• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Teaching Is Collaborative

Sometimes I forget.

February 22, 2015

It’s easy for me to forget this sometimes, but teaching is collaborative.

It’s easy to forget because in the majority of the time I spend on my teaching work, I am physically alone. The preparation and the grading are solo pursuits, the solo-er the better when it comes to grading, since when I’m in the thick of a stack of essays and absorbed in the task, I’m in a kind of non-responsive void.

But a post last week discussing my grading method and philosophies drew a number of thoughtful and thought-provoking comments – many of which I agree with, a couple of which I find personally abhorrent – but all of which caused me to consider this aspect of my teaching practice more deeply.

I recognized the discussion as a kind of collaboration, at least it served that purpose for me. It allowed me to challenge and then clarify my own thinking, to put some of my unstated assumptions into explicit statements of personal pedagogical principle[1].

I realized something that should’ve been obvious, that whenever I am engaging in the duties of teaching, my actions are the byproducts of collaboration.

When I write an assignment, I am using the principles of design that Prof. Marlene Preston taught me during my time at Virginia Tech. When I am letting my enthusiasm for a subject loose on my students, I am collaborating with John Wood, the director of my graduate program who would shatter chalk on the board doing scansion and could move himself to tears reciting a poem out loud.

When I am meeting individually with my students, I am collaborating with my undergraduate mentor at the University of Illinois, Philip Graham, who was the first professor to make me believe all students are worth investing in.

And of course, I am always collaborating with my students as well. What they have done and showed me over the years has perhaps shaped my teaching practice more than anything else.

When they fail to attend class or read the feedback on their essays or do what I think should be obvious, they are telling me something about the ways they intersect with my teaching. Sometimes they are telling me I am right on target. Other times I am due for a rethinking.

I have long believed that what I most enjoy about teaching is the iterative process of the work. It is like writing in this way, a series of successes and failures, (more the latter than the former) where I stretch to give my best effort, and am simultaneously humbled by the falling short, but emerge emboldened to try again[2]. Collaboration is important fuel for this process.

I believe my thirst for collaboration is rooted in the very inadequacy of my preparation prior to my first time in charge of a classroom as a graduate TA, a couple of sessions prior to the start of school that I remember primarily being concerned with logistics, rather than pedagogy. I emerged from the first class session shell shocked, realizing I had no idea what I was expected to accomplish, only knowing what my professors had done, with very few of them seeming to be good examples.

I’d never even taken “freshman comp.” How could I be expected to teach it?

I returned to my office and began firing questions at my officemate, Neil Connelly,[3] a year ahead of me in the program, who answered those and many others mostly patiently over the next two years.

Ironically, my contingent career has allowed me more opportunities to collaborate. For the six years I spent at Clemson, I shared an office with two and sometimes three other people. Over that time, six different instructors cycled through, including a temporary visiting professor of film studies from Germany.

Sometimes the collaboration was explicit, talking about our philosophies and approaches or engaging in a session of group problem solving.

But sometimes it was inadvertent, overhearing an officemate discuss an assignment with a student, or catching a glimpse of an interesting worksheet on someone else’s desk.

All of it goes into the hopper as I sort through my own approaches.

Unfortunately, the deeper I get into my career, the less chance I have to collaborate with colleagues. I have my own office now. (Not complaining!) Because of my outside work, the department has accommodated a Tu/Th teaching schedule that has me on campus, fully booked all day those days, but usually working from home on the other ones.

I still have the stray conversations, the “How’s it going?” that turns into a quick exchange about a course that may send me in a different direction, but they’re happenstance.

Most of my colleagues are similarly busy, the semester a head down sprint with little time to look around.

So I have two questions.

1. How important do you find collaboration in your approach to teaching?

2. How do you find opportunities to collaborate on your campuses?


[1] As a quick example, I’d never specifically thought about why I read all student work to completion. Hearing others say that they don’t, and why, forced me to confront my own assumptions. Is it an important duty? Or am I wasting my and my students’ time?

[2] This is why I believe that education is much more about process than product. The deepest enjoyment I get from both teaching and writing is in the process of doing, not the product of having done.

[3] Who has since gone on to earn tenure at two institutions and publish multiple novels.


Twitter is also often collaborative in a hive-mind kind of way.



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