October 25 2021

Team Teaching in Religious Studies: Editor’s Introduction

Ellen Posman, Baldwin Wallace University
Reid B. Locklin, University of Toronto

Autonomy and/or Collaboration—Competing Values?

Academia is often a solitary pursuit. We design our own research projects and conduct them as we see fit, and, similarly, we design our own courses and teach them as we see fit. This is one aspect of academic freedom, and it is part of what attracted many of us to academia in the first place. As a result, team teaching presents something of a challenge: it threatens some of that treasured autonomy. 

There is a traditional model of team teaching in higher education that preserves much of this autonomy and can seem to ease workload: the “tag-team” or “serial teaching” model. Two or more professors with different kinds of expertise on a subject take turns lecturing, each providing an assignment or exam for her or his unit. This more traditional model has some obvious benefits, in that students can receive knowledge from and ask questions of experts of subfields within a subject. One can imagine a New Testament course co-taught by one scholar of the Gospels and another expert on Pauline literature, or a course on Indian religions co-taught by an expert on Hinduism side by side with one on South Asian Islam. But is this truly team teaching? Or can some learning outcomes and interdisciplinary connections be better achieved through a more fully collaborative process? As the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching website notes, “Tag-team teaching has its benefits, but it misses out on the benefits of dialogue and the give and take engaged by the team of instructors” (Center for Teaching 2013). It is this give and take that each article in this issue highlights as an important model for student learning, so these articles push us to think about the most useful and fully collaborative ways to pursue team teaching.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking team teaching is less work than teaching on our own. While it may seem that team teaching would lighten workload by splitting up the teaching and grading time, the authors here confirm the scholarly consensus that team teaching is often more time consuming, especially in the preparation stages, as collaborators work together to set common course goals, choose materials, and arrange syllabi. For example, Mary C. Boys and Sarah Tauber discuss the intricate planning that went into their course “Faith Journeys and the Religious Education for Adults,” based on reading Jewish and Christian memoirs. Every aspect of the course was collaboratively planned, from choosing memoirs to constructing assignments. Norma Baumel Joseph and Leslie C. Orr, in discussing their course on “Food and Religion,” also confirm that sharing the tasks of course design, class preparation, and student evaluation does not mean less work. The collaboration can, however, make these tasks more enjoyable and effective for student learning.  

When approached more collaboratively, the added benefits are immense for faculty, and especially for students. Some faculty cite the chance to be a student again and to learn from a colleague as a perk, while others point to building friendships and networks across campus. Honing one’s own collaborative skills, learning new pedagogical strategies from a co-instructor, and the enjoyment of sharing ideas with colleagues are also common refrains (Plank 2011; Davis 1995).

De-centering the Instructor

The most important benefit, arguably, is to students, which translates to a more fulfilling experience for faculty, as well. Beyond content area expertise, students are afforded a window into the scholarly project itself. As professors question one another, students see critical thinking at work. As faculty discuss course issues openly with one another in front of the class, students see the way the content of the course is not a given, but constructed out of choices. As faculty approach the same subject from different disciplinary perspectives, students realize the benefits of interdisciplinary thinking. But perhaps what comes through most of all in these articles is that students themselves learn the art of collaboration. All ten of the authors in this issue (in five co-authored articles) stress the exercise of collaboration itself both for them and for their students. 

Modeling reflection is also important, especially when complemented by assignments that require students to engage in similar types of reflection such as journaling, guided discussion, and reflective essays. All this contributes to bringing students into a community of learning. Can this be done without teaming up?  Certainly. “But team teaching does provide an ideal environment for this type of engagement, in part by making it almost impossible to stick with a teacher-centered classroom in which the teacher is the sole authority delivering knowledge to the students. The interaction of two teachers—both the intellectual interaction involved in the design of the course and the pedagogical interaction in teaching the course—creates a dynamic environment that reflects the way scholars make meaning of the world” (Plank 2011, 3). Each pair of authors here provides a vibrant example of this process and the types of learning they see from students. 

Arguably, the most important benefit is to students, which translates to a more fulfilling experience for faculty, as well. Beyond content area expertise, students are afforded a window into the scholarly project itself. As professors question one another, students see critical thinking at work. As faculty discuss course issues openly with one another in front of the class, students see the way the content of the course is not a given, but constructed out of choices. As faculty approach the same subject from different disciplinary perspectives, students realize the benefits of interdisciplinary thinking.  But perhaps what comes through most of all in these articles is that students themselves learn the art of collaboration. All ten of the authors in this issue (in five co-authored articles) stress the exercise of collaboration itself both for them and for their students. 

Also important is modeling reflection, especially when complemented by assignments that require students to engage in similar types of reflection such as journaling, guided discussion, and reflective essays. All this contributes to bringing students into a community of learning. Can this be done without teaming up?  Certainly. “But team teaching does provide an ideal environment for this type of engagement, in part by making it almost impossible to stick with a teacher-centered classroom in which the teacher is the sole authority delivering knowledge to the students. The interaction of two teachers—both the intellectual interaction involved in the design of the course and the pedagogical interaction in teaching the course—creates a dynamic environment that reflects the way scholars make meaning of the world” (Plank 2011, 3). Each pair of authors here provides a vibrant example of this process and the types of learning they see from students. 

Joseph and Orr’s article on teaching "Food and Religion" begins with the concept of blending content expertise, combining Joseph’s specialty in Judaism with Orr’s specialty in Asian religions.  Yet this is only the beginning, as this method opens up the notion of specialization to include student voices. They write, “it is the very mechanism of team teaching that allows this course to be shared and thereby not owned by any one tradition or person. Team-teaching teaches multiple approaches and openness to shared experiences.” Clearly the team-teaching method here allows for enhanced student engagement as participants in a learning community. The instructors also require an embodied engagement, and by focusing on food, they encourage students to reflect on their experiences of eating, preparing, and sharing food, all while modeling the interchanges between the instructors as a way to pursue critical thinking and collegial conversation.  

The next two articles delve into interdisciplinary team teaching, in which students can approach a topic from multiple perspectives and thereby see the limitations of a sole perspective and begin to question the way knowledge itself is constructed. Cara Anthony and Elise Amel explain the variety of benefits students get from an interdisciplinary course involving religion and psychology entitled “Brain, Stomach, and Soul.” They point out that the interdisciplinary character allows students with different interests or previous expertise to connect to the course in different ways as it also demonstrates the limitations of approaching an issue from one perspective. They choose to use the “Iterative Praxiological Method” to approach the social issue of environmental sustainability, in order to show students the necessity of integrated learning when attempting to find solutions to complex social problems. Melissa Stewart and Deborah Field also discuss interdisciplinary team teaching, here as an introduction to the interdisciplinary field of women’s studies. They not only highlight the ways that any one disciplinary lens is limited, but also emphasize transparency in their process, questioning one another in class, admitting to ignorance in the other’s field, and collaborating aloud in class about the structure of the course. This process is designed to enhance students’ critical thinking skills as it “presented them with a more honest impression of the ways in which human knowledge must be actively constructed, rather than simply received.” Both courses engage students in creative and reflective assignments to allow them to bring disciplinary perspectives together and to question the notion of “received knowledge.”

The final two articles examine a more cutting-edge team teaching strategy of cross-institutional collaboration. Boys and Tauber involved students from their respective seminaries—one Christian, one Jewish—in their “Faith Journeys” course in which students read multiple religious memoirs. Here, too, the team-taught nature of the class allowed for more personal interfaith exploration as well as the possibility of transcending one lens to examine a subject more fully. One of the authors’ stated priorities was “listening to the authors and to each other in ways that helped students discover themes and experiences that transcend specific religious traditions while also appreciating those that are rooted more firmly in the particularity of distinctive religious traditions.” Discussion was the key format of the course, and the final assignment included the presentation of a book jacket for one’s own memoir. In this case, the collaborative model of team teaching combines with the narrative content, allowing for the development of empathetic listening and reflective sharing.

Finally, Amy L. Allocco and Brian K. Pennington have designed a remarkably innovative cross-institutional course on “India’s Identities” that includes a study abroad component. Their experience embodies all of the best aspects of team teaching already mentioned here, and more. Working together across different institutions—one draws locally in Tennessee and from more working-class families, while the other, over the mountains, draws students from across the nation to North Carolina—and eventually across different continents provided students with a variety of opportunities. The instructors have different content areas of expertise (North vs. South India) and different methodological approaches (history vs. ethnography), allowing students to see the complexity of India from a variety of angles while focusing on shared questions of religion, caste, and gender. Discussion, journaling, and reflection were again heavily emphasized. All of this, combined with the cross-institutional nature of the course, allowed students not only to learn the course content about India and to appreciate the multiple disciplinary perspectives on the subject, but also to reflect on their own social locations at home. As the authors put it, “In the mirror of India, students recognized the Americas and saw their own experiences reflected through the lives of others.” With the pace of technology and the existence of distance-learning equipped classrooms on campuses, there are surely even further possibilities for cross-institutional team teaching in the future. 

Low-Tech Strategy of the Highest Order

Religious studies is interdisciplinary by nature, and we can all imagine ways to capitalize on that in the classroom. Team teaching presents one way to model and enhance some learning habits and goals we have for students: questioning, admitting ignorance, cooperatively thinking aloud, empathetic listening, critical thinking, skepticism of “received knowledge,” and recognition of disciplinary limitations. As other scholars have noted, in this information age, the goal of higher education must move further away from mere dissemination of information to helping students integrate new information as they themselves become constructors of new knowledge, and team teaching can be a “low-tech” way to facilitate that kind of learning (Eisen and Tisdell, 2002–2003). The articles here represent ways to make the most of such collaboration, many of which are also noted in Stanford University’s Center for Teaching and Learning’s biblical-style “ten commandments of team-teaching” (Leavitt 2006). Some of these include taking the time to plan, setting common grading standards, attending all classes, referring to one another’s ideas, modeling dialogue/debate, and engaging students in the discussion. Above all, these various strategies amount to an attitude of genuine openness and collaboration in teaching and learning, both between the instructors themselves and between these instructors and the students whom they invite into scholarly conversation.

Ultimately team teaching may not be less work, but it certainly brings other types of rewards. No less than online teaching, profiled in the last issue of Spotlight, or service-learning, or one's choice of textbook, team teaching gives its own distinctive shape to our teaching, opening up new venues for dialogue and discovery. The result? New possibilities for collaboration, critical engagement, self-reflection… and perhaps even a good meal.


Ellen Posman is an associate professor of religion at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. She holds degrees in religious studies from Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her expertise lies in the area of comparative religion, with specializations in Buddhism and Judaism. Posman can be reached at eposman@bw.edu.

Reid B. Locklin holds a joint appointment in Christianity and culture at Saint Michael’s College and at the Centre for the Study of Religion, both at the University of Toronto. A graduate of Boston University and Boston College, he is the author of Spiritual but Not Religious? (Liturgical Press, 2005) and other works in comparative theology, Christian ecclesiology, and spirituality. Locklin currently serves as president of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies and as co-chair of the AAR’s Comparative Theology Group. He can be reached at reid.locklin@utoronto.ca.