pile of books that Professor of History Judy Kutulas is using to inform her own writing about sitcoms.
Just some of the books that Professor of History Judy Kutulas is using to inform her own writing about sitcoms.

Generally, I deal with my procrastination problem by setting a starting date of August 1, but this year, given the earlier start, I started in June. Of course, my first action was to order a supply of stylish masks, the 2020 version of when a 1950s sitcom housewife overspends her household budget on a new hat when she ought to be planning a dinner party. At least I didn’t sink my savings into a uranium mine, which is a plot on more than one 1950s sitcoms. Please note, I have just taught you something about sitcoms.

As I have a fear of making decisions about teaching, I traditionally start by figuring out how many days of class I have to fill with learning. So, I did what I usually do and printed off those semester schedules Professor of Chemistry Bob Hanson provides us with.

I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to do something familiar.

Judging from campus emails, I am not the only person who starts her course planning that way. Associate Professor of Spanish Kristina Medina Vilariño sent out a list of the fall semester week-by-week to the faculty, and Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Hannah Ryan sent the link to a syllabus-generating tool. I haven’t investigated the syllabus-generating tool quite yet, but it sounds like the academic version of something Homer Simpson might seek out if he were smarter, so definitely worth a peek. Moodle, now accessible for the upcoming school year, also sets up your weeks for you.

After that first taxing step, I made pizza dough from scratch because trying to toss a pizza seemed comfortingly sitcom-like. Unfortunately, no laugh track accompanied my endeavors and the pizza was shaped like an amoeba, yet quite edible. The kitchen was sitcom-level messy and I lacked the magical sitcom ability to clean it whether through a twitch of the nose or simply a cut-to-a-new-scene action. My kitchen stayed stubbornly messy until I donned my June Cleaver pearls and heels and cleaned it.

In the next scene, I attended a Zoom about Zooming, one of numerous summer training opportunities that are archived on the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts (CILA) and Digital Scholarship Center at St. Olaf (DiSCO) websites. Because I used Google Meet last spring, but need the Zoom breakout rooms for my online class, I decided to zoom into Zoom. I learned a lot. Most importantly, I watched Assistant Director of Instructional Technology Ben Gottfried and Instructional Technologist for Digital Humanities Doug Hamilton handle the technology about 95 percent perfectly, which I took as permission to not have to be flawless. I’m going to aim for about a 75 percent success rate.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas took notes on Zoom at the bottom of a lesson plan.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas took notes on Zoom at the bottom of a lesson plan.

Practice makes 75 percent perfect, so I tried to set up a Zoom on my own and the person I was Zooming ended up in Meet while I was in Zoom. If that isn’t a sitcom plot premise, I don’t know what is. I consulted my notes from the Zoom on Zooming, but the notation “make sure to remove Meet” is a little unspecific. So are my notes, which I scribbled on the bottom of a sheet of paper where I mapped out my first Panopto mini-lecture with a Power Point. All of this made me feel like Penny from The Big Bang Theory, unable to fathom all the smart stuff going on around her.

The next time I scheduled a Zoom, I managed to remove Meet, just like my cryptic note said, but seemingly also Zoom, so my advisee and I were on different Zooms. My notes didn’t cover this, but it too seems a classic workplace sitcom predicament. Rather than asking what Dwight Schrute would do, I think I’ll opt for the safer alternative and just email Ben or Doug.

The experience reminded me of one more thing that should go on any fall syllabus, a technological plan B. My students should all know from day one what to do if I end up in Meet when they are in Zoom or vice versa or anything else happens, like one of those little “internet unstable” messages starts appearing on my screen. I gave this some thought and decided my class should check email immediately since if internets go down, smart phones usually still work. I’m going to try to remember to put that on my syllabus, as soon as (a) I decide how I’m going to deliver my syllabus (Moodle, Google classroom, as a good old-fashioned Google doc) and (b) I actually write my syllabus.

Meanwhile, I moved on to my other class, or, in sitcom terms, my B plot, the smaller story that can later be axed in syndication to make room for more commercials, streaming services excepted. Now you’ve learned something else about sitcoms; I must be an amazing teacher. My confidence has just soared to unhealthy Kramer-like levels.

Using my Bob Hanson grid, I mapped out the topics for my America Since 1945 class, one I have taught about 40 times now, which is also a class I’m converting from the familiar first-year seminar into an online mostly-lecture class for everyone. There are several big unknowns about it as of right now, including how many of those who enroll will be able to show up for live 8 a.m. classes three days a week. I wrote my usual set of topics into the schedule grid, which means that I already have a set of readings to go with them. I’ll have to send out a poll to figure out the composition of my class and then do the rest. In the meantime, I expect my family will be getting more homemade amoeba pizza in the near future.

I then switched back to my A plot with all the determination of Leslie Knopf from Parks and Rec. Having broken my first-and-last-time-I’ll-ever-teach-it Film Studies course, U.S. Films of the 1960s and 1970s, into three units that will not easily correspond to the college’s half-the-course-by-October-1st edict (a completely Knopf-like move), I picked all the films the class ought to watch.

That seemed dangerously final enough that I had to watch some Frasier. There is an episode where he is supposed to write a jingle for his radio program that he turns into an extravaganza with orchestra, chorus, and narration. It was a good reminder to do what all those experts have been telling us: keep it simple. Of course, I also realized that my sitcom needs a theme song. Maybe somebody in the Music Department might want to write that assignment into their syllabus.

My scene three began when I had a casual conversation with a Carleton College professor standing out on my street corner. We compared notes about last year and she observed that because their whole spring term was distanced, she thought it went better than having to convert mid-semester, like St. Olaf did. She said she was able to establish routines from the beginning. That made me realize that I could separate the form of my class from its content, determine the form, and then fill with content. If mine had been an animated sitcom, a light bulb would have appeared over my head.

By “form,” I mean a predictable pattern of what will happen when. Both me and the class will benefit if specific things happen on specific days of the week. Since Mondays are given over to film-watching in my film class, then clearly Wednesdays have to be devoted to discussing the film we all just watched, which means that Fridays might be a good place for a hybrid format. It simplifies planning now for me and will simplify teaching and learning later, at least once everybody is on Zoom rather than Meet or vice versa. I have now populated 2/3rds of my film class days! I celebrated by watching the opening credits from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which are quite jazzy and fun. And if you were a child of the 90s, you might also want to check out Blossom’s opening credits, which feature a teenage Mayim Bialik cavorting in a very un-Amy Farrah Fowler way.

I apologize if I am distracting you from your important fall planning; however, I would not be a true sitcom character if I didn’t try to suck you into my obsession now, would I?

In a brief flash of Danny Tanner from Full House organization, I had my first canned Panopto ready to go by the 4th of July. I have not watched it, but I fear the production quality is not up to sitcom snuff. I then started to think about Panopto #2, condensing the whole of U.S. history in the 1960s and 1970s into a 15-minute background presentation for my film class. Having taught whole classes on the 1970s as well as having written a book on aspects of the 1970s, I’m confident this will go badly, somewhere along the lines of when Lucy and Ethel had to wrap chocolates on an assembly line. Therefore, I have decided that that presentation was best done in person up on the Viking Theater stage. I guess I really do want to be in show business as much as Lucy Ricardo. Another two class days populated!

Meanwhile, I adopted the persona of a responsible sitcom working woman like Mary Richards (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) or Liz Lemon (30 Rock) and asked for help. I Zoomed with DiSCO’s Jason Paul about film resources. Jason set up the Zoom, so we were both in the same virtual place at the same time and I became a temporary guest star on his sitcom, Jason Knows Best.

Actually, there are a lot of people on campus who are in the know, so I’ll pause for a commercial and tell you about some places you can visit for help, advice, and moral support. There’s an entire site devoted to Hybrid Teaching and Learning, and the CILA site has resources on hybrid teaching as well as anti-racist and inclusivity advice for your syllabi and your classes.

There are also places on our St. Olaf website where you can live chat with people from the Registrar’s Office or the libraries, not to mention all those parts of IT you can just email, like the Help Desk or Moodle. There are also links to the host of statements that should be on your syllabus to indicate support for all your students, and disability and access statements and ideas for hybrid and online teaching.

After consulting with Jason, I put all my potential shows on reserve at the library as DVDs. Reserves are super-simple and wonderfully repetitive if you do a lot of them at once. I’m pretty sure even Gilligan could manage it without wrecking the Professor’s scheme for getting off the island. It’s nice to have a calmer moment in a story.

Some of the shows Professor of History Judy Kutulas has in her collection.
Some of the shows Professor of History Judy Kutulas has in her collection.

Sadly, folks, we have reached the end of our episode. Did I forget to mention that I am following the sitcom convention introduced in the 1970s, when sitcoms decided to become relevant, the multi-part story line? My bad, but you did just learn one more thing about sitcoms. In the meantime, I’m realizing that thanks to advance planning, I’m becoming less a sitcom zany and more the moral center of an ensemble series, like Sheriff Andy on The Andy Griffith Show or Mary Richards herself. I might actually start my last year of teaching organized, prepared, and slightly wise. I did not see that coming!

Next on Hey, Judy!, Judy finally ends up in the right Zoom at the right time.

Laugh track. Applause. Roll closing credits. This sitcom has been brought to you by the Boldt Chair.

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.