“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.



Peer Review: Practicing the Craft of Trust

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A few moments ago I deleted a word my colleague had typed into a document we’re co-authoring–an introduction to our forthcoming book, A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. I always pause a breath before deleting or changing a co-author’s words. Sometimes I’ll insert a comment into the document, but I’ve been working with these colleagues long enough to know my change was okay. I took a second pause this time because it occurred to me that this is the kind of collaboration I’m asking my students to do right now in their wiki projects and Google Drive activities. Yet to do it really confidently requires a level of trust that builds over time.

ART and I, for example, have been co-authoring scholarship for well over a decade. We know each other deeply as writers and thinkers. Logging on to a shared Google doc is sometimes like entering a Borgian hive mind. Our co-author/co-editor is also someone with whom we’ve collaborated for many years–as researchers, as writing program administrators, as lifelong learners yearning to make our work as meaningful as possible for more than just ourselves.

What we’re doing right now is what we teach as “peer review” in our writing classrooms. Our book is really just an elaborate extension of that process, in multiple dimensions and directions: it’s a collection of 18 chapters by 29 scholars, with 3 editors and numerous external reviewers (who range from our own graduate students to distant scholars we may never meet or know).

We enter into this complex process of reading and responding because we value the breadth and depth of expertise each person will contribute. We trust one another to care deeply about our work and we believe our work will be better as a result of these interactions, even if we sometimes disagree. As an editor I share suggestions that my authors may or may not use. I trust their judgment. As a reader I delight in their insights and appreciate their skill. As a writer–particularly as a collaborating writer–I get energized knowing that savvy colleagues are connecting with my words and thoughts, moment by moment.

The longer I do this work, the better it gets. Even when it’s really tough, it’s fascinatingly so. It teaches me so much about my own mind and self and craft–in addition to teaching me so much about the project itself.

So how do I bring all this back into the classroom tomorrow morning? How do I distill this experience into something my students can get in a few weeks of digital collaboration? How do I teach the craft of trust?

Finding another Voice

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Two years ago today my friend Elaine died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

For years she was my closest friend in the department. As time passes I find myself missing her more, finding more things we ought to be talking about. Teaching is one of those things.

The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed her in 2010 for this article and video about her technology-mediated teaching:

Elaine’s experience strengthened my conviction about two things (pertaining to teaching, anyway):

First, that my job as a liberal arts educator is not merely about fostering genteel well-roundedness; rather, it’s about the urgent, essential work of teaching and learning interdisciplinary ingenuity. We don’t have time to wait for other people to be geniuses. We don’t have the luxury of patiently applauding other people seeking creative solutions to complex problems like ALS.

Second, that my best work is done as a catalyst, even though I’m still figuring out how to do it right. Elaine’s teaching method described in the video is in many ways what I hope to achieve through approaches like quadblogging–devoting more of the course to the students’ own processing of knowledge. On one level I’m having them experiment with digital tools because it’s practical and important to their digital literacy; on another level the digital communication projects are far more deeply about tapping into more parts of their brain through multimodal inquiry and reflection and composition. I want them to think and write in 4D, not just 2D or even 3D. I want them to master the art of extracting useful and inspiring knowledge from dense verbal sources (Emerson called this “creative reading,” yes?) as well as from other media, and I want them to generate new, actionable insights for themselves and for the rest of us.

Elaine’s interviewer asks her to share some advice to faculty. She says we should look at ourselves and our practices really honestly, because so much of traditional pedagogy tends to be about performance and even to some extent about ego-gratification. Perhaps what she means is that we’re distracted by our own desire for students to like and admire us–or perhaps we just love hearing ourselves talk about our favorite subjects.

In my teaching I tend to always want students making something or experiencing something. I want them to dig into raw materials and discover things that will delight or intrigue or inspire them. I try to use my speaking time to make sure they know everything we’re doing is on purpose, that a scaffold is in place to increase our odds of finding cool stuff, even though I can’t predict what it will be. It’s a different motivation than the infamous “sage on the stage” mindset but might my approach still be about ego? Yes, in some ways I think so. Because at the end of the day I want them to share my giddy enthusiasm for our work and my inflated sense of personal agency. I want us to cure ALS in Honors Comp 2.

A Meaningful Next Step with the CIQ


An earlier post included a laundry list of things I wanted to achieve through formative and summative assessment instruments in general and with the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) in particular.

(Who wouldn’t want to read a posting that begins with that sentence?  Ah well.)
The one I want to think about now involves the CIQ.
I’d like to see if it’s possible to use them as, in some cases, first drafts of paragraph-length, critically reflective text. Perhaps assigning one CIQ as a not-entirely-anonymous text and having them select one of their responses as a starting point for deeper reflection.
I’d also like to revisit Yancey’s cautions against the “schmooze-factor” (1998) to see if it’s possible to have students examine samples of critically reflective writing (perhaps through genre analysis or perhaps in the way craft-apprentices approach and emulate models) and generate their own in ways that are demonstrably transferable. I need to look at their arguments more closely, but Beaufort and Yancey seem to be saying that if we steer students towards a particular vocabulary for discussing what they’ve learned then we’re setting them up to compose texts that aren’t authentically reflective.
But my exploration of arts-instruction seems to be pointing me back to the use of models and the benefits of asking novices to adopt the styles and vocabularies of “masterworks” –to use imitation and prescription–as an important step toward developing one’s own style and mastery. I’ve been emailing colleagues who work at the intersection of creative writing and academic writing to see what they have to say about this approach.
In a nutshell what I find curious is that the rise of genre studies made it OK to refer to models–to dissect and in some ways to emulate them–but generally speaking in composition studies the use of imitation is considered old fashioned and downright uncool. We in rhet/comp tend to scorn the 5-paragraph essay because so many first-year writers seem to believe it’s THE way to compose an academic argument–the real danger presumably being that in teaching (or perhaps even tolerating) one model we exclude variations and discourage originality. I get that, of course, and also understand that if we’re going to use models there’s only so much time in a 16-week semester to cover multiple models and therefore no matter how much we might intend students to improvise their final paper it’s possibly unrealistic to believe that a model-oriented approach would truly foster improvisation.
But then again it’s a generally accepted Best Practice to co-develop rubrics and to use past papers as exemplars for rubrics.
So when we return to the subject of critically reflective texts is the issue somehow ethics as well as pedagogy?
Image source: Whitney McKim

Critical Reflection in 3D

For several years I’ve using Stephen Brookfield‘s “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (CIQ) in my writing classes to get a clearer perspective on what my students experience in our classroom each week and also to help all of us (my students and me) become more critically reflective, collaborative learners. I’ve been joined in this work by research partners at other institutions and by a variety of predecessors who shared our interest in making this tool work best in their own classrooms and practices. In the language of pedagogical theory, what we’re doing is good ole student-centered constructivist teaching and learning: we view knowledge as something constructed by all those participating in the experience, and the CIQs (and/or portfolios, 1-minute papers, etc.) record that collective process of meaning-making.

With so much of my scholarly and creative trajectory evolving through hands-on craft-work I find myself wondering what my constructivist pedagogy would look like if I took that term literally. What if “constructing knowledge” involved observable construction of stuff instead of (or perhaps in addition to) recording in words what we remember of what we learned. Or what would happen if reflection happened nonverbally? What if we built something to represent that week’s insight or pitfall?
When I visualize a 3D alternative to the CIQ, even if done in a rotation with the usual verbal CIQ, I worry that my students would consider the process too kindergartenish and that I’d find the experience too time-consuming, given all the word work to be done.
But then again, 3D reflection might include words . . . transverbal compositions.
Or am I just restless? Am I just bored with the CIQ and seeking a novel alternative? Yes, that too.
But I do need to change something.
What the CIQ Does Consistently Well
As a quick, weekly-ish activity, the anonymous questionnaire gives me a glimpse into my students’ perceptions of what that week’s learning was about, and how well I (and they) facilitated the learning.
As a collection of responses, the students’ carbon copies of the questionnaire give them a way to identify patterns in their own likes and dislikes, successes and pitfalls as learners. They can then use this collection as a source of data for analyzing their own learning experience at the end of the semester. By the same token, the responses give me a way to observe overall patterns useful for refining my pedagogy and curriculum over time.
What the CIQ Doesn’t Much Accomplish
The act of completing the weekly-ish questionnaires doesn’t teach students to become better reflective writers or critical thinkers. If I choose to devote additional class time to the teaching of critically reflective thinking and writing, the CIQs can be a useful artifact. But that utility greatly depends on my skill at integrating the responses into the curriculum and conversations of the course, and the students’ perception of that work as being a meaningful component of the course. And because many students pragmatically equate “meaningful” with “graded” I risk attaching some sort of grade to some sort of document that draws upon their anonymous responses. At any rate, the CIQ itself is not a means of teaching thinking or writing–at best it’s a tool for other activities that attempt to teach those things.
The CIQ responses don’t much assess whether students’ writing is improving as a result of the course experience. Nor is it assessing the students’ grasp of other course content. In conventional terms, a formative assessment instrument assesses what students are learning. Depending on the wording of the questions, the CIQ might assess the students’ perceptions of the teacher’s effectiveness, and it might somewhat assess the students’ perceptions of their own learning, but for the most part any formative assessment being done is of the teacher rather than of the learner.
In these ways the CIQ is sort of a handmaiden to teaching and learning assessment, but will always require some other instrument or activity to make use of it.
Why I’m Tempted to Experiment with a 3D Version
By 3D I mean a version that would somehow transform the CIQ from a flat questionnaire to something that challenged students to draw upon other cognitive, verbal, and visual resources to compose their impressions. What tempts me is the fact that I’m increasingly using multimodal and aesthetic pedagogies and projects in my courses and it seems fitting that my assessment methods be similarly multi-dimensional.
And yet often the simple tool is best. And CIQs are fairly simple.
Of course, complicating the tool is not the only way to bring the CIQ into another classroom dimension. A simpler solution would be to add this component: discussion. I could do a better job of reserving class time for CIQ-prompted discussions and of [co-]facilitating those discussions.
Imagine the best possible CIQ-prompted discussion: does it constitute critical reflection? does it teach critical reflection? Perhaps. Sometimes. It can fairly reliably serve as a way to teach meta-analysis. It brings us a step closer to overtly teaching critical thinking.
At her CCCC presentation last March Anne Beaufort discussed the pitfalls of prompting students to articulate their learning in “teacher talk” terms such as “reflection.” If we make it clear their task is to demonstrate they’ve learned X they’ll generate anecdotes or assertions accordingly–but doing so is less likely to be an act of “mindful thinking” or of critical reflection about the specific realities of their learning experience. Instead, it may be more of a “fill in the blank” response, no matter how earnestly expressed.

Self-reporting successes in terms of X is a time-honored method of assessment at many institutions, especially in the absence of more dependable ways of demonstrating the learning of complex content within a single semester.


So What Do I Want that’s Different?

This is really a two-fold question. What I need is an assessment method that demonstrates the extent to which my students have actually learned what I attempted to teach them. (This is Assessment 101–the thing every teacher everywhere needs.) What I additionally want is an assessment method that helps me do a better job of teaching during the semester, so I can respond to my students’ needs, interests, and inspirations. (This is what that imperfect instrument the CIQ gives me.) And beyond that I also really want some sort of assessment method that helps my students and me learn more mindfully, drill more deeply into the course content that intrigues us most, and to articulate where we are in the process of coming to know better. Furthermore, I want a way to gauge the effectiveness of my pedagogical experimentation. Finally, I want to teach my students to approach research and researched writing (in any chosen discip
line) as a critically reflective and potentially reflexive enterprise.

Is that all?
For now.