Adventures in Team Teaching

By Marco Fatuzzo, Assistant Professor,
Department of Physics

I must confess that although I like to try my hand at new things, I rarely (ok, never) get them right the first time. Home improvement projects require numerous trips to the hardware store, and my first attempt at preparing a Thanksgiving Day meal began with the realization that the turkey should be taken out of the freezer well before Thursday morning. (For the record, it takes about three hours to thaw a 24 lb turkey with a hairdryer). So you can imagine that last year, when I had the opportunity to co-develop and then team-teach two interdisciplinary courses, I had plenty of lessons to learn.

I will preface this writing by stating that I am a strong proponent of such courses. The world, after all, is much greater than the sum of its disciplinary parts. And so I was quite excited last Spring to teach a course title "Cosmology in Science and Religion" with Father Joe Bracken (Theology) as well as a course titled "Complexity and the Origin of Order" with Drs. Alan Baker (Philosophy), Bernd Rossa (Mathematics) and Charles Snodgrass (English). Each course approached a broad topic from several vantage points. The cosmology course explored the historical progression of our beliefs regarding the origin and structure of the universe by critiquing cosmological models put forth by Greek philosophers, medieval theologians, and modern scientists. One of the overall goals of the course was to show how astronomical observations were used by each of these groups to build up their view of cosmology. While clearly structured as a science course, a philosophical and theological narrative significantly broadened the experience and served to contrast different modes of knowing. This dialogue also explored the tension that has arisen between science and religion as well as modern attempts at reconciliation.

The complexity course explored the relatively new fields of chaos, fractals and complexity science from several different and very broad perspectives. The first part of the course provided a non-technical overview of these fields, coupled with a philosophical commentary on issues such as how knowledge is gained and synthesized, how abstract mathematical models traditionally used by scientists compare to the metaphorical approach utilized in the humanities, and how the success of reductionism has influenced the scientific process. The second part of the course explored several ways in which fractal geometry, chaos theory and complexity theory have been applied to fields such as biology, economics and literary criticism.

Teaching these courses was a truly wonderful experience. But it certainly was not an easy one. The highly interdisciplinary nature of these courses severely strained two of the inherent tensions of our profession ? the need to balance breadth and depth and the need to challenge all students without losing any. As to the first tension, taking an interdisciplinary approach toward the study of anything means more breadth. Teaching the foundations of modern cosmology is hard enough in a full semester. One has to cover Newtonian physics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and field theory, and then blend it all into a cosmological theory that describes all of the present day astronomical observations. The situation was even more dire in the complexity course, where I had a mere six lectures to give an overview of both chaos and complexity. It was a real struggle for me to cover all of the necessary material with sufficient depth that the students understood the underlying principles. In the end, I feel like I probably should have covered a bit more in the cosmology course and a bit less in the complexity course.

As to the second tension, while both classes were attended by very talented students, their backgrounds were quite different, with roughly half the students being math/science majors and the other half being humanities majors. This was especially problematic in the cosmology course, populated by humanities students satisfying their science core and upper level physics majors satisfying a theology elective. While I don?t believe that either group had any overall advantage in the course, it was quite difficult for me, given such a bimodal group of students, to present scientifically oriented lectures that challenged all and lost none. I was also quite surprised by what I perceived as a tension between the science and humanities students. Each groups seemed to have territorial instincts that underscored many of the discussions, and there did not seem to be a genuine respect for other points of view. The next time I teach such a course, I will certainly make a concerted effort to stimulate a more open and shared debate.

There were, of course, many welcomed surprises that came from team-teaching. First, I was able to explore material in a way that I simply could not have done on my own. I truly felt like that "life-long learner" we always wish our students will aspire to. I also got the opportunity to see first hand different teaching styles and philosophies ? an experience that has certainly made me a better and more well rounded teacher. And finally, I had the opportunity to build strong relationships with colleagues in other disciplines.

Father Joe Bracken and I will probably teach the cosmology course again next year. I will certainly use the lessons learned from last year to improve the course, and will no doubt learn a few more lessons along the way. And next year, I will certainly put the turkey in the refrigerator the night before Thanksgiving!


Contributors to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.

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