Adventures in Team Teaching

About this time last year, Dr. McMenomy approached me with an idea that was half-proposal and half-plea. The World History course for that year had both students enrolled and a textbook picked out and purchased, but did not have a teacher. As I was the other specifically-history teacher on the Scholars Online staff, Dr. McMenomy asked me to take over. I hesitated; while I enjoy teaching anything historical, I was less delighted with the notion of taking over a class with its syllabus essentially dictated by a book I hadn’t chosen, especially a book which Dr. McMenomy acknowledged was far from ideal. Moreover, I knew that I’d need to do some preparation in August and September, which happened to be when I was a) moving and b) organizing a small conference. With this in mind, I said I had to decline. But the good doctor was politely insistent, pointing out that he was deeply opposed to canceling a class with students enrolled. He offered to lend a hand in getting the class set up: we could team-teach until I’d found my feet, he said, and then he’d let me take over. Still with some trepidation, I accepted this proposal.

Our first task was to write up summaries and quizzes for each chapter. We soon settled into the pattern of swapping off, each one of us writing up the notes and the quiz, and then leading the discussion. The other teacher would chime in with some additional comments.

This led to some interesting moments right off. Dr. McMenomy and I do not agree on everything; in fact on some subjects we stand at opposites. In the teaching of history our differences are not quite so pronounced, but there’s a real difference of emphasis. The doctor knows more than I about the intellectual history of the world, being by trade and inclination a classics instructor; he studies ideas, their transmission, and their influence. In contrast my attention is usually on everyday people in history—not the rulers or the scholars, but the ordinary folks who worked, fought, and struggled; the ones doing the digging and the dying, as it were. Dr. McMenomy is a master of learning and knowing what has been handed down to us, whereas I am trying to find out who and what has been overlooked, and therefore he has somewhat higher regard for established authority, while I am usually cheering for the underdog.

With such differences in style—not total opposition, but different enough—the result could have been tension and conflict. Instead, the result was a creative tension. Dr. McMenomy and I have known each other for almost three decades now, in fact since I was a young child, and as a result we know each other’s standpoints and respect them. Thus any difference of opinion that might have triggered a dispute was kept in check by our long friendship. This did not keep us from discussing and even debating, but we did so with high regard for each other even as we contested each other’s points.

At first I was concerned about showing this during class. But Dr. McMenomy pointed out that it would be good for our students to see that history is not a settled issue. The truth of history is not relative—something did happen, after all—but knowing the whole of that truth is nigh on impossible, and thus history is a realm of theory and evidence. My historical theories have support and also have a few holes; Dr. McMenomy’s ideas are, being human, similarly incomplete. The Grand Unified Theory of History, he says, is that no Grand Unified Theory of History is possible. When we discussed in front of the students, we thus made it clear that history is subject to continual questioning and debate. We also showed them that it’s up to them to make up their own minds. We refused to hand down definitive answers, because any such answers would keep the students from coming to their own conclusions… and besides, any such definitive answers would probably be flawed.

The doctor and I did come to many points of agreement; it wasn’t a continual debate. We did not always agree on the sources of power, but we both agreed that power was at the heart of history, and frequently steered our discussion in that direction. We also came to agree that geography is destiny, though naturally with a few limits. We were also firmly united in our growing disdain for the textbook we were using.

The weeks went by, the classes and the discussions continued, and it dawned on us that, rather than a chore forced on us, the class had become downright fun. Dr. McMenomy never stepped back and handed the class over to me; neither of us wanted him to. The collaboration was too delightful. We each built half of the exams, reviewed each other’s work, and then sent it on to the students; for grading, we would grade the work separately, compare notes, and then settle on a compromise where needed. As far as could be managed we kept things balanced, splitting the chapters between us and writing up extensive commentaries on each one, with discussion questions at the end to guide the class.

We noted that the commentaries were growing more and more lengthy. This was necessary; the book was continually failing to provide adequate coverage and synthesis. Sometimes it failed to provide even basic coherency, and was riddled with errors great and small. Looking for a replacement, we discovered to our dismay that it was the best available at that grade level. There were better books, but only for college students.

At the end of the year Dr. McMenomy began overhauling our class website, which was beginning to stagger under the amount of material we’d loaded onto it, and realized that over the course of the year, we’d written over forty-five thousand words. At which point he made a new proposal to me: “Would you like to write a textbook? We’re already well on our way.”

The idea caught our imaginations. We would continue the collaborative approach, we decided: each one of us would write certain chapters, then review the other’s work. Moreover we agreed to keep the useful conversation going within the text itself: we would respond to each other’s chapters, assessing and evaluating the other’s ideas, in a note at the end of each section. Thus students, reading through the text, would learn from the book itself that there are no easy answers, that when it comes to history you can’t necessarily just look up the answer, and that you should not automatically assume that what you read is gospel truth.

Then it dawned on us that we could begin to write our book piecemeal and replace sections of the current text as we went through (starting with the most egregiously inaccurate and inadequate chapters). As students read through, they will alternate between reading our material, posted online, and reading the old book. We aspire to rewrite about a third of the book as we teach this next year’s class. The material will be posted on the class website, which you can find here. The site is undergoing some changes at the moment and will undergo more throughout the year. Gradually, we’ll replace more and more of the book material, and eventually wind up with our own, brand-new text.

This is a substantial project, and we know it will take years. It’s also a highly ambitious project—ambitious to the point of madness, maybe!

But if so, it’s a truly pleasant madness. It is a deep privilege to work with Dr. McMenomy, who for all our differences of opinion remains the wisest and most insightful man I have ever met. I believe I speak for both of us when I say that we have learned a lot from each other and from the process of teaching this class; and we hope, with some confidence, that our learning leads to broader and better instruction, and our students will reap the benefits.

One Response to “Adventures in Team Teaching”

  1. Bruce McMenomy says:

    I’m somewhat at a loss as to how to respond to Mr. Christiansen’s post. His compliments leave me wondering whether he’s talking about some other Dr. McMenomy, but I suspect they are merely a function of his gracious personality. I’m trying to get him to work on his hyperbolic diction.

    Nevertheless, it would be churlish not to respond somehow; more to the point, though, I really want to underscore what I find the most trenchant pieces of his observations.

    I can definitely say that they year turned out to be vastly more fun than I had expected it to be. As noted, I was planning on getting the craft airborne, so to speak, and then diving out (metaphorically speaking). That’s not because I don’t like teaching history — it was, after all, my undergraduate major — but chiefly because as my schedule was set up, it left me sitting at the computer for four and a half hours without a break — following hard on the end of my Senior English class (which is always strenuous, though exciting), and followed in its turn by Latin III, which demands full-time hands-on attention. That’s taxing for someone closing in on sixty, with a creaky back that likes to have me walk around for a while.

    Even so, I just never got to the point where I wanted to leave the party. Mr. Christiansen never prompted me to leave, so, like the party guest who won’t go home, I stuck around for the whole year.

    I love teaching history for its own sake. That’s a given already. As a classicist, much of what I do is history anyway. But this course showed some other interesting properties.

    Those who know me well know that I’m fairly politically and socially conservative. I tend not to parade those things in class, because I don’t think that’s what I’m here for, but that’s my own inclination, and there are places in my teaching where my own deeper convictions come to the surface in (I hope) a responsible and measured way.

    Mr. Christiansen is both younger and more liberal in a number of ways. Neither of us, however, is a real knee-jerk responder: both of us really prefer to hear the arguments of the other side. The triumphalism of those who discover some apparent gaffe in the opposing camp that will allow them to score cheap points in a Facebook posting or the like (they never seem to end) just doesn’t appeal to either one of us. If nothing else, I’d rather persuade my opponents to agree with me than to club them to the ground to silence them. It seems more consistent with the Christian mandate.

    And so inevitably, sooner or later, as Mr. Christiansen reports, certain differences of opinion and approach emerged. It’s true that my own historical training has run more along the lines of intellectual history: that’s just what engaged me from the start. But it’s certainly not the whole of the picture. Mr. Christiansen and I have some strongly held differences about the kinds of things that divide our people and politicians even today. We have different notions about entitlements and the nature of charity and the obligations of the people and the state to one another. You can’t talk about the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, certainly, without some of those edges starting to show. If you know what to look for, you can see them considerably earlier, too.

    For all that, however, what we chiefly wanted to do was to model something we both agree is in desperately short supply in our republic and in the world — namely, civil discourse (on which subject, let me also refer you to Mr. Oles’ penetrating and thoughtful discussion in the most recent posts regarding the Supreme Court’s “Obamacare” decision). So we let some of those disagreements show. We didn’t manufacture disagreements merely for sport, but when real disagreements emerged, we didn’t try to hide them to present a common front. In the process, I think we did convey an important lesson — to the students, I hope, but also to some degree to ourselves. I discern two stages in the process.

    At the first, it may have surprised some of the students in the class. Students in a new class usually take a little while to emerge from their shells; sometimes that never happens at all. For some of our students, in particular, for good or ill (and there’s some of both), there’s a tendency to regard the teacher as authoritative in ways that he or she would rather not be. There are things I know about the grammar of Greek and Latin, and facts I know about history, and in some sense I guess I am authoritative about those things. But a great deal of history has to do with how we weigh, value, and interpret the various incommensurate things we know — and there every person really has to think for himself or herself. Engaging in that process is what real historical thinking is about, and if one doesn’t do that, one never really closes and engages in the real hand-to-hand struggle with the discipline. Anything else is just downloading data. You don’t need us for that.

    What I noticed after a while, though, was the fact that Mr. Christiansen and I, by our disagreements, when they emerged, conveyed a kind of license to the students to disagree with us as well.

    What came after that was that the students became more willing to disagree with us and with each other. They all understood that this was okay, and that advancing their positions thoughtfully was what the game was about. It was not a very large class, but it was large enough to support some level of disagreement.

    That doesn’t extend carte blanche to say whatever one likes. If someone disagrees with me, I expect him or her to defend that opinion articulately and with courtesy — but I don’t expect any quarter in the terms of material itself. I don’t grant any either. I will do my best to be persuasive, but I do not take opposition as a personal affront at all. If I fail to persuade, that’s okay. It sometimes happens that I’m persuaded myself. That’s okay too. If I’m not willing to change my mind, I might as well write off the whole project, since inquiry — the real active life of the mind — is dead.

    Some will find the idea of a student standing up to a teacher shocking or impertinent. I know that there are a lot of people who are looking to classical Christian education as a way out of the morass that has afflicted at least some public schools, where rudeness (as popular wisdom has it) is a way of life. In fact that’s seldom what I’ve seen in my glimpses into public schools. Some of them, just to be perfectly fair, are doing splendid work. But where they are failing, it’s not because the students are incorrigibly cheeky. It’s because they’re completely disengaged from the material, and they just don’t care about it at all. I know there are teachers — there are college professors, for that matter — who take it as an insult that anyone should dare to disagree with them. I’m not one of those. I take it as a validation of the whole operation. Only someone who is thinking about the concepts we’re talking about can disagree.

    Some will find the idea of a student standing up to another student a kind of “breaking ranks” or disloyalty. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Their opinions are thereby challenged and tested and brought to a sharper focus — or occasionally changed. That’s all good too — in the Biblical metaphor, the refiner’s fire.

    Dr. Christe wrote about something like this in the past on this blog, under the name “The Right Answer”. It was there more about the theory of the whole thing, and less about our discoveries in the course of a single class. But I refer you to her comments here. To some extent what we have been doing this year recapitulates what Drs. Palmer and Howe (both teachers of mine in their day too, due to the integrated nature of the Claremont Colleges’ classics departments) did in the lecture/debate she talks about there. It occurs to me that it may be a more important tool than I had ever suspected it would be.

    So bring on the students who disagree. Let’s have more of that. To paraphrase a cynical Henry II in The Lion in Winter, to these old eyes, that’s what winning looks like.

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