“It’s too expensive”: On team teaching

If I were appointed U.S. Tsar of Higher Education I would require that all courses be team taught.  –Stephen Brookfield

Yesterday I crashed Steve Brookfield’s keynote address at the Transformative Learning Conference. I couldn’t attend the whole conference because I had too many teaching commitments on my own campus, but I couldn’t miss Brookfield. I’ve been working with his methods for ages–personally, collaboratively, locally, and even cross-institutional-longitudinally. I’m a critical reflection geek.

I didn’t expect him to dip into the topic of team teaching, and I was so glad he did. During the talk he invited the audience to use TodaysMeet (an anonymous back channel communication site) to record our reactions and questions and someone immediately responded: “team teaching is expensive.” I’m sure it’s what a lot of us were thinking, probably because a lot of us love to do it and have had to get really creative to make it a viable option. He said for him it boiled down to giving students the opportunity to observe critical dialogue in action: two experts with different perspectives exchanging views on a topic. In that regard, team teaching doesn’t have to necessarily be two faculty co-teaching all semester long. It could [more] simply involve a mutual agreement to visit one another’s classes, perform a critical dialogue, and include time for Q&A with students.

Of course, full-blown teaching involves much more than that. But what struck me was how rarely it happens even within a team-taught course. So often when faculty team teach they collaborate behind the scenes intensively but then take turns facilitating class or even just lecturing to class. I had to dig into my own memories of team teaching and think about how often my co-teacher and I truly carved out time to perform critical dialogue as Brookfield described. Not enough. At least not much as a planned event–and this most likely because I tend to not want to “perform” to students, I want dialogue to arise organically with me and with visitors to class. But Brookfield made a good argument, and he used the term “perform” quite deliberately. He said this kind of critical dialogue often becomes rather dramatic, even theatrical, and in a good way. When a student-centered pedagogy guru promotes this sort of front-of-the-classroom performance I think it’s worth seriously considering.

So I tried it a few hours later.

It was fairly spontaneous, actually. A colleague and I serve as our institution’s Learning Commons Faculty Fellows. Our responsibilities include mentoring the peer educators in our Learning Enhancement Center–she covers Math, I cover Writing, but we both integrate broader issues such as intercultural communication, learning styles, and so on. Her discipline is Education; mine is English. Yesterday we coincidentally prepared discussions involving the pros and cons of asking students to think aloud as part of a tutorial. My discussion was focusing on second-language learners of English, hers was focusing on students with learning differences. So I asked if we could take some time to talk through our disciplinary perspectives on think-aloud protocols and practices, to briefly replicate the sort of critical dialogue Brookfield recommended. We didn’t get theatrical but it was exciting for us and seemed to be a nice change in format for the peer educators. And I used some of my colleagues’ insights to modify a think aloud lesson I’d just posted to our course site.

I’d like to try it again but also to find more ways to give the peer educators the opportunity to engage in critical dialogues that draw upon their disciplinary and lived experience. I know sometimes, especially this late in the semester, they can feel relieved to have us perform so that they can just listen and respond. But I think once they got started they would be energized by the alleged drama of exchanging counterpoints on such topics as math and writing pedagogy.

Organizing critical dialogue performances doesn’t make team teaching less expensive, but it does give us an inroad to reflecting on when, exactly, it might be the most beneficial to have two faculty (or two experts from any profession or life experience) teaching in the same room, and in what ways.

This topic is also coming up as I work on an essay about participatory media. My writing partner and I are discussing the core concepts of story-work for a volume on digital storytelling in higher education and I’m increasingly mindful that the kind of learning experience we try to foster as co-facilitators of digital storytelling workshops depends on a teaching model that is “expensive” to replicate in the college classroom.

There are at least three main ways that expert co-facilitators can make a big difference in a digital storytelling workshop: (1) increasing the diversity of connection between facilitators and participants (which enables the facilitators to tailor the experience more sensitively, sometimes in ways that can ensure participants feel more safe and more meaningfully heard, as well as more productive and better guided overall); (2) more skillfully managing the invention process–during story circles and individually (helping participants identify, reflect upon, develop, distill, and complete a narrative that makes best use of the constraints of the genre); (3) supporting the hands-on making and public sharing of the completed project in a way that is successful to the participant. When the workshop is conducted as part of an academic course or assignment sequence, there will most likely be just one facilitator–the instructor of record–perhaps assisted by a student or staff member with some experience of storywork and/or relevant technical expertise. These kinds of help are valuable, but not a real substitute for the level and degree of attentiveness an experienced co-facilitator can provide.

Most of us doing this kind of teaching in college classrooms–or at least those of us who love it and include it repeatedly in our classes–believe it’s worth the effort even if we are unable to co-facilitate with a peer. We deputize current students, enlist help from volunteers, and so on, often with meaningful and even serendipitous benefits. But in FTE parlance (i.e., faculty workload), it is an “expensive” way to teach.

In my own pedagogy, I continue to experiment with ways to front-load or rearrange the process to figure out how I can reconfigure the workshop experience–by, say, making the media-production process more of a team-based learning session and the story-invention process a Bruffee-esque collaboration of knowledgeable peers. But while each experiment teaches me something new about classroom-based facilitation, I’d still always much prefer an expert co-facilitator, not for the big things that you might expect–not for the formal pedagogy or the writing conferences (though those matter a good deal)–but most of all for those subtle, in-between moments where I catch a skilled colleague smiling with a student, sharing a back story that informed the thing on the screen; catching the non-verbal cue of an anxious participant; saying something that needed to be said. When this happens it can make a world of difference in ways we may never fully know but can’t afford to miss.




It’s Friday and I’m feeling wonderfully indulgent–I have a whole day to stay home and write. My dog is beneath the dining table where I sit facing the broad window with its view of my yard filled with 8-foot sunflowers bending in the Oklahoma wind as hundreds of finches cling to the stalks, pecking at seedheads. So determined. My friend Becky calls this backyard theatre. She writes to it too, from an upstairs corner window in a Victorian house in upstate New York, at a desk draped with cats, their tails curling around her stacks of books.

I look at my stack of books. After years of this work I’m still seeking the right sort of stack, one that isn’t too tall (tempting me to allow the reading to overtake the writing) but that can remind me, in a collegial way, about the people and ideas that I’ve been wanting to bring into focus during today’s writing.

Here is my stack:

Bookstack 091115

In so many ways it’s a gathering of old friends–a few are people I know and love–our work bought us together in the first place, now we share articles and stories and dog photos and rooftop toasts at conferences. Others are scholarly familiars, people whose ideas continue to inspire me. I grabbed these books to assemble my thoughts for a set of interlinking projects: a sample chapter on the assessment of community-engaged writing pedagogy (this for the assessment-focused companion volume to A Guide to Composition Pedagogies I’m developing with my old friend and writing partner, Amy Rupiper Taggart), also a syllabus proposal for a new service-learning course I hope to teach this spring, and a keynote address for a service-learning conference this fall. In all three projects I find myself stepping back to reflect on what I have learned so far about this work and how I have come to trust that knowledge. (Ha! I started to say “believe” but even after 20 years I’m still testing these methods, student by student, community-partner by community partner.)

The sample chapter is building on that basic idea: that long-term teachers of composition have pedagogical foundations that inform our work–theories, principles, practices–as well as heartfelt aims that keep us passionate and questing to get better. In our work on the second edition to GCP Amy, Kurt, and I found that it can be surprisingly challenging to connect the dots between those deep pedagogical aims and the assessments we use in our classes. We have learned a lot, as a field, about how to respond to and assess student texts. But how can you tell whether a student has learned about, say, the power relationships inherent in literacy practices? How can you tell whether a student has become more comfortable with ambiguity or more adept at problem-solving? And if your institution claims a culture of transformative learning, how do you know a student has done some of that in your composition course? We have a few answers to those questions, but even those of us who geek out on such things as integrative learning portfolios know how tricky it can be to consistently assign, evaluate, and communicate progress–especially regarding the hard-to-assess goals that, paradoxically enough, are often the things that make us so passionate about teaching writing in the first place.

So I sit at my desk, mapping out a new syllabus, reviewing the ever-growing list of institutional, departmental, and programmatical learning objectives I’m supposed to address in my 16-week intermediate composition course, deciding how many of my own learning objectives I should add to that list–the things I believe I can uniquely give my students and want to be sure they’ve gotten. Things like the use of digital storytelling for critically reflective learning throughout the course–a habit of mind and situated practice I’ve been developing for a decade or so as a way to help community-engaged students be more intentional and resourceful in the field. “Intentionality” or mindfulness is not, officially, an institutional, departmental, or programmatical learning objective. Nor does it appear on the end-of-semester IDEA course-evaluation form. But I teach it. Because it matters.

And I turn to my stack of sources–people like Stephen Brookfield, Dee Fink, Kristie Fleckenstein, and Peter Elbow–reflecting on what they’ve taught me about the praxis and poetics of teaching and learning, challenging me to surface those things in my students’ work and in the ways I respond to it and to them.

5 Albums For An Epic Night of Paper-Grading

Just in time for Fall: my response to Rhetsy editor Collin Gifford Brooke’s call for 5ives. Here are five albums to transform an evening of paper-grading into a meta journey:

Powaqqatsi Soundtrack

1. Phillip Glass: Powaqqatsi

Miles Davis Kind of Blue

2. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

Shirim Klezmer Nutcracker

3. Shirim Klezmer Orchestra: Klezmer Nutcracker

Gotan Project

4. Gotan Project: La Revancha Del Tango

The Essential Ravi Shankar

5. Ravi Shankar: The Essential Ravi Shankar

Making Material Rhetoric Matter More

I’d been studying the material rhetoric of shadowboxes for nearly decade (mostly through my work at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Center Museum) when I encountered them in a new space: the corridors of a residence for people with Alzheimer’s. My stepfather was in the early stages of the disease and my mother and I had begun to look into options for senior daycare. Outside each resident’s door was a plexiglass box containing objects from their past, “to help them find their way home,” a nurse explained. The boxes so closely resembled the shadowboxes in the OKC Memorial’s Gallery of Honor that it took my breath away. “Material eulogies” I call them in that other context, suddenly being something very different (though in some ways not) in this place where memory was a living and dying thing every day.

I knew then that this was the connection I’d been praying for, between “memory work” and memory work. For many years I searched for ways to make the work I do–community-engaged rhetoric and writing–matter more. When I began graduate school in 1995 I knew that rhetoric was the field that best suited my abilities and questions and yet I couldn’t escape the fact that I wasn’t going to cure cancer with it. Despite all the ways I know that words matter, despite all the ways teaching deeply matters, I couldn’t live with myself if I felt my research was merely interesting or descriptive or even instructive. I was fascinated by rhetorical theory. I’d eat it for breakfast if I could. But it seemed to me that too many of our lauded public intellectuals were people talking about things (smugly, wistfully, often to one another), instead of doing much to help. I didn’t want to be another one of those. So I kept my head down, kept working in the community and teaching my classes and taking notes and looking for connections between what I was doing and how I might make a contribution beyond words.

I’m not kidding myself. I’m still not curing cancer. But I’m seriously engaged in this matter of what artifacts can do for us, how they preserve our stories, and what all this can teach us about the relationship between thought and expression, material and memory. This is what I’m thinking about when I stumble across postings like this one: