Thursday, January 31, 2008

Team Player

This semester, I am team-teaching a course. There are many things I like about team-teaching, especially if I like the person with whom I am team-teaching and if the technical aspects of the class (e.g., constructing the syllabus, grading, managing the course webpage) are evenly divided.

In my department, we are supposed to attend all the classes in a team-taught course, not just the ones we are actually teaching. The main reasons for this relate to the hypothesis that this provides the best educational experience for the students.

In addition, in theory, if we fully participate in a team-taught class, we get 'credit' for teaching 0.75 of a class rather than 0.5. This is meaningless in my department, where teaching loads are not strictly assigned, but that's OK with me. I would rather have a flexible system than a rigid one that counted teaching loads down to a fraction of a class.

Some challenges of team-teaching include the following:

1. You and your colleague have very different teaching styles. Similarly, there might be a significant disparity in grading philosophy, accessibility to students, and/or ability to communicate.

At my previous university, I used to teach the second half of a course. The first half was taught by someone I liked a lot as a colleague, but who was very fierce with undergraduates. He was in fact quite scary in class. By the time it was my turn to teach the class, after Spring Break, the students were terrified, hostile, or both. It took them a week or two to realize that I wasn't going to yell at them or tell them they were stupid. I was very nervous about this course because I was an assistant professor and my co-teacher was a full professor, but he respected my teaching and we had some constructive conversations about how we could both improve our teaching of this class.

Some of my most positive experiences with team-teaching have been with graduate courses, perhaps because of the more flexible format of these courses and the fact that I team-taught with very compatible colleagues.

2. You have to teach with a truly loathsome colleague. The incident I described above involved teaching with a difficult but not loathsome colleague. Teaching with a loathsome colleague has only happened to me once and it was very unpleasant. The colleague with whom I was team-teaching exhibited some creepy behavior towards female students and did not respect either the content or style of the classes I taught. He made no secret of his contempt for me, and after many of my lectures, he would slither to the front of the classroom and make some remark about what I had just taught. "How innnnn...terrrr...esting that you taught that concept that way. I have never seen it taught that way. I wouldn't consider doing it that way myself, as the classic way has always worked for me. Do you think the students got anything out of what you just did?"

3. Team-teaching can be as much work/time - or almost as much work/time - as teaching the class yourself. Team-teaching adds some complexities to the logistics of teaching, but you won't really know what these are and how much time they will take until you've taught with a particular person a time or two.

Sometimes team-teaching can take more time than you think it will. A few years ago, my department chair asked me for ideas about how 'we' could help a younger colleague who was struggling with teaching. This colleague had been assigned to teach a large class the following term, and the chair was concerned about how that would go. I had taught the course many times, so I offered to team-teach it with my colleague. I thought that by teaching the course together, I'd be helping my younger colleague have a less stressful semester, and I thought it might be interesting working together on a course. I don't actually know if this would have worked or whether it would have been more stressful for my colleague. I never got to find out because, although I was already teaching another course that semester, the department chair decided that if I had time to team-teach, I had time to teach the entire course myself. He gave the struggling teacher a break from teaching and loaded me with an extra course.

Team-teaching is a great way that faculty with different fields of expertise can together create an interesting course and provide a dynamic learning environment for students. When it works, it's great. When it doesn't, it's grisly.


Brigindo said...

I co-taught a doctoral class last semester. This was my first experience co-teaching a course. It was a methods seminar and our approach was to design the syllabus together, teach all classes together, and grade together. It was a great experience, I think, for both of us since we have different but complimentary styles. I think we both learned from each other in terms of teaching and our research interests (which overlap and were tied to the course via methods). The students also got to see different perspectives on the material, which I think was helpful. However it was as much work, if not more, than teaching alone. I would say it was worth it to me but not something I can do very often.

Silk Stocking said...

I have co-taught multiple courses. The worst was when I taught the second half of a course with a friend of mine, whom I like and respect a great deal. Unfortunately, she is a not a very good undergraduate teacher. She tends to talk very quickly, and she delves into the nitty gritty details of her extremely complicated field. While I find these details interesting, the students become quickly overwhelmed and have difficulty discriminating what they need to know from what is just a fun factoid. Part of this is because she is a new teacher. When I took over my the class, I still speak quickly but I repeat myself a lot, and I give the students a guideline for each class to direct their notetaking which we then review. (I know, it's spoonfeeding them, but teaching at my university is more like teaching at high school.) After the first class I taught, my student burst into spontaneous cheering and applause which was a bit disconcerting if gratifying in an odd way.

ScienceGirl said...

I've never seen co-taught classes - it would be interesting to have multiple perspectives in one class.

Yvette said...

When I was abroad last semester I was at a university where every course was team-taught by two or even three professors. For one of my physics classes it worked out great as it just meant each professor focused on his specialty, but for my other class it didn't work out well AT ALL because the first half was taught by a great prof and the second half was taught by an abysmal one. I suppose I had the entire spectrum of team-teaching courses that one semester!

I have to say, though, I read your blog often and am always amazed at just how many overtly terrible people you encounter. Perhaps it's just because your blog tends to focus on them instead of the good ones, because I'm half-worried my university's professors are the exception rather than the rule... Just thought I'd mention that.

Female Science Professor said...

Some of the horrible people I've mentioned in separate posts are actually the same person; e.g. the team-teaching jerk was a colleague I've mentioned before by the name of Professor Troll.

Anonymous said...

I was part of a team teaching a year-long Interdisciplinary course (bioethics) at a university - there were nine (9!!) of us, between the professors (3 - 2 science, 1 philosophy) and the TAs (3 each for each "discipline"). I totally agree that there is at least as much time involved in team teaching - in our case just keeping everyone informed about what was/wasn't being taught/assigned/expected of the students was a challenge. We had weekly meetings, and we all went to all the lectures regardless of who was actually lecturing (really! all 9 showed up to watch one person lecture!) but it was still a daunting task to keep everyone up to date on decisions about things. I really don't think it could have been done without email and the course web page. I've also team taught with one other faculty (first/second half of semester) and that was relatively easy - but that's probably because I went first (so I have no idea what kind of chaos I left in my wake for my colleague to deal with)!

Ann said...

I'm team teaching two courses this semester--one is a non-majors interdisciplinary course, and the other is in my field. The interdisciplinary course is great--I'm learning lots from the other teacher about technology in teaching as well as he's teaching content I couldn't. The other is miserable--while I like the other instructor, the topic isn't his specialty, and he seems to have as a main goal for the course to "prove" to the students how dumb they are. Our teaching styles must feel like whiplash (we alternate every 3-5 days), so it's tough on everyone.

Anonymous said...

I am co-teaching a class right now. My colleague took the first 5 chapters of the text (=test 1), I took the next 6 chapters (=test 2), and we split the last chunk (=test 3). I had a similar experience to Silk Stocking... after my first lecture, the students burst into cheers and clapping! They partipate and ask questions... NOTHING like the atmosphere from my colleague's style (which I sat in on most of the time). He's a great guy, but man, he is borrrring. And now that he is back to lecturing for the next 2 weeks, I see the students turning to look to me if I am going to say something. Poor kids look bored out of their skulls again. The students have told me in passing that it's hard having 2 people who are very different in teaching styles. I suspect my evals will be off the charts.