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Teaching Alone, Teaching Together: Transforming the Structure of Teams for Teaching

By James L. Bess
304 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-4798-9
$33.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Wendy W. Murawski

CSU Northridge


As part of a state university system, faculty in the CSU are well aware of the tremendous load each of us carries. In creating a "balanced portfolio" for the retention, tenure, and promotion process, many of us find ourselves juggling the multiple tasks of scholarship, service, and teaching. While one or more of those tasks may involve our passion, it is unlikely that we feel quite as suited to each and every role asked of us. Almost in juxtaposition with this requirement for a "balanced portfolio," another keyword we often hear is that of "collaboration." We are encouraged to collaborate with our colleagues, within our own specializations, and interdepartmentally.

How then can a faculty member address each required role while also finding the time to collaborate with others? James Bess and colleagues advocate for a complete upheaval of the current situation. While this type of transformation would take quite a bit of doing in the CSU, their ideas are intriguing, and members of collegial departments may want to read on to see how these suggestions could be integrated in the near future.

In his book Teaching Alone, Teaching Together: Transforming the Structure of Teams for Teaching, James Bess collaborates with ten of his colleagues to reveal a new approach to university faculty organization. Bess suggests that faculty will experience a renewed sense of motivation if their primary roles are more suited to their individual personalities, strengths, and areas of interest. Currently, faculty in higher education are expected to be proficient in multiple roles, including those of content specialist, teaching expert, researcher, mentor to students, collaborator, and assessor. This is true of the faculty requirements in the California State University system. Bess suggests that if these roles were broken into their subsequent parts and each faculty member were able to focus on the areas in which he or she excelled, the result would be a more efficient, focused, and motivated team of educators who could share their combined efforts and rewards with one another.

In explaining this new vision, Bess calls these interactions between colleagues team-teaching. Because team-teaching is a term that already has been used to delineate actions other than what he intends, he and his associates might want to look for different terminology to explain his new approach. Team-teaching seems to imply faculty who are actually teaching together. Currently, team teaching is an approach used in collaborative teaching at the K-12 level in which two or more professionals work jointly to deliver substantive material to a heterogeneous group of students in the same classroom (Friend & Cook, 2000). Bess recognizes that at the university level team-teaching generally refers to cross-developmental collaboration between faculty who recognize common interests and merge otherwise different subject matters or courses. A new label, even something as simple as interdependent team, could help prevent confusion.

Teaching Alone, Teaching Together is an easy read and avoids unnecessary educational jargon. The authors avoid being subject-specific and, though the majority is geared toward those faculty who teach at the undergraduate level, it is clear that these ideas could be implemented at the graduate level as well. Bess begins clarifying his vision in his introductory chapter entitled "Tasks, talents and temperaments in teaching: The challenge of compatibility." Essentially, he proposes that not all faculty are compatible with the roles required of them; to require them to continue to do those roles may be a disservice to the students, the faculty member, and the university. The bulk of the book is divided into four parts with two to three chapters per part. Each chapter is relatively short, running between 20 and 30 pages in length.

A definite structure emerges as each chapter focuses on a potential role for the teaching team. The author of each chapter begins by reminding the reader of the intent of the team-teaching approach--to reconceptualize the academic structure so that "departmental faculty members, each of whom assumes a designated functional role, are organized into a collaborative team that approaches both students and the process of learning from a holistic, integrated perspective" (151). The author continues by describing one of these designated roles and discussing its function within the collaborative team process. In addition, the authors often describe the characteristics of a faculty member who would be well suited to a particular role, and they suggest how someone in such a role would then work with faculty in the other designated roles on the teaching team. The various roles explained throughout the text are the pedagogue, researcher, lecturer, discussion leader, mentor, integrator, and assessor. Currently, the role of integrator (which is primarily to link curricular and co-curricular experiences) is the only one that does not appear currently to exist in CSU faculty job descriptions.

While the text in general is informative and its ideas intriguing, the chapters written by the various authors do tend to be rather redundant. Each author begins by repeating what has already been thoroughly proposed in the first chapter, including the need for this teaching team and why individual roles are important. Rather than underscoring the importance of roles, this repetition becomes frustrating to read at the beginning of each subsequent chapter. The descriptions of each role, however, and how they tie in to the collaborative process, are worthwhile. In fact, the descriptions of the characteristics that make a faculty member especially suited to a particular role described were of particular interest.

In his final chapters (Part Four), Bess recognizes that there are no extant examples of this espoused teaching team, which makes it difficult to determine the feasibility of such a major reconstruction of faculty organization. (In a system as large as the CSU, this may take moving mountains!) He emphasizes the need for administrative support and reviews the literature on collaboration and teamwork as they relate to the suggested teaching team. These chapters are well written and identify numerous benefits, as well as potential barriers, for this innovative method of meeting student and faculty needs. Bess asks critical questions and provides much food for thought related to our current system of higher education.

In sum, this text provides a creative, unique method to reinvigorate faculty, one that allows faculty to better meet the needs of students while meeting personal needs as well. For such a major upheaval to occur, however, this text would need to be recommended reading for all faculty and mandated for university administrators, deans, and department chairs. Whether or not the California State University system opts to adopt this particular methodology for reinventing faculty roles, the issue of reevaluating the quality and quantity of work required by faculty in such disparate areas definitely deserves to be brought again to the forefront. Reading this text may help to do just that.


Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2003). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals (4th ed.). San Francisco: Allyn and Bacon.

Posted February 17, 2004

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by Wendy Murawski.

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