I’m teaching a new course this semester, and it’s one that requires me to stretch quite a bit beyond my normal boundaries, beyond what Gerald Graff recently called “coursecentrism” on this very site. A couple of years ago, I was part of an ad hoc committee that examined how we introduce students to the English major and decided to change it. We worried that students were confused by, as Graff notes, going “from one teacher who passionately believes that interpretations of literary texts are correct or incorrect — or at least more correct or incorrect than other interpretations — to another teacher who smiles or rolls his or her eyes at the naivete of such a belief; or from one teacher who expects undergraduates to analyze literature by using a rigorous methodology and terminology to another who thinks it sufficient if they learn to appreciate books in whatever way is comfortable to them.”
We knew, already, that our approaches to texts might be different, and we were comfortable with that; nonetheless, we wanted to provide students with a shared framework to get them started. So we came up with a two-semester sequence of “modularized” courses, one called Literature in History and the other, Genre and Mode. In each, two professors collaborate to teach the students a mini-course on a single topic; at the end of two semesters, then, students will have encountered four professors and four ways of thinking about English, but in a deliberate, not a haphazard, way. Not incidentally, we faculty members would also encounter each other in a new way, focusing deliberately on our teaching rather than simply sharing war stories in the break room.
Or that’s the idea. So this semester I’m teaching “Literature in History” with another colleague. My half of the class focuses on 1848 and the rise of women’s writing; hers on 1968 and the emergence of ethnic literature. We are offering two sections of the course this semester, and each of us will teach 7 weeks in one section, then swap; half the students will encounter 1968 before 1848, the other half vice versa.
Confused yet? I am just sorting it out for myself. This course required more up-front work than most. Although I was only inventing half a syllabus, I had to work with my colleague to determine where we’d assign papers, and what kind; how we’d manage the transition between sections; which common readings we’d assign when. As we talked, I realized we didn’t always share assumptions about the purpose of the papers and exams (to consolidate knowledge or raise new questions? to prepare for the next reading or sum up the last?) — not to mention the purpose of the course as a whole. And yet we came to agreement relatively easily, coming up with a syllabus that is both detailed and flexible. Whether we can actually cover all the material in the time allotted still remains to be seen, but the course got off to a good start before we even met with the students, simply through our shared efforts.
It’s not easy to collaborate, especially (I’m afraid) for humanists. It’s not part of our job training; we don’t work in labs or research groups but in isolated library carrels and offices. We teach, often, as we were taught, finding our way over the course of many semesters by trial and error. My own education in collaboration has come, to a great degree, from shared parenting: I can’t simply replicate my own parents (or react against them) with my children, as my husband may (indeed, often does!) have different ideas. Over the years we’ve learned that, while we have different approaches on occasion, as long as we are clear about our shared values we usually do all right. I tried to take that approach into our course planning sessions as well — we don’t need to teach the same way, but we need to be open about our goals and our values from the outset. As the semester rolls on, I’ll let you know how it goes.