Lessons from Designing a Co-Taught Interdisciplinary Course
By Elizabeth M. Henley and Susan E. Cook, Southern New Hampshire University
In the fall of 2016, we—Drs. Liz Henley from the Department of Computer Information Technology and Susan Cook from the Department of English—co-taught a course titled Industrial Revolution/Digital Revolution. Here we describe our process of creating this co-taught interdisciplinary course. While interdisciplinary research and teaching have received increasing acceptance and institutional support in recent years, our two fields of Information Technology and English are not typical of many interdisciplinary partnerships. Our work developing Industrial Revolution/Digital Revolution demonstrated to us the degree to which inter-school interdisciplinary co-teaching introduces specific challenges, but also specific benefits. While every institution approaches and supports interdisciplinary teaching differently, it is our hope that by serving as a case study, our description of our experiences planning Industrial Revolution/Digital Revolution will introduce useful topics for future consideration, inquiry, and application. As Alison J. Friedow, Erin E. Blankenship, Jennifer L. Green, and Walter W. Stroup note, “Despite claims about the possibilities interdisciplinary learning offers, we have few examples of how faculty from different disciplines work together to create interdisciplinary classroom environments where such outcomes can occur. In short, more examples of how faculty from different disciplines actually develop, engage, and revise interdisciplinary pedagogies with one another are needed in interdisciplinary scholarship” (405). This essay offers one such example by describing the development of our course, as well as the structures that made it possible.
Our class participated in by-now established higher education co-teaching and interdisciplinary teaching trends. Katherine K. Smith and Vanessa G. Winn note that the term “co-teaching” is the more common nomenclature at the K-12 level, arising out of the relationship between the “general educator and the special educator, in the wake of the amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997” (436). Yet, as Kenneth Tobin writes, “The central part to coteaching is teaching together—in ways that coordinate and compliment the teaching among co-teachers for the common good of all students” (191). Conversely, “team-teaching” is understood as a model “in which teachers trade responsibility, dividing up the workload and teaching within the comfort of their own specializations (Smith and Winn 436). This alternating approach to teaching is not favored by students, as noted by Kimberly Dugan and Margaret Letterman, who found that instead “students prefer team-taught courses with truly collaborative teaching methods” (14). Studies, such as that conducted by John R. Morelock et al, clearly indicate that true co-teaching provides “a desirable educational experience for students, providing a more in-depth exploration of content knowledge” (187).
The college co-teaching model is particularly well-suited for the interdisciplinary classroom, in which learning goals include asking students to make connections across different fields of knowledge. Adi Kidron and Yael Kali observe that our century poses “challenges that demand different ways of thinking and the development of new skills. One of the critical skills is the ability to think and integrate knowledge across disciplines and to understand the relations between fields of knowledge” (1). Indeed, the process of developing interdisciplinary modes of thought “requires a learning process through which learners integrate insights and modes of thinking from a number of disciplines to advance their understanding of a topic which is beyond the scope of a single discipline” (1). Interdisciplinary thinking and the collaborative pedagogies and technologies that support it serve students who must learn to use such modes “effectively in their personal and professional lives” (Tharp 46). Beyond this, however, Oskar Guenwald argues the future of knowledge itself is at stake: while “many in academe still consider interdisciplinary studies as a fad or fashion,” this is due to the fact that “academics are trained overwhelmingly in universities that continue the compartmentalization of knowledge among disciplines and departments…The result is an increasing fragmentation of knowledge and lack of insight concerning the interconnections and the unity underlying the phenomenal world” (23). With these issues and this framework in mind, we set out to make our own contribution to co-taught interdisciplinary studies.
IT 2ST3: Industrial Revolution/Digital Revolution was a continuation of our teaching collaboration, which began in the fall of 2012 with a reading communities digital project in Susan’s Major Author Studies course on Charles Dickens. Through this earlier project we learned that our research and teaching interests complemented one another’s in unexpected ways, and we decided to develop a course bridging our two fields, in the hopes that we might be able to model interdisciplinary modes of thought while teaching an already interdisciplinary topic. This previous collaboration resulted in an article, “Reading Communities in the Dickens Classroom,” published in the April 2015 issue of Pedagogy.
The course that eventually became Industrial Revolution/Digital Revolution not only pulled in information from our disciplines of information technology and literature, but also drew on additional related disciplines within our respective schools, such as economics and history. The course description reads:
This course examines the history, impact, and contemporary legacy of the Industrial Revolution through literature and cultural studies. Students will learn about the major cultural, literary, economic, and technological influences that led to and sustained the Industrial Revolution, and will study the 21st-century digital revolution in terms of this earlier cultural movement. The course will begin with readings, lectures, and discussions focused on the Industrial Revolution and its prehistory, and will conclude with readings, lectures, and discussions focused on 21st-century technological developments in the age of globalization. The middle third of the class will center around a Reacting to the Past game titled “Rage Against the Machine: Technology, Rebellion, and the Industrial Revolution.” This elaborate role playing game gives students the opportunity to learn about this subject in a uniquely engaged manner. The course will blend literature, history, economics, and information technology to provide students with a truly interdisciplinary experience.
As noted in the description, the course was essentially divided into thirds, with the first third covering the Industrial Revolution, the middle third consisting of the Reacting to the Past Game, and the final third applying this earlier framework to the Digital Revolution. The course included readings, discussions, and lectures about both the Industrial Revolution and its prehistory, as well as complementary readings, discussions, and lectures about 21st-century technological developments in the age of globalization. We assigned the novel North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, to give students an idea of some of the issues that were current at the time of the Industrial Revolution. In the final third of the course, we assigned The World is Flat, by Thomas Freedman, to cover the events leading up to and the current impact of the Digital Revolution.
Our selected Reacting to the Past game, “Rage Against the Machine: Technology, Rebellion, and the Industrial Revolution,” gave students the opportunity to learn about the Industrial Revolution by adopting the positions and arguments of nineteenth-century archetypes, such as mill owners, mill workers, shop keepers, and gentry. The game included readings to help provide context for the issues students were asked to grapple with as part of game play, and we used these readings to help students make connections to the rest of the course material. For example, we returned to Adam Smith’s theorization of the invisible hand throughout our Reacting game as well as in the final section of the course as we discussed globalization and different views on trade regulations. Similarly, David Ricardo’s discussion of the natural price of labor and Robert Owen’s position on how employees should be treated reemerged as discussion points throughout the course’s historical trajectory.
We are fortunate that our institution encourages interdepartmental and inter-school collaboration and supports interdisciplinary teaching. Whereas Kathryn D. Blanchard observes, “Ask any provost or academic dean why most professors teach alone most of the time, and you will hear the most persuasive of all reasons: money,” our institution has nevertheless made interdisciplinary programming a priority (339). Industrial Revolution/Digital Revolution was created with the support of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Through the CTL, SNHU has developed many initiatives, and currently supports multiple types of programming around interdisciplinary work. One such initiative that particularly helped us came in the form of a Reacting to the Past workshop hosted by the CTL during the summer of 2015. Reacting to the Past is the name given to a set of historically situated role playing games designed for students, originally developed by Barnard College in the 1990s. There are now over thirty Reacting games either in development or fully peer-reviewed and published. The workshop we attended introduced participants to the Reacting game structure, and gave us an opportunity to play a truncated version of Patriots, Loyalists & Revolution in New York City, 1775-76 with our colleagues. Reacting to the Past is an excellent conduit through which to approach interdisciplinary teaching, for as developers state on their website, “Part of the intellectual appeal of RTTP is that it transcends disciplinary structures” (Reacting).
We were further supported in our development of Industrial Revolution/Digital Revolution by a grant program offered through the CTL called the Innovative Teaching Partnership Program (ITPP). This program encourages faculty from two different disciplines to apply for and create a new course that merges their fields. Faculty engage in a year-long partnership, where they typically develop their course together in the spring semester and then teach the course the following fall semester. Only three partnerships are funded each year, and the program allows each of these courses to count as part of each faculty’s regular teaching load. In addition, the program provides a stipend for each faculty member to compensate the partnership for the time spent developing the new course. One requirement of the program is to give a presentation about the planning process and then another on the experience, which allows other faculty to learn more about the program. Another requirement of the program is that both faculty members must truly co-teach the course—not just divide up the content and assignments and essentially divide the class in half. ITPP courses are truly interdisciplinary. Susan previously received an ITPP grant in 2012, and designed a course on book banning in partnership with a library faculty member. Faculty have been funded for work bridging fields such as English and Graphic Design, Math and Chemistry, Organizational Leadership and Psychology, and Sociology and Marketing.
While faculty applying for an ITPP grant can be from any two different disciplines, priority is given to partnerships representing two different schools. At SNHU, our two programs fall under the School of Business and the School of Arts and Sciences. We wanted to create a course that would bring together two disciplines that are not typically taught together. Our aim was to show students how two different disciplines address a given topic, in order to demonstrate the methodologies and discourses that differentiate us, as well as the approaches that we share.
As part of our process for developing the course, we both started with a selection of books: Susan for the earlier section of the course, and Liz for the later section. However, when we looked through the additional readings integrated into the Reacting to the Past game and the rest of the course timeline, we narrowed our additional readings down to one book per section. We used the game readings to help shape key connections to each of the two books. The game readings, which we both read, helped provide a common language for the focus of course discussions. The reading selection process was time-intensive, as we reviewed not only primary sources in our own fields, but also those suggested by one another. As part of our effort to make this a truly co-taught course, we took responsibility for learning about one another’s selected readings. This involved sharing summaries of the readings with each other during the planning phase and then reading those books in full, before the class periods when they would be discussed.
Once we had the rough outline for the course, our next step was to create the rest of the structure. We developed a reading schedule and determined what types of assignments might best allow students to demonstrate they had formed the connections we were asking them to make. We spent considerable time discussing the number of assignments and general guidelines for each, as well as determining the weighting for each category. We quickly learned that our preferences for certain types of assignments highlighted our disciplinary differences: Susan was used to more qualitative essay assignments, while Liz was more familiar with application assignments. We ended up incorporating both types of assessments into the syllabus. We determined when we would schedule shared office hours and agreed on other class policies.
We agreed that we would run each class together (except for the middle third when we would be moderating the Reacting to the Past game) as a combination of lecture and discussion. We agreed to trade off taking the lead in generating the class discussion points and overarching class-by-class trajectory for different major sections of the course—Susan for the Industrial Revolution material in the first third of the course, and Liz for the Digital Revolution topics in the final third. However, we both made sure to read all of the course materials and shared responsibility for the discussion topics, so that we were each able to jump in and contribute to lectures and discussions each class period, utilizing the co-teaching model as described by Tobin and Morelock et al, over the team teaching model as described by Smith and Winn. We coordinated this by creating a shared folder in Dropbox to hold all of our class documents. One of the files was a lesson plan document, where discussion questions and topics for each section of the readings were listed with notes identifying the main points to be covered each class period and how we wanted those covered: for example, whole class discussion, small groups reporting back, debates, etc. This document gave us a rough guideline, and we kept it open-ended so as to make adjustments throughout the semester depending on student progress, school weather closures, or other extenuating circumstances. The shared lesson plan document was extremely useful, although we also supplemented this with face-to-face check-ins before and after class, as well as during our shared office hours.
As we were developing the course we explored possible field trips, because there were local opportunities to show students what eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mills were like beyond just using images and descriptions in the course readings. We toured two nearby mill museums: the Millyard Museum in Manchester, NH, and the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell, MA. We are fortunate to teach in a part of the country where this American Industrial Revolution history is preserved quite literally just down the road from us, and while there are important distinctions between American and British industrial development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these points of difference become talking points in and of themselves, and the similarities help students connect to the course material in ways readings and lectures—and even role playing games—cannot. Simply touring these museums as we developed our course allowed us to enrich our approaches to the material. Each mill presented its history very differently, which is explained in part by the fact that the Manchester Millyard Museum, while operated by the Manchester Historic Society, is owned by the Amoskeag Company—the successor to the mill company whose history the museum recounts. The Boott Museum, on the other hand, forms part of the Lowell National Historical Park. We decided to dedicate a class period to taking the students to the museum near the campus and, due to time constraints, to make the Boott Museum visit optional for extra credit. We felt that it was important to visit at least one of the museums with the students so that they could put the earlier course readings and game in perspective, as well as being able to see the technologies that were being described.
While much of the process of developing this co-taught interdisciplinary course was similar to the process of developing any new course, we each noted specific differences.
The most obvious difference I found in developing a co-taught course from developing a course on my own was the amount of compromise needed. Susan and I had worked together before, so I knew that we would not be extreme opposites, but there were still differences that popped up in our classroom policies, such as how we would break down grade weights, and even the number or type of assignments we would give.
With the interesting setup of our class, it allowed for us to still keep a variety of assignment types. For example, I tend to have a lot of assignments that have a heavy application piece, with students creating websites, mobile apps, physical items created with technology, or even reports to present to a business with technology recommendations. As part of many of these assignments, I also have several assignments that also incorporate a reflection component, about what went well, why certain decisions were made, etc. This meant that the Reacting to the Past game fit in well with that, as students were doing something with the material they were learning and also reflecting in journal assignments about why they had made different decisions within the game and what their overall strategy was. Understandably, literary analysis does not typically come up in my information technology courses. This meant that for some assignments, such as the game, we were able to combine both of our assignment preferences. Students needed to work with their readings to decide how their particular character would use that information or how to debate opposing viewpoints, applying the readings to their game strategy and reflecting throughout the process. With any assignments or policies where we were not in complete alignment and needed to make a compromise, I feel like we were both heard. If it was a situation where there was no middle ground, like whether or not to accept late work or if grades should be rounded, then the decision tended to go towards whoever felt more strongly about something. Overall, I think the course ended up being a good mix of both of us at the end. Going through the process also made me think more about my own methods because I had to be able to explain why I had things set up the way I did. It also gave me different ideas to try out in my other courses.
There was also more of a time commitment involved in developing a course with someone else. We would meet regularly, starting with our initial proposal for the ITPP grant, then as we developed a firmer structure and syllabus for the course, and finally as we worked on the specific lesson plans. I was developing another course at the same time on my own, and it had a very different timeline, as I could make decisions based on what I wanted to do with the class without needing to talk it through with anyone else. This also meant that at times that I was not in a much of a rush if I was thinking through how I wanted to handle or structure a component of the course, as I did not need to be checking in with someone or have anything finalized until syllabi were due at the start of the semester. I could work in spurts on the course, as I had ideas about how I wanted to frame different parts of it. For the co-taught course, we had meetings where we would talk about different parts of the process, make a list of what each of us was going to work on, and create deadlines as to when we would either send the other person something or meet again. It keeps you more accountable on a stricter timeline because you know someone else is relying on you, so you cannot procrastinate, while at the same time it takes longer because you do want to make sure that both people have input.
Co-teaching is something I enjoy, but which I also find challenging. As a literary studies scholar, I am accustomed to researching and teaching more or less alone, and since teaching my first class in the fall of 2003, I would say I have been largely left to my own devices to develop my syllabi and teach my classes. Even while teaching interdisciplinary material—which I frequently find myself doing in my composition, literature, or gender studies courses—I typically cover that material myself.
As Liz indicates above, one of the challenges of co-teaching is that it forces you to be able to articulate various aspects of your teaching methods or class policies. It also forced me to consider the extent to which my interdisciplinary teaching is framed by my literary studies disciplinary background. When I teach about photography in my Victorian literature course, for instance, I am doing so from the perspective of literary interpretation and cultural studies. The way I teach about the development of technologies changes when I am teaching alongside a colleague from IT, and a big part of this change is in the degree to which I am aware that the history I am teaching students is one narrative among several, inflected by my own focus in literary culture. Being able to confront the limitations of my own approaches to interdisciplinary work has been extremely valuable.
One of the other challenges of this kind of teaching is the way I approach time management—not only in terms of class prep, but in terms of how I think about time within the classroom. My classes tend to be heavily discussion-based, and I incorporate mini-lectures throughout. This more fluid style is harder to achieve successfully while coordinating with another faculty member, and the dynamic of class discussions changes when there are two faculty in the room rather than one. To account for this, we modified our lesson plans throughout the semester in response to the evolving classroom dynamic, though this was very time-intensive.
Finally, I think one of the more banal but very real challenges we faced had to do more with the extent to which interdisciplinary coursework is understood by the student body, and how it is incorporated into the curriculum. To attract a diverse student body to our course, we designated it as an IT course, but entered it into General Education for the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS). This, we hoped, would attract both IT students as well as SAS students who were required to take an IT course for Gen Ed. This worked to a limited degree, but I think we both felt that the development of interdisciplinary courses such as ours is potentially limited by the extent to which students perceive such a course as essential to their majors, or even whether they are aware of such courses. The virtue of the ITPP courses is that each is new and unique; the downside to such courses is that they are unable to capitalize on word of mouth. It feels a bit like the drive to create new interdisciplinary educational opportunities sometimes outpaces our means of creating an environment where those opportunities are able to be fully realized.
Co-teaching interdisciplinary courses is extremely rewarding, challenging, and—in our experience—requires substantial institutional support. While we were able to work together on a project for Susan’s previous literature course, and could have continued thus by guest lecturing in one another’s classes, teaching a more cohesive course together was only possible because of university support—in particular, the ITPP, which shows commitment to bringing together faculty to teach a new course. Without this course counting towards our regular teaching loads, the substantial work involved would have made running the course much more challenging, particularly as we work in different schools within our university.
The process of developing a co-taught interdisciplinary course has many advantages for both students and faculty. Faculty are able to work more broadly on a topic and see how different disciplines look at that topic. In addition, working so closely with another faculty member allows you to explore different pedagogical choices and learn more about your colleagues. Students are able to see that all academic content does not exist in silos and are more likely to continue to realize that what they learn in one class does not only exist in that specific class or discipline. This models an approach to learning that we sorely need in order to solve twenty-first century problems. While challenging to support and facilitate, the benefits of this type of class are numerous, and we feel strongly that more faculty and students should have access to such opportunities. Guenwald offers a bleak view of a university without such support for interdisciplinary work, writing that “Departmental compartmentalization of knowledge hinders new discoveries in the natural sciences and ‘connecting-the-dots’ in the social and behavioral sciences, while humanities are relegated to irrelevance” (1). A true redemption of higher education and its relevance for both the future careers of our students as well as our culture at large, writes Guenwald, “requires re-envisioning the university” (22). As we see it, this process includes the funding of co-teaching partnerships and other institutional support for interdisciplinary research and teaching.
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