Of the many ways to run a classroom with multiple professors, Dr. Deanna Soper, assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Scott Churchill, professor of psychology, have found a deeply intertwined collaboration to be the most effective and most fun way to teach together. Their class, Tropical Ecology and Ecopsychology, is an interdisciplinary course between psychology and biology with a trip to places like Costa Rica or Belize over spring break.
A common mode of co-teaching is what Soper calls “passing the baton” and what Churchill calls “coordinated teaching.” This is seen in general biology classes at the University of Dallas where several professors teach one course by teaching for a part of the semester and then passing it on to the next professor.
Soper and Churchill prefer a more collaborative approach. Both professors are present for every class and feel free to ask questions like any other student in the room. Churchill compares it to the way the Beatles wrote their music: “The songs are always credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but it was usually one of theirs or the other. Sometimes they did it together, but other times one would take the ball and run with it.”
Both professors agree that teaching together is not only fun for them, but is important for the students as well. Soper said: “That is really important for students to see and understand that number one, there can be different perspectives on the same topic, depending on whether you come from biology or psychology or even other fields. And then also, that a lot of times we do agree on certain things and so you can see this kind of very interdisciplinary dialogue, and it kind of makes the biological content fuller.”
This interdisciplinary dialogue is crucial for a university hoping to cultivate independent thinkers. Soper said: “How do you develop independent thinking? Well, you have to get information from a lot of different sources and think critically about that information from different sources.”
Not only does this class introduce students to different sources, it also shows students how respectful, educated and opinionated conversations and disagreement between them can be held. By teaching together with a freeness to disagree and a genuine appreciation for the other, Soper and Churchill are able to demonstrate to students how this dialogue works.
This openness in the classroom between professors is due in large part to the friendship between them. Churchill said: “Whenever you have different people who like each other coming together, you’re wanting to chime in, you’re listening to what your friend and colleague say and you’re smiling because you’re appreciating the genius of their way of putting it.”
They first realized that they may want to teach together during Soper’s first year at UD. She took her class to accompany Churchill’s class on a trip to the Dallas Zoo. Churchill said: “It was out of the collegiality that developed during the first semester that we got to know each other and we decided ‘let’s do a course together.’”
This friendship between the professors is crucial for co-teaching. “You would probably not want to be doing collaborative teaching unless you had a fondness for the other person,” Churchill said. “You can be in a situation where you like the person that you’re co-teaching with, but there’s not an energy between you.”
This necessary energy between the professors was noted by many students on the zoo trip. Shortly afterward, Churchill’s TA told him that students had loved seeing the two professors work together. Churchill recalls: “People [were] talking about this new synergy between the psychology and biology departments as if it were unthinkable.”
To Churchill, this complementary force between psychology and biology was nothing new. “I started in biology, and then I shifted into psychology,” he said. “We do meet in the middle very well.” Through their class, Soper and Churchill hope to help students appreciate the philosophical reality behind the physical.
Churchill has always had a passion for bringing heart back into the sciences. In a study so dependent on putting its material into boxes, emotion is rarely considered. He compared it to reading poetry, “You’re not asked to park your heart at the door and think only like a computer would think, so why would a scientist be asked to park that when there is so much to be gained by opening your heart to your subject matter?”
Churchill appreciates not only how Soper’s extensive expertise and brilliance adds to the mission of the class, but how her personality contributes to it, as well. He said: “She’s also a mother and a woman and I have found that my female colleagues are oftentimes more receptive to the phenomenological approach when it comes to nature, which is to use your own feelings and emotions and spirituality.”
The complementariness of the personality and knowledge of each professor uniting behind a shared mission to bring heart into science and dialogue into the classroom has allowed them to build a unique classroom experience. This spring was the fourth time they have taught this class together, and with Churchill’s retirement at the end of the semester, it will be their last. Soper hopes to continue teaching the course, but is cautious about who she may teach it with, if she teaches it with anyone at all. She said of co-teaching: “it has to be the right pair [of professors] not just from a disciplinary, philosophical perspective, but also in the way that they operate and their personalities.”
Though Dr. Churchill’s retirement after this semester will put an end to their co-teaching, both professors have enjoyed their time working together immensely and are looking forward to continuing their friendship outside of the classroom.