In Team-Taught Courses, Faculty and Students Explore Different Disciplines from Varying Points of View

September 9, 2016

One of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education is exposure to many different subjects and ways of thinking about a topic. At Wellesley, sometimes the opportunity to look at a topic through different lenses can be found in one classroom through team-taught or co-taught classes.

“A co-taught course is always lively, as students and faculty work through problems from varying points of view,” said Martin Brody, Patricia Berman, and Alice Friedman, the instructors of MUS 333/ARTH 335: Postwar Modern: Art, Architecture and Music in America, 1945-65, an interdisciplinary course that examines the development of American modernism in art, design, music, and architecture from World War II to 1965.

The course grew out of years of talking and teaching together, and from the instructors’ individual scholarly work. “We hope to create an intellectual laboratory for interdisciplinary experimentation, where we can study media, performance art, ballet and Broadway dance idioms, popular music, television, and film, as well as our core disciplines, visual art, architecture, and music,” they said. “The creative developments that we will be studying transformed American culture in the 20th century.”

Brody is the Catherine Mills Davis Professor of Music, Berman is the Theodora L. and Stanley H. Feldberg Professor of Art, and Friedman is the Grace Slack McNeil Professor of the History of American Art. Students in their class will explore on-campus resources, like the Davis Museum exhibition Partners In Design: Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson and the art and music departments’ celebration of Paul Rudolph’s famed Jewett Arts Center. In addition, they will take a trip to New York City together to explore postwar art, architecture, music, and design.

Elsewhere on campus, Catia Confortini, associate professor of peace and justice studies, and Margaret Cezair-Thompson, senior lecturer in English, are team-teaching Eng 338/Peac 304: Trauma, Conflict and Narrative: Tales of Africa and the African Diaspora, which explores the role of narrative in response to mass trauma. Cezair-Thompson explained that trauma narrative is an area of study that draws on several disciplines in the arts, social sciences, and science. It can take the form of autobiography, a court testimony, a museum installation, or a memorial, and can involve various kinds of witnessing, both on the part of the narrator and the audience. 

“A unique element of trauma narrative is that it is experiential: Trauma means ‘wound’ and we look at how the writing and reading of a book, for instance, affects the wounded and the witness,” Cezair-Thompson said. “Trauma theory emerged as a discipline during World War I, and developed further in relation to survivors of the Jewish Holocaust.” 

She continued, “For a long time, the traumas experienced by blacks on the African continent and in the Americas went unstudied, in spite of the fact that horrific collective trauma occurred and still occurs: the trauma of African slavery, lynching, the Rwandan genocide, apartheid. Our course is especially relevant today in light of recent racially charged incidents such as the shooting of unarmed black men and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a sense, our course closely examines why the stories of black lives matter.”

Cezair-Thompson agreed with the notion that team-teaching exposes students to the instructors’ multidisciplinary perspectives. “We're able to draw on our different areas of expertise and experience. For instance, I bring my knowledge of postcolonial literature and experience as a novelist, and Professor Confortini brings, among other things, her expertise in human rights law, gender studies, and conflict resolution,” she said.  

The class draws students from different majors, such as literature, international relations, Africana studies, and peace and justice studies, and in doing so it exposes students in the social sciences to the arts and students in the arts to critical readings in the social sciences. “This is a course that challenges how we perceive the world, how we perceive others, especially those who are culturally/racially different from ourselves, and it challenges traditional ideas about narratives—their form and their effect,” Cezair-Thompson said.

A third course, inspired in part by the College’s initiative for interdisciplinary engagement in science, has Mala Radhakrishnan, associate professor of chemistry, and John Goss, assistant professor of biological sciences, at the helm. BISC 116/CHEM 116: Fundamentals of Chemistry and Molecular/Cellular Biology with Lab: An Integrated Approach provides an integrated introduction to the application of chemical principles to understand biological systems.

“Many students who are considering a science major wish to take both biology and chemistry classes early on but are sometimes discouraged from taking two lab courses,” Radhakrishnan and Goss explained. “This integrated course essentially ‘formalizes’ the fact that it's not only OK to dive into science, but it’s terrific to do so!” 

Like other team-taught courses, this class allows students to see material presented from multiple perspectives and connect with faculty members from different disciplines who can serve as shared resources.

“So many of us work at the interface of biology, chemistry, and other disciplines in our research, and building those connections early on would be great for students to see the power of seeing a problem from multiple perspectives, making connections between the natural and physical world, and seeing the applications of scientific modeling to real-world applications,” they said. “Seeing faculty members work together as a collaborative team can also highlight the importance of collaboration in science and in general—both for learning new material…and also in research.”

Seeing the direct connections between the fields also gives students exposure to what Radhakrishnan and Goss called “true biochemistry” early on, even though the first biochemistry courses aren’t traditionally available to students until later on in their college careers.

BISC 116/CHEM 116 is a 2.5 unit course, which makes it different from other College courses, and, according to Radhakrishnan and Goss, also made it very interesting from a logistics and planning perspective. “These students will be spending a lot of time together,” they said. “So one big component of the course is community building—we preregistered students, in part so they could feel a sense of belonging even before they arrived on campus, and also because it is such a big commitment on their part.” 

This arrangement also makes it possible for the instructors to serve as the students’ first-year advisors. “We plan to hold multiple community-building social events and have also recruited upperclasswomen science majors to help be mentors to small groups of students within the course,” they said. “We hope that students will make lifelong friends and future networking connections in this course in addition to learning a lot and having fun.”

Radhakrishnan and Goss said they hope students will gain an appreciation for how the subjects relate and how blurred the lines between disciplines are. “Each traditional discipline is kind of meaningless without others,” they said. “We hope that [the students] will stop seeing themselves as, for example, ‘good at biology but bad in chemistry’—that in the end, it’s all science, and their strengths can all be leveraged to help solve complex problems in the world.”