By Paula Marantz Cohen
I just wrapped up my first experience with tri-teaching: teaching with two other instructors. It was a course on the HBO series, The Wire, whose content I wrote about last week.
When two people teach a course, there is a tendency to fall into a kind of “he says, she says” mode. But with three teachers, this back and forth is continually disrupted. The authority in the classroom, which in a co-teaching situation is uneasily shared, is diffused, if not entirely dissipated.
In The Wire course, the interaction among the instructors tended to take the form of brief discussions, sometimes mild disagreements, with shifting lines of force. At times, one instructor was ascendant; at other times, another, but our positions were constantly shifting as alliances formed and re-formed. At the end of the term, during a debriefing session, students noted that it was strange to see us engage one another this way; they hadn’t seen anything like it before and weren’t sure what to make of it.
To see teachers differing, not in argument but in discussion, is to model the sort of intellectual discourse that one wants to see happen in the classroom—and in society generally. Three people make this easier than two. The polarization of our political discourse may be because the two-party system has exhausted itself. Perhaps we should try a tri-party one.
All three of the instructors—Robert Watts, an African American; Dan Driscoll, an Irish-American; and myself, a Jewish-American—has a distinct personality and a distinct teaching style. Since we were dealing with The Wire, a series that is about, among other things, organizational structures and the difficulty of communicating within and across them, our mini-system seemed to represent a positive example of how this can be done. Our ethnic and gender make-up even mimicked that of key characters. In the series, coexistence is continually thwarted or toppled. But in our case, we could talk across and within our differences. We were congenial enough (and the course was short enough) to allow true coexistence to be realized.
At first glance, our tri-teaching may not seem cost-effective for a university. But when you consider how pleasant the experience can be for the instructors and how much it can ease certain difficulties associated with teaching, both with regard to grading and planning, it might suit many professors better. It might also suit the university to underwrite such courses, since they offer a model for a kind of Utopian discourse that higher education should, at its best, foster.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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