St. Olaf College | News

Oles Versus the Pandemic: A Heroic, if Distanced, Tale

Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History Judy Kutulas delivered the keynote address at a virtual Honors Day celebration on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. Her speech, titled Oles Versus the Pandemic: A Heroic, if Distanced, Tale,” is reprinted below. Watch the full Honors Day Convocation on our digital archives.

“I’m refining on the fly and learning something new each time I teach,” I emailed a colleague after the first week of distance teaching. She told me it was a good enough line to start a talk with. And so, Dolores Peters, here it is. Opening a speech that is not the one I expected to be giving.

The one I wrote months ago seems irrelevant right now. Instead, I want to talk about what that opening line symbolizes: the unexpected lessons and experiences of this last term.

To do so, I’ve decided to employ a narrative frame my students might recognize, the hero saga.

The hero saga is a plot device described by Joseph Campbell that structures many of the stories we tell about ourselves. Hero sagas are narrative patterns that help give events meaning. So, today it’s Oles versus the pandemic and I have cast all of us in the roles of heroes. It is Honors Day, after all, so it seems only fitting to celebrate our many local heroes.

The premise of a hero saga is that an ordinary person, faced with adversity, becomes engaged, fights back, and is transformed by the experience. It’s the narrative arc that starts with Luke Skywalker finding the hologram of Princess Leia and ends with him fighting the Empire, for example, or Dorothy getting sucked into a tornado, landing in Oz, and then finishing off two wicked witches, both by accident. Thus, we must start with the ordinary, which in our case was spring semester, which was, as semesters go, initially pretty ordinary.

But then, with little fanfare, chaos arrived. Most anyone who was on campus knows exactly when it happened. On Monday before Spring Break we were still clutching at some semblance of ordinary. By Thursday, though, the order came down: “go home now if you can.” There was no time to think; no time to adjust; no time to remember to grab everything from your campus space before it was locked down. We became, the hero saga tells us, reluctant heroes thrown into the abyss.

Next in the hero saga come the trials that nudge our heroes into engagement. Our first were logistical. For students that meant boxes to be packed, flights to be booked, and frantic consultations with parents. For profs that meant mastering Panopto, Zoom, and Google Meet. These rather focused endeavors almost distracted us from the rising panic we all felt and the uncertainty that kept us awake at night. At some point in the process, however, we shifted from passively reacting, to actively planning, launching us on our ways.

Ours, though, were never solo acts. Our endeavors required support. Traditionally in the hero saga, heroes have sidekicks — just like Dorothy had the scarecrow and Luke had droids — but in our case, we just had other heroes. These other heroes taught us to work remotely, continue to feed people still sheltering on the Hill, keep us informed, make hard decisions about college finances, and a million other things. There are no sidekicks at Olaf. There are only main characters working collaboratively toward a collective outcome.

There are no sidekicks at Olaf. There are only main characters working collaboratively toward a collective outcome.

Yet we had to collaborate apart. Our next test was sheltering in place, and it’s been hard. While we all live with multiple identities, never have those roles clashed quite so much as they have these last weeks. We all struggle with new responsibilities. We all miss the ordinary rhythms of our lives. Seniors mourn the loss of closure, ceremony, and celebration. We feel guilty for being fallible, petty, or lucky. Most days, we haven’t felt very heroic.

But then the transitioning ended and, ready or not, we had to be engaged.

Day one of distance learning came too soon, but also finally. It was a heady moment, one all of us had looked forward to with some anticipation because it meant reclaiming our identities as teachers and students. I had 100% attendance in one of my classes, including students literally connecting in from across the International Date Line. It was so good to see one another that we all launched into that goofy double-handed Zoom wave. It felt good, but was it a new normal? As anyone familiar with the hero saga knows, you are only allowed a brief moment of temporary triumph before things get worse.

This stage in the hero saga is called bottoming out, that moment when you question whether or not you’ll be able to succeed. It’s Luke Skywalker in the trash compactor or Dorothy locked in the witch’s castle awaiting her fate. For many of us, it came at the end of the first week of distance learning and could be summarized in one word, unsustainable. Also, exhausting. It was all too much and too hard. Students found it impossible to focus and who could blame them? Faculty recognized the pace was impossible too. In an instance, we accepted that we weren’t superhuman and cut ourselves some slack. If you remember in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gets her hair and nails done before confronting the wizard. Even heroes need to practice self-care.

Traditionally, a hero saga features a last cataclysmic battle, like when Harry Potter defeats Voldemort. In our case, it hasn’t been quite so dramatic or so final, but we have accomplished something rather impressive. We have reinvented a liberal arts education. That has necessitated some heroic qualities from us all, but mostly something one of Dorothy’s pals had all along, courage.

The reason I was refining on the fly and learning something new each time I taught at the beginning of my talk is because what we are doing now is a constant improv. You can master the mechanics of distance teaching, but it really does take some courage to leap into the larger paradoxes of being an intensely-residential liberal arts college when you can’t be. We are still fighting this battle, chasing its variations and its unexpected challenges because it cannot defeat us.

To that end, we professors recorded probably too much course content, organized virtual movie nights, rigged document cameras from our phones, brought guests into our virtual classrooms, came as characters to our recorded lectures, and invented collaborative assignments that could be done on Jamboard. We paid attention when Pastor Katie told us our students longed for: some personal connections. So we have pointed our kids and dogs and, accidentally, our laundry baskets at cameras. Did you know that music professor Louis Epstein added opening credits and a theme song to his recorded lectures? Like Louis, we all tried our hardest to make our virtual classrooms individual, familiar, collaborative, and as intellectually satisfying as possible.

You students have been as heroically determined to hold onto the liberal arts as we are, under the most trying of circumstances.

You students have been as heroically determined to hold onto the liberal arts as we are, under the most trying of circumstances. You have sacrificed a lot, but still, you persisted. You showed up when you could to synchronous discussions or listened to the recordings when you couldn’t. You jumped into new collaborative endeavors. You triumphed over Moodle forums. You advocated for yourselves when we got overly-ambitious. You lingered at the end of one-on-one meetings and talked about future semesters, optimistic despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

I hope that being able to reclaim your identities as students has given you solace and hope. You have been so patient with our foibles and completely invested in making the best of a tough situation despite all the other challenges and disappointments you face. Experts tell us that the skills that will serve workers best in the future are creativity, flexibility, and collaboration. Congratulations, you’ve demonstrated these skills with honor. You have also exhibited the qualities represented by Dorothy’s other sidekicks: brains and heart. That combination is at the center of a liberal arts education, so well done there too. It’s OK if you’d be happy to trade those lessons for an in-person graduation. We would too.

The hero saga traditionally ends with the hero back in normal circumstances, but transformed. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait for normal or whether we’ll ever fully recreate what we had before? We have, however, already been transformed. We are more resilient, more empathetic, and more patient. We have endured and triumphed. So, I’ll end with a college motto updated for a virtual hill full of heroes: Oles can; Oles will; Oles already have.