Team-taught courses a rare advantage at GV

GVL / Bo Anderson

Dr. Jefff Chamberlain speaks to students in Live. Learn. Lead., a course team taught by four Honors faculty members, including Dr. Chamberlain.

Bo Anderson

GVL / Bo Anderson Dr. Jefff Chamberlain speaks to students in Live. Learn. Lead., a course team taught by four Honors faculty members, including Dr. Chamberlain.

Lizzy Balboa

As a liberal arts institution, Grand Valley State University manifests its interdisciplinary by investing in team-taught courses, which often combine professors of different departments or colleges to provide various viewpoints on different subjects.

According to records kept by Institutional Analysis, GVSU had 184 course sections with more than one professor during the 2010-2011 school year. These team-taught courses made up 1.7 percent of the total 11,000 sections offered.

“The university believes that bringing together the perspectives of two people, perhaps from different disciplines, can be extremely advantageous for students,” said Mary Eilleen Lyon, assistant vice president for News and Information Services. “It is one of many valuable approaches to teaching.”

With Honors

Jeffery Chamberlain, director of the Frederik Meijer Honors College, said GVSU is unique in offering team-taught courses.

“It’s not done nearly as much (as GVSU does it),” Chamberlain said. “It’s talked about a fair amount but very few places (implement it).”

Chamberlain said GVSU has offered team-taught courses in the Honors College since the ’70s, when the first European Civilization class was established. The college pulls faculty members from other departments in the university, combining experts of different fields to instruct students in interdisciplinary subjects.

This semester, 30 courses, which are divided into 15 sequences, are team-taught in the Honors College. Most are based in the humanities, but some are more focused on the social sciences.

Chamberlain said the Honors College will add three new sequences next year, one being taught by a poet and an artist.

“We’ve been moving to incorporate other kinds of disciplines in recent years, partly because when people come in with a mix of AP (credits), we’re looking to find a good balance of things they need to take to make it really appropriate for them,” he said.

Chamberlain said this teaching method is very expensive and cannot be done in every classroom.

“It’s enormously expensive to do because if you’re taking faculty out of classes that they would be in otherwise, you’re reducing the amount of courses they can teach by half by putting them together in a sequence like this,” Chamberlain said.

At GVSU, professors are compensated for team-teaching by having the first hour count as part of their regular teaching load, while the second hour is considered overtime.

At this point, no changes are being implemented to the funding of team-taught courses.

“We have no plans to change this practice, including judicious use of new opportunities for team teaching if it is in the best interests of the students,” said Provost Gayle Davis.

Honors student Jenna Bernson said team teaching has given her a strong academic experience so far.

Bernson is in a two-year sequence, “The Making of Europe,” which has four professors bringing expertise from different fields.

“I believe that having more than one professor has been a great advantage to my academic career,” she said. “It brings a lot of knowledge into the classroom. For example, when one professor is lecturing about history, an important historical concept can be exemplified by the art of the period, which can ever-so-swiftly be done by the art historian sitting in the room.”

Different dynamic

Professor Jeremiah Cataldo said the sequences are beneficial not only for students, but instructors as well.

Before joining the Honors College at the beginning of this year, Cataldo taught one team-taught course in the history department. He now teaches a freshman Honors segment, “Alliance and Conflict: World Construction in Religion and Society,” with a philosophy professor.

Cataldo said the class dynamics of a team-taught course are different than when one professor teaches alone, but he said he enjoys both methods.

“I enjoy being in this environment,” he said “For me, it’s absolutely worth it. The style of back and forth changes a little bit when there’s another professor in the room. When you’re team teaching, you can play off not only the engagement of the student, but the engagement of the other professor.”

Cataldo said dialogue between professors is advantageous for students to hear.

“One of the benefits to having another professor in a room is the two professors can have an academic discussion and model an academic discussion for students, like what goes on in the professional world,” he said. “If done well, it models academic debate and discussion.”

Cataldo said team-teaching shows students how to handle unexpected disagreement.

However, he said team-teaching can also pose a challenge for students, especially those who try to cater to a particular professor’s academic style.

The students are not the only ones who meet challenges, though.

“I’m having to defend points or proposals that I’m offering from the perspective of philosophy,” Cataldo said. “It’s challenging. It forces me to at times admit that I don’t know everything.”

The professor said the experience has fostered his own professional growth.

“Overall, it’s the discussion by which we learn, its not having the right answers its not having the wrong answers,” he said. “Having somebody there who’s able to challenge me from a different perspective makes me learn constantly.”

Cataldo said the philosophical outlook of his teaching partner has even influenced his professional pursuits.

“On a subconscious level, if I think back on it now, some of the things I’ve been pursuing, the avenues that I’ve been pursuing, have been influenced,” he said. “They’ve changed since I started team-teaching with a philosopher.”

Overall, Cataldo agreed with the administrators that team-teaching is beneficial to the university.

“I think if done well it demonstrates perhaps the true spirit of interdisciplinary in liberal arts,” Cataldo said.

Bernson said the team-teaching courses have succeeded in integrating different academic fields.

“By going through the team-teaching experience, I really have been able to see how different academic disciplines act together to form one knowledge, as the parts of the body act together as one being,” she said.

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