Turbocharge teaching with a team of rivals

Courses led by interdisciplinary groups can energise teachers and students, says Robert Zaretsky

February 20, 2014

Colleagues do not always welcome such trespasses, especially when they are obliged to sit in the auditorium and observe them

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals tells the tale of Abraham Lincoln’s decision to staff his cabinet with political opponents, who were given free rein to argue their positions and air their thoughts, making for a smart and powerful presidency. President Barack Obama embraced Goodwin’s portrait of the Lincoln presidency upon his election in 2008, as have chief executives and business leaders, persuaded that it offers a model for effective leadership.

Why not the academy? What if we were to picture a team of professors, the academic equivalents of Lincoln’s collaborators, devoted to maintaining not the Union but instead the union of the humanities? Might this approach be no less effective in leading a first-year course than in leading a nation?

Few lines of work are more public yet more solitary than teaching the humanities. We are alone in our research, alone in our reading and alone in our writing. And though it is the most banal of observations, it nevertheless still surprises when we realise we are alone in our teaching. From our graduate days, we knew this would be so, but truly understood what it meant only on the first day we stood, alone, in front of a full lecture hall.

As teachers, our job resembles a one-man show. Of course, when solo works work, they work miracles. Brian Dennehy as Krapp in Samuel Beckett’s play, Spalding Gray as Spalding Gray, Sir Patrick Stewart as the entire cast in the theatre production of A Christmas Carol: we all have our favourite miracle workers. So, too, on the stage of the lecture hall: whether they are teaching Saint Augustine or Augie March, celebrated lecturers impress as much by their person as by their perspective. The great difference, of course, is that with lectures, we are not just the actor but the director and writer as well.

This makes us especially prone to the “Hal Holbrook syndrome”: just as Holbrook, though a fine actor, has yoked himself for half a century to his role as Mark Twain, we bind ourselves to a certain character we formed early in our careers. Don’t most of us perform the same script we wrote when we began our career? And why shouldn’t we? Once we make a script our own – whether it is on the causes of the French Revolution or the consequences of the First World War, on the glories of free indirect discourse in Flaubert or miseries of life in Beckett – why would we want to surrender it? Isn’t our interpretation still persuasive? Don’t our insights still run deep?

Of course, like a veteran actor, we tweak our performance, adding a couple of lines, ad-libbing yet others, but the essence remains fastened to the original text. Needless to say, this state of affairs makes us uneasy. How many times, as we prepare for the coming term, have we vowed to change the outline of our scripts – namely, our syllabuses? How often do we plan to assign books we have not yet read as a prod to teach in a new way the same old course? And how often do those vows and plans melt under the baking sun of book projects or administrative duties? Let us leave aside the fact of sheer inertia, as well as the sad excuse that accompanies it: because our audience is always fresh, we can safely go stale.

Who can say how many academics recognise themselves in this portrait? But for those who have, like me, glimpsed their reflection, allow me to pose a question: what if our audience is made up not just of students but, as with Lincoln’s team of rivals, of our peers as well? And as with that wartime cabinet, decisions on reading lists and grand themes are decided upon only after vigorous, occasionally bruising debate?

Truly interdisciplinary team teaching is a rare practice in the academy. To be sure, thanks to its liberal arts model, there are plenty of US courses in which academic staff from various disciplines are parachuted in. Their objectives are quite specific: deliver a lecture from their particular area, deal with a few questions, than disappear forever from the field of battle. As a result, the sum of their contributions resembles the surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse: a pile of discrete lectures, each of which has only the most tenuous tie to those that precede and follow it. Most often, the student is left to connect the dots or find a narrative that links this series of guest appearances. Not only do professors who join such courses rarely help to devise the syllabus but they rarely engage their colleagues from other departments. It is hard not to think of a variety show: while the evening’s stars are in their respective dressing rooms, they are ignorant or indifferent to the performer on the stage. Far from breaking down the compartmentalisation and specialisation that bedevil our profession, these courses recreate, even reinforce, such narrow practices. Like commuters in the cocoon of their cars, each tuning in to his or her usual radio station, one that plays the same songs over and over, we are neither encouraged nor forced into considering other ways of making music. It is as soothing to hear, once again, The Cranberries hitting the same old notes as it is to teach Candide, once again, from the same old notes.

Feature illustration (20 February 2014)

The sparks that often fly between conflicting interpretations of the same work remind students and scholars that this is the human situation

But team teaching à la Lincoln can teach us new tunes. For more than two decades, I was part of such a course at my institution. Based on the “great books” model at the University of Chicago, the course – titled “The Human Situation” – is taught by a group of half a dozen faculty members. Not only did we come from various departments but we also came from different generations: newly minted PhDs playing on the same even field with full professors. Moreover, although the team has a nominal leader, she or he is not clothed, as is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with immense power. At best, the leader is a traffic police officer, doing their best to prevent head-on collisions between immense egos and, when necessary, pulling over the occasional colleague driving under the conviction that if Ulysses (or The Republic, The Divine Comedy or Remembrance of Things Past) is not on the list, we will have failed posterity.

Though posterity might be the poorer for the final reading list, the team players are richer. (We want to believe the students are, too, but some of us remain agnostic on that vexed issue.) To begin, we are forced – there really is no better word – to read books from far-flung fields – books we have never read and never would read were it not for a colleague’s impassioned case for its inclusion. How often do historians of modern France prepare for a series of classes on, say, The Epic of Gilgamesh or Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will or Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood? Can it ever be often enough when, rather like William Seward and Edwin M. Stanton discovering the remarkable qualities of a president they had once scorned, we discover the remarkable traits of authors whom we had previously thought little of or about?

Stumble across enough such works and you will grow to like it – so much so that you will create your own stumbling blocks. How else to explain how I often found myself volunteering to lecture on books I either had never read or read long before I pigeonholed myself as a historian of modern France? As a general rule, universities do not invite absolute beginners to lecture in areas or on books they scarcely know. Moreover, colleagues do not always welcome such trespasses, especially when – and this is a second criterion for true team teaching – they are obliged to sit in the auditorium and observe them. Early in my career, I offered to give a series of lectures on Thucydides. Though the ancient Athenian is the father of my profession, I had never grasped the reasons for our bond and was eager to uncover them. The classicist on the team, however, could not drum up the same enthusiasm: sitting in the front row, he repeatedly and grimly shook his head as I spoke. (He left the profession soon after in order to work at an observatory, no doubt happier peering at Piscis Austrinus than hearing me on the Peloponnesian War.)

Such disconcerting experiences are plentiful, ranging from the Germanist who, tasked with lecturing on the Iliad, instead rambled on about Star Wars, to the Shakespeare scholar who turned every text into an occasion to play King Lear. Still, I find that a novice’s excitement often weighs as much as a veteran’s expertise on the pedagogical scales, especially when veterans are sitting among the undergraduates. The effort to engage both students and colleagues concentrates the mind wonderfully. Once concentrated, the mind is then enriched by subsequent conversations both under the lights of the auditorium and over beers at a cafe.

Of course, this does not mean there will always be a meeting of minds; far from it. Goodwin traces how Lincoln and his inveterate opponent, the treasury secretary Salmon Chase, who often clashed at cabinet meetings, nevertheless achieved great successes that benefited cause and country. The sparks that often fly between conflicting interpretations of the same work remind both students and scholars that this is, after all, the human situation. What could be healthier? It is also our situation to grow less adventurous as we grow older. While truly interdisciplinary team teaching is not an antidote to ageing, it does help to prevent intellectual mustiness. Finally, it is the situation of the modern academy that, despite the persistent calls for interdisciplinary work, it remains a patchwork of subdisciplines that exist in ignorance of one another. In an age of severe budget constraints and deepening doubts about the relevance of the humanities, this situation is potentially fatal. Not just for the teaching of the humanities, of course, but even for its ageing teachers who risk forgetting why they chose the humanities in the first place.

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