Parade of professors or solo scholar?


There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches.

On the one hand, having a single person teach a course can lend consistency to the material and greater opportunity to connect between topics. The rhythm of the course is likely to be stable and expectations more clear when there is a single person doing the teaching. However, with a group of professors, experts in specific fields have the opportunity to teach the units they are best suited for. These teachers can provide added value to the topic, rather than a single professor covering things both central and tangential to their field. From the student’s perspective, I can see potential benefits to both models of teaching.

From my perspective as a teacher, there are aspects of multi-professor course that seem more difficult to teach than doing an entire course sole despite the reduced time. First there is control. Of course with a course that you only teach part of, there is less control over what happens, even for your small part. For example, it is tough to implement large-scale changes such as flipping the class for only your lectures. You don’t have the set up time to introduce a system and habitualize practises over the semester. So in general you are constrained by the general structure of the course in how you teach. If the norm is mostly lectures, then it is likely that you need to also lecture, if the entire class is flipped than you will also need to prepare your section accordingly. Again, this gives some consistency to the students as they go through the course but that might not be in their best interests, especially if the class is lecture heavy.

It maybe biased due to my own experiences, but it seems that a course by committee also lends itself towards conservatism of past structure. I teach in an ecological methods course that covers in depth inventories for plants, insects and birds and well as touches upon other organisms. None of the current teachers were involved with the planning of the course and the original structure. Although we have made changes in the 5 years I have been teaching the general structure is the same. Having a two-month course where students are doing something everyday (often 9/10am until 4/5pm) means there are a lot of moving parts and this leans itself to conservation of the structure from previous years. Now to be fair, some of the reason to keep things as they were is that this is a very appreciated course for masters students, so why fix something that isn’t broken? But it is also difficult to get an overall perspective of the course and answer why we do things a certain way because often the answer is we do it that way because it was done that way before. Someone else made those decisions and because it works, we keep them. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.

There are also further constraints to complex classes with many professors. I am constrained in the kind of time slots I get and when they happen. It means that in the juggling each year of all the lectures and activities, sometimes components I teach come in a different order. I have a grab bag of topics including my main role as the plant methods person. In addition, I do units on diversity, indicator species, and how to present science (talks and writing). How I connect those topics depends on what order they come and my ability to connect to them to other sections such as statistical design also varies depending on what comes first. I haven’t envied the course leaders position in organising all of the time slots and teachers but it limits the flexibility during the course.

For team taught courses, it can be difficult to get a real overview of the class. I try to connect what I am teaching about plant inventories to other parts of the course (statistical analyses, other organisms, etc) but I haven’t attended those lectures or activities and can’t be certain how closely I replicate or compliment them. No one but the students actually experience the course as a whole.

As I write, it seems like I’m coming down hard on team-teaching but I don’t think it is that black and white. It would be extremely difficult to run a single course on ecological methods at the scale we do without spreading the teaching among multiple people. It would be difficult to find someone who is an expert in birds, insects and plant inventories. Bringing the topics under one course means that students are exposed to multiple techniques and can see the connections between them in a way that they may not if this was instead 3 separate courses. There are always challenges in teaching and the grass might seem greener on the other side to me right now.

Selfishly, I think I get less out of team teaching for a few reasons. I don’t step out of my own comfort zone as much since I teach what I know. Therefore my teaching isn’t as much of a learning opportunity for me. And I don’t get to interact with students as much and get to know them over the semester. I think this makes interactions much more of a one-way exchange, especially for courses where I’ve done a single lecture.

As someone who cares about teaching, it feels like I could have the most influence in a course I run myself. We’ll just have to  see whether that is true if I get the chance.

2 thoughts on “Parade of professors or solo scholar?

  1. I agree that there are advantages to each structure. What bothers me is the tendency for 1st- and 2nd-year courses to be “parade of profs”-taught, and upper year courses to be solo-taught. That happens (in my experience) because people are reluctant to take on a big 1st-year course, but you can usually beg and plead them into taking on 1/4 of one. Upper-year courses people think of as candy, and they don’t want to give those up! But this is precisely backwards. In a big 1st-year course, I think the advantages you mention (in particular, consistency and time to develop student expectations and habits) far outweigh the minor plus (if it’s a plus at all) of having an expert teach each subject. By 4th year, students should be far better equipped to handle adjustments from prof to prof, and the expert in each subject really works. Every time we discuss course assignments, it comes out the wrong way around, and it drives me nuts. (OK, rant over…)

  2. From my experience as a student, I can say that it depends strongly on the topic of the lecture. In my first year of studying biology, we had an “Introduction to Biology” lecture, where each lecture was given by different professor. This was great, because we got to know all the professors we would be doing courses with over the next years (of course it was only 90min per lecture, but it gave a good first impression). Each professor presented not only the basics about their topic, but also what research they were conducting and all of them very passionate about their topic (I still remember the lecture on fungi, because I was very impressed by the professors engagement and obvious love of her field of study). I doubt that one person can be equally passionate about all different fields in biology (or ecology).

    For more advanced or specialized lectures, I definitely see the benefit of having only one lecturer because the lectures are more consistent and it is easier to connect different parts of the lecture series.

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