Talk About Teaching

Shall We Dance?

Team Teaching and the Harmony of Collaboration

By Herman Beavers and Dennis DeTurck

Team teaching is a little like participating in a semester-long jam session, where musicians who share a deep love for the material they play decide to explore its possibilities with little regard for the dangers. It can be a very exciting and spontaneous way to impart information, for students to witness intellectual exchange "on the fly," and to cover large amounts of seemingly disparate material. At its best, it can be a very powerful way of dismantling the outmoded notion that teaching is a matter of one individual's mastery of a specialized subject matter. But when it falters, it can be frustrating for students who may have never experienced a team-taught course and therefore regard a college course as legitimate only when information comes from one source.

There are several crucial ingredients for successful team teaching. Foremost is flexibility with regard to both logistical and scholarly matters. Second is a commitment to the process that includes attendance by each faculty member at the other's classes. Attendance by both faculty members demonstrates to the students that two potentially separate courses are one in the eyes of the faculty, and provides many opportunities for planned or impromptu interactions to illustrate the synergy between the subjects. Third is a combination of trust and a spirit of adventure.

Team-teaching across disciplines provides the faculty an opportunity to examine their prejudices regarding scholars in other fields. We become aware of the world outside our narrow fields of endeavor, and can thus conceptualize new forms of intellectual subsistence. Like the hero of the recent film The Matrix, who discovers that he has lived inside an illusion, team teachers are reminded that many of the distinctions, paradigms and methodologies we use to negotiate intellectual life are rather arbitrary constructions whose time may have come and gone.

Our team-teaching experiences range from doing a course in African- and Jewish-American literature with Elisa New called "Exodus and Memory", to a combined Calculus I/Physics I course with physicists, Larry Gladney and Charlie Johnson. In both instances, we had to calculate the classroom space in radically different ways than for our "solo" classes.

  The Math/Physics course afforded an opportunity to examine Newton's ideas more or less as he conceived them. Team teaching in basic science reinforces the notion that the various scientific disciplines and mathematics are all part of the same fundamental enterprise. Combining mathematics with a science course enables students to apply newly acquired mathematical tools to problems in a context as opposed to textbook "word problems". It also puts them on the spot, since then the science professor is explicitly aware of what mathematics the students are expected to know.

It was often surprising to hear physical concepts that we had previously understood in a mathematical context explained in a manner that was at once startlingly clear and mathematically precise. To be sure, there were occasions which elicited a cringe or two, when the class was presented with the "physicist's view" of some mathematical principle. But even these explanations often made up in efficacy what they may have lacked in precision. There were certainly instances when attempts to explain physical concepts from the mathematician's perspective caused a certain amount of consternation.

Because we were trying to emphasize the power of connecting mathematics to physics, we encouraged each other to wander across traditional disciplinary boundaries. Even though the demarcations between subjects were deliberately blurred, the students' conditioning to keep separate whatever is learned in different subjects was remarkably effective. Just after the introduction of the use of derivatives to find extreme values of functions in mathematics, Professor Gladney posed the problem of determining what firing angle would give the maximum range of a projectile fired with a fixed initial speed. Several students immediately responded that the angle should be 45 degrees. Professor Gladney then asked the class how this might be proved. Then there was silence. After an appreciable delay, the lonely mathematician stood up and said, "You know, that expression on the board for the range is a function of the firing angle." The connection was thus made between the subjects, and many students saw for themselves that a mathematical idea applied directly to the physics problem

  In the African- and Jewish-American Literature course, there was the challenge of dealing with the literatures of groups who have at times been political allies and politically disaffected at others. It was necessary to warn students that this was a class focusing on literary discourse, not Black-Jewish relations (though the course featured moments when disagreement or tension was worked out in the literature). In order to frame the points of contact, as well as the points of departure, we had to argue that Jewish-American literature was the product of people who valued the Book, but whose respect for and use of the spoken word were equally complex and extensive. To that we added the idea that African Americans were people who valued the Word, which began with an oral tradition and continued in their production of literary texts. What both groups shared was the need to imagine themselves apart from their respective forms of oppression and denigration and create flexible notions of who they were and wished to be in diasporic terms.

As the course progressed, we noticed that one of us was more prone to using class discussion as a way to invest students in the idea that they have resources to bring to bear when we think about literature. The other was more interested in working carefully on closely reading the text. This is not to say that we never exchanged roles; at times, it was important for each of us to have students read a piece of literature very closely and at others to get students to ponder more theoretical considerations. We recognized the necessity for students to become comfortable with our styles, and to have some certainty about what to expect from week to week.

It was also very important that we agreed to disagree on a number of important matters. Our experiences teaching the course were profoundly shaped by where the course was placed in the departmental sequence. We relished the chance to hear one another's views and borrow ideas (which led Professor New to write an excellent essay on Spike Lee and Woody Allen). We had to be absolutely committed to communicating to students that we were not looking to make things neat, that sometimes there were loose ends which could not be reconciled.

We are totally convinced of the effectiveness of team-teaching. While neither of us think it appropriate in every academic instance, we believe that Penn would do well to model more frequently the kinds of collaboration team-teaching entails. When done well, it provides students with a multifaceted sense of the subject matter, insists on complexity over oversimplification, and it forces us to make connections that we would not be prone to make. Sometimes place we find knowledge compartmentalized in a variety of unhealthy ways. We suggest that team-teaching, while offering its own stresses and uncertainties, is an important way to resist the inclination to teach to students' "comfort zones" and to help them to explore the disorientations which a dialogue can produce. Sometimes, the best approach to finding one's way, is to revel in the getting lost.

Dr. Beavers is Director of Afro-American Studies and Associate Professor of English and

Dr. DeTurck is Chair and Professor of Mathematics.


Their essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series into its sixth year as the joint creation of

the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 30, April 25, 2000

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