Come Together: Co-Teaching Across Disciplines

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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?  

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.