Go team: Professors discuss value of team-taught courses

Professors Mark Reinhardt and Mérida Rúa chose to team-teach their Intro to American Studies course this past semester. Christian Ruhl/Photo Editor.
Professors Mark Reinhardt and Mérida Rúa chose to team-teach their Intro to American Studies course this past semester. Christian Ruhl/Photo Editor.

As the saying goes, two heads are better than one. Recently, many of our hyper-intelligent College professors have decided to put their heads together and team-teach courses, bringing two different sets of expertise and experience (and two much-needed sets of office hours). The Record talked to some of the College’s most erudite teammates to find out why professors choose to become a duo and how they pull it off.

The birth of many of these co-taught courses springs not from some official faculty meeting or academic convention, but simply from meetings between friends. Jana Sawicki, professor of philosophy, and Nimu Njoya, assistant professor of political science, conceived their course on Antigone over a cup of tea. “The idea of teaching together just arose spontaneously while we were chatting at Tunnel City,” Sawicki said. “I wrote a paper in grad school about Hegel’s analysis of Antigone and have continued to follow some of the feminist reception; Nimu has an even deeper interest and familiarity with the current literature on Antigone in political theory. We just decided to do it, to rely on each other’s respective backgrounds so that we can learn from one another and give students access to our different areas of expertise.” Njoya also added that the two teach very complementary subjects. “Even before the idea of team-teaching a course came up, I had a sense of the complementarity of our teaching practices because I could see how students who had taken classes with Jana were integrating their learning into courses they took with me,” she explained.

Christopher Nugent, associate professor of Chinese, said Edan Dekel, chair and associate professor of classics and chair of the Jewish Studies program, also found inspiration for their team-taught course, History of the Book, over a meal together. “We were having lunch this last fall and just chatting in general about areas of general interest. Professor Dekel mentioned that he had in the past been thinking about a course on the history on the book and what an interesting thing that would be to teach here,” Nugent said. “So basically at this lunch it went from that to thinking that if we taught a course like this together then we really could take advantage of the separate areas of our range of interest. It seemed like a great idea.”

Mark Reinhardt, professor of political science and class of 1956 professor of American civilization, and Mérida Rúa, associate professor of Latina/o studies and American studies, had both previously taught sessions of Intro to American Studies, but were prompted by low enrollment numbers in their two sections to combine and co-teach the course this past semester. The benefit of team-teaching the class, however, did not solely lie in this logistical convenience. “We’ve borrowed from each other in the past,” Rúa said. “But it’s been really nice not just to borrow from one another but to actually see the thought process in terms of the classroom about how you would teach it and what would happen, the directions you could take with the material, given that he is a political theorist and I am trained in American studies.” Reinhardt agreed that insight into another professor’s process has been an especially valuable part of team-teaching, along with the obvious benefit of offering students a multi-disciplinary opportunity.

It is that cross-disciplinary nature that truly makes team-teaching such a representative initiative in a liberal arts curriculum. “I think everybody gains a fuller appreciation of an idea from one discipline by seeing how it bears on another discipline,” said William Wootters, professor of physics and Barclay Jermain professor of natural philosophy, who will be teaching two physics-related team-taught courses next year. Two perspectives and two disciplines inherently make a class more exciting as well. “Having someone in the room with you allows you to be a bit braver,” said Rúa. Amy Holzapfel, associate professor of theater, who is teaching a theater and dance course with artist-in-residence Erica Dankmeyer, added that in her case, it is especially exciting to be combining seminar and studio components into one class.

What is certainly disproven in team-teaching is the notion that many hands make light work. “I think it’s more work in some ways,” Reinhardt said. “There’s a care and structure that goes into the agenda because you can’t just leave a mental note to yourself. So I wouldn’t think of [team-teaching] as a labor-saving device, but I think it’s really helpful for shedding light on how you approach things.” Several professors agreed that two partners does not halve the workload. “You think it will take half as much time with someone to share the burden, but in fact the coordination, thinking about things together makes it much more time consuming,” Nugent said. “But I think it’s something we should try more [because] reaching across disciplines is important for us as scholars and it’s important for students to see that work being done, so I hope it’s something we see more at the College.”

While it may be an occasional added workload, faculty unanimously declared team-teaching not just academically beneficial, but a lot of fun, and students too appreciate the benefits a class taught by two. “I really love being taught in a team-taught class,” Michelle Bal ’17, a student in this semester’s Intro to American Studies class, said. “I love getting the perspective of two different professors. I think that it helps keep class interesting.”