Slice of life: Sharing the lectern

Slice of life: Sharing the lectern McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 16, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 06
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > November 16, 2000 > Slice of life: Sharing the lectern

Sharing the lectern

University teaching is generally the work of one professor in front of a class. But scattered throughout the University, there are a growing number of professors teaching as part of a duo, trio or full-fledged team.

Since the opening of the McGill School of Environment, where the four core courses are each taught by an interdisciplinary team of four to five, "team teaching," as it has been dubbed, has taken on a higher profile. But the concept predates the MSE by a good 30 years.

The earliest and longest lasting known example of team-teaching is the Tom Velk and Al Riggs duo, from the Departments of Economics and History respectively.

Since the mid-'60s, Velk and Riggs have animated the "conversation" they hold with the 15 to 30 students in the fourth year seminar in North American studies. The students are assigned readings and questions on the works of De Tocqueville, Jefferson, Adams and others who wrote on American Reform.

"We engage kids in conversation, fake combat, we call each other names. It's theatre but it gets the kids involved," says Velk, who after all these years still finds the partnership stimulating.

His only problem is that once Riggs retires next year, he'll have to find a replacement. Given that the course has always been given for "free," with no teaching time credited, it may be hard to find another Riggs.

Another early episode in team teaching was the famous -- or infamous -- political theory quartet of Sam Noumoff, Charles Taylor and former professors John Shingler and Hal Sarf.

Sarf, fresh from the then hotbed of experimental learning, the University of California at Berkley, spearheaded the "collectivist" brand of teaching, recalls Noumoff. Three of the four would collaborate on each course, doing a sort of rotation from one year to the next, sometimes involving guest professors and graduate students. While each professor would attend every lecture, he would only have to prepare one-third of the total course.

"It was great," recalls Taylor. "There was great exchange, you got to hear what your colleagues were thinking, and it was definitely very, very popular with students."

The pleasure came in the form of animated discussion. Each professor would teach in his specialty for three to four lectures, leaving the final class in the cycle as a period of debate.

"It exposed students to what an intelligent, rigorous debate could be, conducted in civility," says Noumoff. "It also gave us a better understanding of each others' pedagogy and important issues."

It was also a humbling experience. "The absolute control a prof has over a class is shattered when someone says, 'I think you're dead wrong,'" notes Noumoff.

Eventually, as some of the professors moved on, the course petered out and as far as Taylor and Noumoff know, their course spawned no others of similar format.

Yet, in 1992, another development in team teaching was going on in the Department of Biology, one that would play an instrumental role in the development of the McGill School of Environment.

Joe Rasmussen had decided to share the teaching of his course on ecology with fellow biology professor, Dan Schoen, and the pair was joined last year by biology professor Kevin McCann. "At first we just split it [the lectures] up," he recounts. "Then we started as a team interacting and going to each others' lectures."

At the same time, Rasmussen was organizing with others to establish a school of environment at McGill and he believed that given the interdisciplinary nature of studies in the environment, inter-faculty team teaching would make sense for the core courses. "I could explain to the people at the MSE that it works. The greater the differences the better, because we want as many perspectives as possible so that the students benefit from the interaction."

In the experience of the MSE, developing the core courses has been no small feat. "You must begin by talking and you talk until you come up with something to agree about or to agree to disagree about... It could take a whole month.

"The course has to be a weave and you can't just go in with a preconceived notion of what you would like to teach. There has to be a collective objective," recounts Rasmussen.

Nor is the process and practice of team teaching for everyone. In fact, for each of the four core courses, seven to eight people would meet to decide on the course objectives, though only four to five would be involved in the nitty-gritty of writing down the lecture subjects. "Sometimes you have to bring in new people in order to have the right chemistry," notes Rasmussen.

Three years now into the MSE program, there are 18 professors from both campuses teaching in teams. This term, the core course being taught is "Society and Environment." Rasmussen, economist Chris Green, anthropologist Don Attwood and geographer Oliver Coomes form the downtown team.

On this particular Wednesday, Rasmussen is lecturing on the relationship between the natural economy and the human economy. Coomes and Green are standing on the sidelines while Attwood is ensconced among the 150 students.

Midway through, Green takes over and Rasmussen lingers close by. Green speaks about the services we receive from ecosystems, such as the air cleansing provided by the Amazon rainforest. Later, the subject changes to substitutes for polluting products such as the CFCs that damage the ozone layer. Coomes interjects that "the notion of substitutes is a very dynamic one. Fifteen years ago, there were no substitutes for CFCs but public concern was such that the chemical companies were prompted to find one."

Discussion follows between class members and the professors over why there's still no widely accepted substitute for fossil fuels since pollution and global warming concern many.

This is a class that MSE student Catherine Gelbert appreciates. "Having profs from different disciplines allows us to go deeper in the field," she says. "Having an economist fighting with a biologist, for instance, gives us an appreciation of what's in store for us whether we become biologists or economists."

Gabriel Riel-Salvatore too appreciates having four teachers for a subject as broad as the environment. His only complaint is that "sometimes they start debates in class which become too specific and only they understand."

However, continues the MSE student, "Some students will intervene and say: 'What are you talking about?'"

In team teaching, there might be a risk that professors get overly engrossed in discussion, to the exclusion of students, but in Eugene Orenstein's long experience of team teaching, the benefits far outweigh such occasional slips.

Far away from the contemporary nature of the MSE, Orenstein lectures in Jewish history and for six years taught a course with Ruth Wisse, now at Harvard University, on the shtetl, the eastern European Jewish market village.

Last semester, he teamed up with literature specialist Esther Frank to teach Soviet Jewish literature.

In class, Orenstein will give a historical introduction to the literature being reviewed, then Frank takes over, and then there is discussion. "We'd deal with how history differs from literature and how literature is informed by the historical," says Frank, using the example of the poem "Di Kupe" (The Mound) written in Yiddish by Peretz Markish about the massacre of Jews during the civil war in the Ukraine.

This was Frank's first experience of team teaching and one she found both "easier and harder" than teaching on her own. "Sharing your material with someone else makes it a learning experience for both teacher and students and working with someone from another discipline widens the terrain of the subject."

Frank says she stays "very much on my toes teaching in front of a peer.

"You have to be secure enough to want to share your turf, to open up the boundaries of your discipline and to defend your position," she notes, adding, "I can't imagine doing it with someone I didn't get along with."

Carolyn Pittenger, director of the Centre for the Study and Teaching of Writing, concurs. She and five part-time instructors give writing courses to more than 2,000 students.

In her 20 years of experience, team teaching works when the teachers are "in synch and are good friends." She also believes that a careful cost-benefit -- both in terms of time and pay -- analysis must be done before embarking on a team teaching venture. "You can end up making twice the effort without necessarily having twice the improvement in the course, as compared to how it was taught by a single instructor," she says.

You can also end up with a good course that has to be revamped if one partner leaves. "It's like being married," she says, adding that often, the success of team teaching is personal and circumstantial. "Team teaching has to arise out of a situation that makes sense to you."

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