“GehrBerr,” or On Teaching as Collaboration

I’ll be spending most of today at a program assessment workshop with my friend and colleague Sam Mulberry. Next Monday we’ll help run the annual summer workshop for Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture (CWC) teaching team. About three weeks after that, we’ll start co-teaching the online version of CWC for the second year in a row. And in our time off from that Sam is going to help me with media production for our department’s new Introduction to History course.

And that’s how much we collaborate in the summer, when neither of us is at the office more than a few days a week. For the academic year itself, well…

Let’s put it this way… One thing we learned when we co-taught Bethel’s travel course on the history of World War I in January 2013 is that the teaching assistants in CWC have a celebrity couple-style (“Brangelina”) nickname for us: “GehrBerr.”

Chris Gehrz and Sam Mulberry
#8 – I’ve successfully grown a beard once more than Sam.

It doesn’t help that Sam and I even look vaguely alike and at least once or twice a year accidentally wear the same clothing combination. One Halloween we thought it would be funny to dress as each other: I wore a nametag that said “Sam,” and he parted his hair differently. It was kind of amazing.

For the record, here’s how to tell us apart:

  1. Sam dislikes all British novels written before the 20th century; the most recent British novel I’ve read is Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
  2. I often wear jeans; Sam never does.
  3. Sam wears orange shoes; it’s my least favorite color.
  4. Sam loves the poetry of Ezra Pound; I tend to focus on the Fascist-apologist part of Pound’s career.
  5. Sam loves the singing of Pete Seeger; I tend to focus on the Stalinist-apologist part of Seeger’s career.
  6. Sam is a good person.
  7. Sam loves cottage cheese; I hate it.

So if this blog all of a sudden starts featuring odes to T.S. Eliot and lots of YouTube clips of “Guantanamera” singalongs, don’t be fooled: there’s been a coup.

So when Sam interviewed me for the first episode of his new Autobiography podcast, I was especially glad that we worked our way around to talking about teaching as collaboration (starting around 58:40 of the podcast if you want to listen along).

In part we wanted to reflect on how, in CWC — a course that’s been taught at Bethel for nearly three decades now, we collaborate vicariously with the faculty who originally designed and long taught the course but do so no longer. Sam said, “It’s not that the work we do needs to meet their approval, but it’s the sense that they’re ‘watching’ and they’re feeling this thing that they built still alive.” He called it a “collaboration with tradition.”

Sam and I with WWI students in London
Sam and I (center) having tea at the Tate Britain with four of the students on our WWI trip

But we also discussed how the two of us work together. Here’s what I said:

I don’t actually have a natural desire to do collaborative teaching. It takes work for me to actually be on CWC and be a team-teacher; there’s a level on which I’d just like to teach the class myself because that’s how I teach every other class. Whatever I know about collaboration, not just in that class, is from working with you.

We talked about how we complement each other’s strengths and the degree to which collaboration is fueled by a kind of competition — at least, wanting to impress the other person. But I wish we’d got to a couple more points…

First, that collaboration requires conversation. Probably the main reason that we didn’t actually spend that much time on the podcast talking about how we collaborate is that we’ve had that discussion so often that we could easily distill it down to two or three points — and save the remaining 75 minutes for other matters. I’m constantly amazed just how much time in my week is spent in conversation with Sam and other colleagues. Such talks often happen spontaneously (often in hallways and stairwells at points along the two-minute walk between our offices) and rarely start out with any particular agenda, yet they end up generating most of our best ideas.

We’re all strapped for time, but I don’t think you can be a collaborative teacher if you don’t start the week being comfortable with the fact that several hours will disappear unexpectedly into conversations with collaborators.

Perhaps even more idea-generators, our conversations further collaboration because they deepen trust: we’ve come to know each other so well that much of the actual work of collaboration can happen independently. In this sense I think Sam and I work together in much the same way that Steven Spielberg and John Williams do.

Unfortunately, I can’t find more than a promo to link to, but if you can find the first episode of AFI’s Master Class: The Art of Collaboration, you’ll hear the filmmaker and composer talk about their long partnership. Most striking, they insist that Spielberg has never said he didn’t like something Williams composed. The former offers guidance, but he’d rather err on the side of trusting the instincts of the latter.

That seems to capture how Sam and I would work together. I’m sure that some of that is Midwestern aversion to conflict, but I’m not sure we’d do better work together if we were more critical of each other. It’s not to say that every idea either one of us has had has been a good one, but ideas get refined in the visioning and planning stage — once we’re to the point of execution, we trust each other to do his best. (Back to the “wanting to impress” factor.)

For more on collaborative teaching and scholarship at Bethel University, see this April 2009 discussion featuring our colleagues Diana Magnuson, Thomas Becknell, Sara Shady, Marion Larson, and Don Postema.

4 thoughts on ““GehrBerr,” or On Teaching as Collaboration

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