You Want Me to Teach What?

January 1, 2001

From January through May, 2000, the various CMS Regional Chapters sponsored panels that addressed questions surrounding "cross-teaching," that is, teaching outside one's professional area [see May 2000 Newsletter, p. 4]. The panels were not intended to eliminate the problem, but rather to open discussion, identify concerns, and possibly offer guidance to those who must venture into new instructional territory. During the recent Toronto 2000: Musical Intersections conference, Dale Olsen and Ricardo Trimillos led the national panel discussion, which is summarized below.

Teaching outside one's expertise is seen as a challenge that is spreading throughout the profession. The needs of the professional marketplace increasingly demand a diversity of skills; however, graduate training continues to be primarily narrowly focused on single areas of study. This conflict between the marketplace and training raises issues of maintaining standards of quality, accountability, evaluation, and other problems that call for novel strategies for adaptation to the changing needs in college teaching environments. Even when students who expect to teach may be diverse in their studies, they may not be trained as effective teachers. Attendees agreed that there needs to be more training in teaching methodologies and in preparation for teaching.

Professor Olsen discussed teaching strategies and instructional design issues. To be an effective teacher, one must have an avid interest in the topic and not necessarily be an "expert." A chapter panelist revealed that in his eight years of teaching at his current institution, all but three courses were outside his professional area. The skills that helped him survive were the same research skills demanded by his discipline. Effective teachers use their methods of research and teaching in their areas of expertise and then apply those methods to other topics.

Another area of discussion centered on responsibilities of and problems faced by administration. Many junior faculty admit that they do not feel able to object to assignments outside their areas. How far is outside and how far outside should one be willing to go? Some felt that administrators held unrealistic attitudes and expectations of their faculty. Trimillos suggested that faculty be willing to say no, or at least maybe, when asked to teach an unfamiliar course.

Many of the comments about administrators sympathized with the difficulties they face trying to make teaching assignments. Olsen recommended looking between the lines of curriculum vitae in order to facilitate faculty assignments. Perhaps the percussionist with steel drum experience would be a good candidate to teach the world music courses when an ethnomusicologist is not available. One of the keys to being an effective teacher is a matter of approach, not content. Administrators need to help develop methods of motivation, evaluation, and professional rewards in order to make teaching any subject successful. It was stated numerous times that support is an issue. Teaching faculty need special support when they are asked to teach outside their area.

Some of the rewards of teaching outside one's area include the avoidance of burnout, new publishing opportunities, the enlivening of one's own specialty through the acquisition of new perspectives, the creation of new courses and educational opportunities, the exploration of new teaching strategies, the avoidance of the trap of taking too "exclusive" a view of one's professional area, and getting to know students in other contexts.

Some discussions revealed highly successful results of teaching outside one's area, particularly when these efforts were developed in conjunction with novel topics or unique settings, such as cross- disciplinary courses, team teaching, and community outreach. There are dangers, too, in that faculty can spread themselves too thinly. They can weaken their ability to focus on their specialty, which has traditionally been the mainstay of academic productivity and the accepted measure for professional advancement. In today's current marketplace, does this tradition need revision?

2246 Last modified on May 1, 2013
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