I recently had someone tell me that co-teaching was one of the biggest academic scams going. "The biggest, in fact," he corrected. According to him, this was insult to injury in the context of a larger academic universe that was itself, by his estimation, one gigantic institutionalized racket of Mafioso (and "governmental") proportions. (A side note about his "governmental" critique: I should probably add that this person is a libertarian, and something of a conspiracy theorist.)
And he wasn't just talking in the abstract. He was offering me a bit of a browbeating for the amount of co-teaching that I have done over the course of my professorial career.
To hear him tell it, co-teaching is just a way for faculty members to get full credit for half the work. They conspire with their colleagues to split a semester or quarter in two so that they don't have to prepare for (or attend) all of the sessions. With this illicitly gained free time, they can then selfishly work on their own projects, which was at least a better option, he admitted, than what he suspected was the usual alternative: doing absolutely nothing productive at all, like the closeted slackers all academics seemingly want to be.
I have heard this critique of co-teaching many times, and I've seen examples of co-teaching that do seem to merit the cynicism, structuring the "collaboration" such that students experience it as little more than two distinct pedagogical ships passing one another in the dark curricular night. (Of course, these same students tend not to enjoy such courses, or to consider them valuable educational experiences.)
To complicate matters even more, there is also the question of how much co-teaching should really count toward faculty teaching loads: as a full course (like any other)? Half a course? (Even less than that, my interlocutor might argue, given his aforementioned assessment of things.)
If done well, I would argue that co-teaching with a colleague could even count as two courses. Or at least a course and a half. That's because to really do it right, to do it well, means many more hours of preparation beforehand: debating the foundational structure of the course, comparing notes/takes on the material, and doing justice to two distinct perspectives on the subject matter. It can require as long as a year (even longer) for colleagues to effectively collaborate (over coffees, lunches and late-night bull sessions) on the conceptualization and organization of a substantive (and reasonably coherent) co-taught syllabus.
I've actually only ever co-taught courses where both of us attended all of the sessions, read all of the materials and prepared lectures/comments/questions for one another and the students every single week, but I realize that that isn't always possible, especially if an institution asks that such co-teaching be conducted as an overloaded add-on to a person's regular teaching schedule (which is how some academics have described the policies of their schools to me).
In a course on "Film and Reality" that I co-taught with a Kantian philosopher at Duke, every class session was a learning experience for everyone involved. Some sessions he'd lead, and my role was to respond/rebut (from an anthropological perspective). When I led, he'd do the same (providing philosophical/analytical counterpoints/extensions to my positions). In a lecture on semiotics (and the ostensible differences between Ferdinand de Saussure's binaries and Charles Sanders Peirce's tripartitism), my co-instructor pushed back with a challenge to the distinctiveness of iconicity and indexicality vis-a-vis what I had described as the more arbitrary and un-motivated sign. It was a great discussion. Not because we got lost in our own debate (another minefield to avoid on team-taught terrain), but because we were able to use that discussion as a way to structure a series of student questions/comments about the contemporary utility of semiotic approaches to social analysis (and discrepancies between them).
Since coming to Penn, I've co-taught graduate courses and undergraduate courses, small seminars and large lecture offerings. In all of these instances, my collaborators and I met each week, before the actual class sessions, discussing our divergent take on the readings, sharing our thoughts on the specifics of the week's agenda, and making sure that we had a detailed set of expectations (of ourselves and our students) before we stepped into the classroom. When it works, this is an enriching experiences for everyone, which makes the extra preparation worth it.
In an academic world where interdisciplinarity is offered up as part of the intellectual air we breathe, co-teaching will probably become an increasingly valuable way of training students to think across conventional disciplinary (and even methodological) dividing lines.
In an academic world where interdisciplinarity is offered up as constitutive of the intellectual air we all breathe, co-teaching should become an increasingly valued way of training students to think across conventional disciplinary (and even methodological) dividing lines.
(crossposted at The Chronicle of Higher Education)