Why Team-Teach History?

Historians, historically, are lone wolves. In contrast to most STEM and social-science research, the typical product of a historian’s efforts is a single-authored article or (better) scholarly monograph, most likely supported by individual grants and researched and written alone during individual sabbatical or research leave. As far as funding goes this has begun to change, perhaps especially in publicly-funded university systems; owing in part to genuine academic imperatives and in even greater part to the idolization of STEM-style funding by administrators and public funding bodies, collaborative grants are now familiar, as, increasingly, are co-authored, -edited or -curated outputs. Still, these are far from the majority of published historical works — even those emerging from team grants — and equally far from the focus of most doctoral training, at least in North America.

Much the same can be said, indeed even more strongly, of historical teaching: the other fifty people in the room notwithstanding, it’s generally a solitary vice. Sorry, vocation. Though many universities ask job candidates for teaching demonstrations, and some require peer teaching observation as part of their faculty review, it is perfectly possible to spend an entire teaching career “alone”, from the moment you step into the classroom as a TA to the moment you’re wheeled out of it — as I expect to be — after one rant too many about the Elizabethan Poor Laws or the real significance of the Bills of Mortality. I’ve been teaching for a decade now, and though I’ve given teaching demonstrations and guest lectures in other people’s courses, only last month, for the first time, did I teach a normal class with another professor, also teaching, in the room.

Before I get to how that went, it’s worth thinking a bit about the effects of teaching alone all the time. Though one professor per class (at most) seems likely to remain the norm, and I would not change that, I do think that it has some unfortunate consequences. Most obvious to students might be a love of one’s own voice, or, which is probably the same to them, of one’s own views. Criticism of lecturing that attacks “the sage on the stage” gets at this; though as someone who (sometimes) enjoys both hearing and giving lectures, I think the “sage” and not the “stage” is the core of the problem. (Lecture exclusively and students will complain about you. Step away entirely and they’ll complain about each other. If I feel I have shown them the work it takes to grapple with sources, reduce a sea of details to narrative, or think through methodological questions, and helped them to try it out, then I usually feel I’ve done well. Whether they clap is another matter.) More generally, the lack of direct oversight — and the compromised and inexpert nature of student evaluations, which provide the chief form of indirect oversight — can allow bad practices as well as bad ideas to go unchecked. Unlike in research, in most teaching there is no meaningful peer review. (Student evaluations may be closer to bibliometrics; they are, at least, open to some similar objections.)

But I also think that the role of sage only reinforces the “impostor syndrome” outside the classroom. If you alone are responsible for teaching the material or the discipline, you alone have failed them. An incorrect answer to a pesky question; a too-pat summary of a complex process; an infelicitous way of framing a topic; a hasty dismissal of an unfamiliar suggestion — all these venial sins and rookie mistakes take on a ludicrous bulk and significance in the light of the Lecturer’s singular authority: an authority that might not be welcomed, and often isn’t enjoyed, but that is all the harder to shake off precisely because it reflects (whether because simple naiveté demands it, or because learned cynicism implies it as an academic norm) so many students’ expectations. This experience is, obviously, gendered; but the trouble many students and faculty have recognizing or accepting women as academic authorities (“Hey Miss!”) seems to confirm the persistent centrality of a particular form of individual authority to prevailing ideas of academia. In any event, the line between appropriate humility and debilitating self-doubt seems to be a thin one for many humanists. Working alone — in multiple senses, for many scholars, but including in the classroom — may have something to do with this.

Which brings me to my first experience of team-teaching.

The occasion for this was a new first-year course offered by our Liberal Arts College geared towards presenting a series of “great” ideas, debates or figures by pairing professors from different disciplines to pick a small set of readings and talk or lead discussions about them. My assignment was to teach about the role of Galileo in shaping “modern science”, and I was paired with a professor from our Department of Physics. The readings, which owing to logistical snafus were all of my choosing, included Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Newton’s Rules of Reasoning in Natural Philosophy, an engraving of butterflies by the natural historian Maria Sibylla Merian, and some excerpts from a handful of historians (Roy Porter, Steven Shapin, Margaret Jacob) on the idea of the Scientific RevolutionI chose them because they were brief and accessible but still presented primary sources and scholarly perspectives on seventeenth-century science, and because they both suggested a familiar narrative of audacious, world-making genius (Galileo boldly demanding that astronomers be judged by mathematical and empirical rather than biblical criteria; Newton, two generations later, confidently describing natural philosophy as an experimental and mathematical account of natural phenomena) and gestured towards the cracks (how well would Merian — a woman and an artist who conveyed truths about nature through the strokes of a brush — fit a story about science focused on male heroes of physics? What sort of account would make sense of her?).

But I had reckoned as if I were teaching alone; so on the first of our two days it was a surprise that I simply had to step aside while my colleague from physics laid out Galileo’s major contributions to astronomy and physics. (Let me say here that a basic problem that had to be worked out on the fly was how to share the physical space: hovering just offstage seemed to be the least distracting approach, though I periodically made myself useful — I hope — by drawing or writing on the board the images and names of various things she talked about.) Her talk stressed Galileo’s substantiation of Copernicanism, his telescopic work, and his experimental methods (e.g., the inclined plane experiment); she then made some general points about what this shared with modern science. This was followed by an extended question period in which she initially fielded most questions, while I handled the odd follow-up about the reading and occasionally translated some of her less familiar points for a humanities audience. (The principle of falsifiability — which she expressed by saying that “we never know that a theory is true; we only know when it is false” — seemed to strike some students as a damning admission of ignorance rather than an empirical principle.) Two days later we reconvened with roles reversed: I spoke about the social and cultural contexts and dimensions of Galileo’s work, suggesting Newton’s rules seemed to take for granted a space Galileo had worked to carve out, and discussed the principles of inclusion and exclusion at work in the construction of stories about and concepts of science.

A few things struck me as this experience unfolded, and afterward. First was how extremely reassuring it is to have another expert in the room — perhaps especially if she is an expert in those aspects of or approaches to a subject that you grasp most shakily. For humanists who teach about science, the impostor syndrome comes in aggravated form: you may worry that people will discover your inadequacies as a historian, but your inadequacies at math and science are never in doubt. And yet the points she made were familiar; I could not have made them as simply or with the same ease and conviction, but at least I hadn’t been betraying the substance of the claims I contextualized for all these years. Beyond this subject-specific psychological boost, of course, there’s the more general relief that comes from seeing that other people have to navigate the classroom, restate their questions, struggle through ums and ahs and awkward silences, just as you do. In the era of the academic TED talk, it’s good to know that I’m not alone in not being slick. (If anyone who’s invited me to give a paper is reading this, you’ve been warned.)

The second thing that struck me is that there are immediate pedagogical and intellectual benefits to this division of labor in the classroom: with the technical scientific content in much more capable hands than mine, I could focus more explicitly on what I do best. (How this would play out with two historians in the room is harder to say, though one could presumably replicate with two subfields of history, or two theoretical orientations, what this course attempts with two disciplines.) Indeed the fact that the “science” had been discussed allowed me to clarify much more effectively what differentiates the history of science, at least for me: that it is not tasked with evaluating the truth of past ideas about nature but rather with explaining how these ideas came to be formulated, communicated, adopted, rejected, applied, modified, appropriated, and extended as they were. In other words, the distance between our two approaches did not lead, as might have been expected or intended, to disagreement about the subject matter, but rather to a profoundly improved clarity about the aims of each discipline in approaching it.

Which is not to say that there was no dialogue, or indeed no productive disagreement. For the third thing that emerged in discussion — driven, moreover, by the students’ questions after we’d both said our piece — was the light each of our approaches shed on the other and its assumptions. Asked whether there was such a thing as “science” in the abstract, my colleague’s affirmative was immediate; my own negative, however qualified — I don’t think one can ever wholly escape context to a realm of essential definitions — marked a boundary neither one of us seems likely to cross, at least in practice. Still, thinking about how one might reach such a definition was a useful exercise. Other points seemed to translate much more easily; the role of institutional and social hierarchies and even political agendas in shaping scientific careers and decisions, for instance, is not news to scientists even if these are not usually invoked analytically in disciplinary histories, and what my colleague (not to put words in her mouth) might describe as external constraints that hamper good science can still be readily understood as inescapable features of its practice. Conversely, my colleague’s comments on scientists’ persistent concern with ultimate causes cast useful doubt on the familiar account of an experimental philosophy uninterested in “feigned hypotheses”. Altogether, the outcome of the meeting, as I experienced it anyway, was not that we had worked around to some composite view or made our separate disciplinary peaces with the subject, but that the students, having read, heard, and questioned each of us (and each other) about our approaches, came away both more informed about and more critical of both than they could have done with either of us lecturing — or leading a discussion — alone.

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