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2017

We’ve all had the experience of catching an audible fragment of something that a colleague is teaching and being momentarily distracted. In many cases whatever is going on next door is miles away from the content I’m covering in my history class. Nonetheless, the experience of that unintended interruption often leads me to wonder what would happen if we combined classes. For just seventy-five minutes, what if we put all of our students into one room and looked for connections between what our two classes are studying? What new ideas and perspectives could we offer our students? What might they see in our different disciplines that we had not previously considered?

 

          At my college History is situated in the Department of Social Sciences. I’m fortunate, as a result, to be surrounded by economists, political scientists and sociologists at department meetings. My office space is tucked in between Human Services and Biology. And yet, in spite of all of these academic fields literally surrounding me day in and day out, I rarely think about any discipline but my own.

 

Only twice in the past ten years have I shared my classroom with a colleague: a sociologist who was teaching Criminology at the same time that my Black History class met. Once we decided on a shared topic (prosecutions of murder and the post-World War II civil rights movement) it took less than an hour for my colleague and I to come up with a plan for how our students could be brought together for a class meeting. The most difficult part of these cross-discipline sessions was figuring out when they could be scheduled. Had I been more organized I would have planned the meetings into the syllabus before the semester started. That being said, the meetings themselves were nothing short of awesome.

 

We prepared by assigning both classes a common reading. Once we fit everyone into the slightly larger of our two classrooms we broke the students into groups. In this case we were able to do groups of 4-6 students (2-3 from each class). We asked the students to introduce themselves and then showed them a short (15-20 minute) segment of a film that focused on one of the historic criminal cases about which they had read.

 

My colleague and I created discussion questions ahead of the meeting, which we distributed to the students. We made sure that at least one of the questions required the Criminology students to share something they had previously learned with the Black History students, and vice versa. After allowing the students time to work through the questions with their group, we led the larger discussion and helped contextualize the reading and film with content from our respective disciplines.

   

My take-away from co-teaching was twofold: not only did my students benefit intellectually from the introduction of Criminology into Black History class, but there was a measurable increase in the level of energy during class discussion. There were new voices heard and fresh ideas shared. The experience was like a shot of caffeine to both classes as they were introduced to disciplines with which they were generally unfamiliar. For my colleague and I there was the added benefit of exposing new students to our fields of study. The next semester we were excited to see members of each other’s classes enrolled as students in our courses. One such student told me that after our joint-venture in Black History and Criminology the idea of taking a semester-long history class did not seem “so boring.” Not the best compliment but I’ll take what I can get!

 

          So, if the experience was overwhelmingly positive, you might ask the obvious: why haven’t I repeated it every semester since? The answer is simple: when I write the syllabus before the semester starts I do not consciously carve out space for cross-discipline adventures and that is entirely my fault.

 

Summer Break is the perfect time to remedy this error for the new academic year. I’m looking through my syllabi now for content that might be more effectively taught with a colleague. Historians and other readers: I’d love to hear your experiences with team-teaching. What disciplines and subjects have worked well together? What do you wish you had done different? What were the outcomes of the experience for faculty and students?  

While my official title is Associate Professor, from September thru early May I see myself as simply “teacher.” As full-time faculty at a community college I teach five sections each semester, which puts me in contact with upwards of 250 students every academic year. My teaching load is 80% survey courses aimed at first and second-year college students. It’s rare that I have an opportunity to think about research -- that element of our work that often differentiates the so-called professor from the teacher-- until this time of year, the summer months, when I’m simultaneously rethinking the previous year and planning for the one to come.

 

    This summer I’m giving more thought than usual to research. I’m in the very early stages of a somewhat directionless project. Since the semester ended in May I have read a half-dozen narratives from the field and spent countless hours scrolling digital finding aids to determine which archival materials are where. I’m up for a sabbatical in the very near future so the planning needs to start now. My solo efforts this summer have made me nostalgic for “Dissertation Seminar” many years ago. Looking back on that weekly two-hour meeting with fellow graduate students I realize how valuable it was to have the steady guidance of my late dissertation advisor, Dr. Carol Petillo (Boston College), who would assign weekly tasks and deadlines designed to move us forward in our research.

 

I vividly recall as a graduate student assuming that my career would look much like those of my professors who published regularly and taught a 2-2 course load. The road I’ve traveled as faculty at a community college, however, could not have been more different from that of my graduate mentors.

 

And so it is that I begin each academic year with a plan: on a given morning/afternoon/evening of every week I will commit myself entirely to my research. I make a silent pledge that I will not grade, or prep, or respond to school-related emails during that time. I’m faithful to my pledge through about the second week of school when queries from students, colleagues, and administrators begin to fill my inbox and I decide, reluctantly, that everything else is more pressing than my research. Before I know it, my pledge has fallen completely by the wayside and I’m again daydreaming about summer break when I will resume my research.

 

My question to the wider Macmillan Community this week is how do I break this cycle? How can I make this next academic year one in which I’m successful in the classroom and productively following through on research goals?

 

Is the solution really as simple as better managing my time? Many faculty have discussed strategies for dealing with the time crunch, offering countless suggestions that I would no doubt would benefit from adopting (see, for example, these articles published at California State University’s Community Commons and Inside Higher Ed ).

 

Or am I just being too hard on myself? Is it unrealistic to think that I can teach a 5-5 course load and complete substantial research at the same time? Perhaps it is simply time, after ten years of failed silent pledges, for me to accept that for faculty like myself, whose primary assignment is teaching, the only truly productive space for research is summer break.

 

Maybe it’s time to embrace that reality and view it as a positive: to see the summer months as a much-needed break from the classroom and an opportunity to transport the teacher in me back to the research and study that molded the student in me into the historian.

 

Maybe.