Teaching as a Team Sport

Team-teaching is atypical. Not everyone has the opportunity or inclination to do it, and administrators usually are not eager to assign more than one professor to a single class. In the past decade, I have team-taught five different courses, with four colleagues. I’ve been doubly fortunate, first in getting to teach this way and, more important, in the congeniality of my co-instructors. Thus I mean to make a case for the practice, albeit one with hortatory observations.

The most obvious advantage of a team-taught course is interdisciplinary expertise. In any given course, we will be stronger and deeper on some topics than others, but a team-taught course can bring diverse methods to bear on complex topics. For instance, a mysticism course could benefit from the presence of a psychologist or philosopher. My first team-teaching attempt was of this sort: a course on challenges to modern democracy, staffed by a philosopher, a former English professor with extensive experience in public service, and myself (the organizing philosopher having regarded religion as one of the challenges). A second construction is the course with a wide historical span. Texas State’s Honors College has a two-semester humanities sequence, with the Renaissance as the approximate semester break. The College prefers to staff Humanities with two instructors from different departments – and different periods, typically an ancient-medieval specialist and a modernist. I know of at least one apocalypticism course on a similar model,* and I would teach apocalypticism that way if I could. Thus, various types of courses gain a great deal from having more than one instructor.

The second major benefit is that the structure allows us to model intellectual discourse in ways we can’t achieve alone. If students’ main experience of “discussion” consists of comment sections on the internet and cable television shows, then this aspect of team-teaching may be the greatest pedagogical benefit. In the collegial dialogue, we demonstrate joint contribution to a discussion, agreement grounded in knowledge, and exploration of disagreement in a non-hostile manner that maintains knowledge-building as the purpose. Even miscommunication works: we get to demonstrate the process of noticing when misunderstanding has occurred, locating its nature, and clarifying our positions. While all of these things happen in the standard format, they happen between professor and students, with the inevitable power and experience differential of those roles, or between students with professorial moderation. Among co-instructors, students can see how equals do this – and how different it is from a comments section or a tumblr.

For the most part, that dialogic demonstration unfolds naturally. However, instructors should frame it overtly from time to time. Some students may not notice that the discourse of the professors is also part of the instruction. Others may actively misconstrue it. If students come to the class with an unexamined model of education whereby the instructor transfers “information” to students, who then display it back – what Freire called the banking model** – then they may perceive departures from the unanimous imparting of information as failures. (What this looks like: teaching evaluation complaints that “professors disagreed,” when you and your colleague thought you were having great debates.) Only twice over five team-taught courses have I detected such an assumption, but the default model is so pervasive that co-teachers should actively distinguish their methods from it. Otherwise, some students may miss one of the most distinctive benefits of a team-taught course.

Now for the hortatory segment, although I shall continue to make a case.

Team-teaching does not cut your preparation time in half. It reduces some aspects of class prep, but others get more demanding. Colleagues must negotiate the division of labor, something one doesn’t have to spend time debating with oneself. (Procrastination doesn’t count.) If one person has primary responsibility for leading a session, the other still serves as discussant, and both respond to students. This is the model that my colleagues and I have generally followed; it admits of degrees of balance. Preparing to lead sessions takes the same time that it would alone. Preparing to be the discussant can feel less stressful (for me, anyway), for one doesn’t have to develop the structure of the session. But it does take time. Collaborative discussion of the syllabus takes time and planning more in advance than usual. Class policies might need negotiation, depending on how attached people are their own policies. In short, many aspects of preparation will take a bit more time with a colleague. Others will take less. Personally, I have such interminable debates with myself that a colleague’s presence tends to call the question.

Then there’s grading – the most divisible task, but with special problems. Co-instructors have to do something to make sure that their grading is consistent. The only way to do this – or at least the only one I can think of – is for everyone to grade some of the same assignments and then discuss them. Thereafter, you can divide it up. For instance, in the current Humanities II course, Robert Tally and I have many short writing assignments and one long term paper. The first time we worked together, we both graded the first full set of short assignments, consulted on them, and determined that our grading was quite similar. After that, we switched off batches of short essays. In a 2011 religion and literature course on heroes, my colleague and I assigned three mid-length papers. Both of us graded the full set and then consulted to assign a grade. (This was a small class.)*** In the three-instructor democracy course, every mid-term paper was graded by two of us, with each of us grading two-thirds of each set. I worked out a rotation system such that each student’s work came before each of us the same number of times. (Don’t try this at home.) In every case, my colleague(s) and I have all graded the full set of final papers, consulted on those, and then fixed final grades by a joint look at each student’s work. These approaches seem less time-consuming in the thick of a term, and somewhat more so at the end. That’s the reverse of the usual pattern, but it probably balances out.

Joint grading can be fraught, for it reveals expectations about the nature of education and the instructor’s role. If we separate grading from what we unfortunately call “feedback,” students can benefit a great deal from the responses of two instructors in the same course. Not all students know how to respond to our individual responses (how to use the feedback), much less how to assimilate responses from two profs. They may need explicit discussion of how to so this. If a student focuses on the grade itself, differences in grading that may seem small to us will appear large to the student. Suppose that, on a sequence of two assignments, a student receives very similar comments, a B+ from one prof, and a A- from the other. We see convergent independent judgments about the student’s work, which would best be used to address identified problem areas. But the student sees a huge chasm between a B and an A. Co-instructors need to be ready to address these cases by directing the student’s attention away from a one or two point difference and toward improving the work itself.

Anyone embarking upon team-teaching will need a joint, clear approach to grading. The other possible pitfalls don’t come built into the situation and are somewhat unpredictable. Many students react strongly to professors’ personalities, and these reactions will be even more evident in the contrast of two (or more) styles. If you teach with a colleague of a different gender, students’ expectations of different gender roles can be much more evident than usual.**** A similar observation applies to racial, ethnic, linguistic, age, and other differences. You may also be able to see your own habitual styles more clearly in the session-to-session contrasts; this can be more illuminating than peer observation. Perhaps the worst pitfall would be a colleague with whom one simply doesn’t work well, where tensions build over a quarter or semester. On that count, I have been lucky indeed.

Best of all – and perhaps the reason I have team-taught so often – is that I learn much more with a colleague than I learn solo. It’s a bit like getting to be a student again, only without forfeiting the instructor’s role. Last week, in an e-discussion about our course, Rob compared team-teaching to jazz improvisation. I can’t improve on that.


*Abbas Amanet and John J. Collins of Yale team-teach an apocalypticism course that includes material from the ancient to modern periods.

**Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000), 71-81.

***This would not have been possible in a larger class. At consultation, we found our independent evaluations to be extremely close, but differed in how we commented on work.

****For sexism in student evaluations see reports of a recent controlled study by MacNell et al., this fascinating interactive graphic about gendered language on RMP, and this introduction by Lisa Martin, one of the leading researchers on the topic. The studies referenced in these articles are paywalled, so I can’t link directly.

2 thoughts on “Teaching as a Team Sport

  1. Pingback: Web Round Up #9 | Women Biblical Scholars

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