Mellon grant sparks team-teaching push

As part of an effort to enhance humanities education at Yale, administrators are encouraging professors to offer more team-taught courses.

The push to increase the number of team-taught classes comes from an idea initially proposed during faculty workshops on teaching methods in the humanities funded by a $1.95 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Pamela Schirmeister, associate dean for Yale College and the Graduate School, said the Yale College Dean’s Office will solicit proposals for courses to be offered as soon as next year. Professors and administrators interviewed said team-taught classes enable interdisciplinary study and can transform a traditional lecture into a more stimulating dialogue but added that without coordination, classes with multiple professors can be disjointed.

“We’re going to be able to encourage and I hope nurture the development of sustainable team-teaching in the humanities,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller said. “We want to encourage this kind of synthetic big picture view with wonderful teachers.”

Director of Undergraduate Studies for Humanities Norma Thompson, who taught a class with Berkeley College Dean and art history professor Mia Genoni entitled “Evidence and Humanistic Inquiry,” said team-teaching was “intellectually stimulating.” She added that students told her they enjoyed the conversational format of the class.

Thompson said she is actively encouraging Humanities professors to consider collaborative teaching, adding that there will be a new team-taught course in her department on Freud next semester.

Medieval history professor Paul Freedman, who co-taught a class on the exchange between the East and West with a Chinese history professor, said team-teaching enables a departure from the more traditional lecture format by opening broader dialogue and encouraging investigative thinking.

“It’s fun to see professors disagree on things, and when it works well, [team-teaching] opens a lot of different perspectives and gives a student a sense of how we know about the material that’s being discussed as opposed to just seeing the lecturer as complete authority,” Freedman said

But Freedman said he thinks team-teaching should not undermine the value of traditionally-taught courses, adding that a balance of the two formats is most desirable.

Professor Charles Hill, who co-teaches Grand Strategy with professors Paul Kennedy and John Lewis Gaddis, said that while team-teaching can be effective, he does not think the University should make too many changes because the team-taught approach would not be conducive for all subjects.

“I think that the idea of a professor is that [he or she] professes something, that there is a point of view, a special angle of knowledge and thought,” Hill said. “When you team-teach, you are fragmenting something like that, and it can be very positive… but I don’t think fragmentation for fragmentation’s sake is the right way to go beyond where it is right now.”

Team-taught courses must be properly designed to be effective, said Joshua Landy, a Stanford professor of French and Italian who has co-taught multiple courses. In one of the classes he co-teaches with two other professors from different disciplines, entitled “The Art of Living,” Landy said each professor delivers his own lecture on each of the five books students read, and then all professors engage in a round-table discussion in which they debate their different viewpoints.

Lanier Anderson ’87, a Stanford philosophy professor who co-teaches a course with Landy, warned against the “baton-tossing” model of team-teaching, in which professors do not interact with each other while teaching. But he added that when professors use team-teaching to open a discourse, students engage more seriously with course material.

Sib Mahapatra ’13, who is enrolled in Grand Strategy, said students in the course benefit from having three professors with different perspectives, but multiple faculty members might be distracting in a class with a narrower focus.

Dana Schneider ’15 said she thinks team-teaching could encourage students to think more critically about material, particularly in humanities courses.

“One of the main points of a humanities course is to question a text and form different interpretation,” Schneider said. “If you are have only one professor, you more likely to just agree with the professor, but with two or three professors who disagree, students are more likely to realize they can form their own interpretations.”

The Mellon grant, which the University received in July, funds an interdisciplinary concentration in the Graduate School, a program for post-doctoral students and a series of 10 faculty workshops to assess strategies for teaching the humanities. Though the grant will not directly fund undergraduate classes, the administration and professors aim to implement ideas generated in the workshops.

This year’s Mellon concentration in the Graduate School will be entitled “Technologies of Knowledge.”

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