Content-Area Literacy

Joined at the Hip: The Joys and Travails of Teaching “Linked” Courses

On a warm May morning in 2003, University of New Mexico Assistant Professor Matt Nyman and I (a teaching assistant in the English department) had our first official meeting to discuss uniting his Earth Sciences and Society course with my freshman composition course. We agreed to be linked for the fall semester as a part of the Freshmen Learning Communities (FLC) program at the University of New Mexico (UNM). The linking of courses, which has been successfully adopted by a number of universities, was about to begin its fourth year at UNM that fall. The linkings include a freshman seminar from departments as diverse as math, Native American studies, physics, and anthropology, and a linked course that was either freshman English or public speaking. The same group of twenty-five students attends the two separate classes, and, ideally, the two instructors work together, giving the students a multidiscipline approach to a single topic and coordinating two sets of complementary readings and assignments.

I approached my work with Matt with mixed feelings. I had already had experience with a linked course, and I saw the concept’s limitations, at least for me. At the time of my earlier experience, the seminar course was known as the “content” course, and, as I later discovered by talking with other linked instructors in the English department, the content professor often considered the linked instructor to be the professor’s assistant instead of his or her partner. These professors did not recognize that these hand-picked teaching assistants and part-time instructors had several years of experience teaching one of the universities’ most difficult classes on their own. In addition, the link between the courses was sometimes not clear to either the students or the instructors.

With all that said, I am an advocate for the university’s FLC program. The FLC courses help students, especially those who need a community learning environment as they enter a large, forbidding university, and these courses also help instructors, especially those who want their classes to be more interdisciplinary and more relevant to the needs of students.

Respected Members of a Community

Of the 2,900 new freshmen entering the University of New Mexico in 2003, some had trouble making the transition to university life at a large, public institution. Many freshmen are intimidated by the professors, the huge lecture classes, and the other students, who seem to know so much more than they do. The FLC classes create small, cooperative learning communities in which students can build relationships with each other and have direct interaction with their two instructors. The program is not meant to accommodate every incoming freshman or every student taking entry level classes—for the fall 2003 semester, only 6 of the 47 sections of public speaking and 12 of the 104 sections of freshman composition were FLC classes. However, in four years of giving the students the choice of taking an FLC or not, no FLC class has been cancelled due to lack of interest, and each year the demand for these classes rises. The students tell friends about their positive experience, and each year the university adds more FLC pairs. Program administrators have quantified the program’s success, citing higher grade-point averages (GPAs) and retention rates among the program’s students compared to the general student population.

Our FLC classes help students succeed, but they are not the panacea for all the frustrations of incoming freshmen and the frustrations of those who teach freshmen. On a certain pedagogical level, all college courses seek the same outcomes for their students. Instructors of science classes and instructors of English composition classes want their students to learn critical thinking skills, interpersonal communication skills, and valuable, discipline-specific information. However, on a practical level, the purposes and methods of these very different types of classes often diverge. Many science instructors focus exclusively on the content of a reading or writing assignment; they communicate with abstract equations; and they evaluate students with lab experiments and exams that do not include essay questions. On the other hand, many composition instructors focus primarily on the rhetorical strategies and writing style of a reading or writing assignment; they communicate with language; and they evaluate students with essays.

In order to make the link work, both instructors must incorporate some of the qualities of the other discipline into their class and both instructors must look for opportunities to teach the information or skills of their discipline in the language or format of the other discipline.

The Weaker Link

In my first experience with a linked course, my freshman English course was linked to a physics course that explored how sound is produced and how the human ear perceives sound. The physics professor and I both attended a week-long orientation for FLC instructors, and we met several times before the semester began to plan our strategy. Unfortunately, our classes were never truly linked; the best we could do was to make them parallel. The problem was partly a disharmony between the subject matter of the two classes, partly our inexperience with FLC classes, and partly our inability to break the boundary between the two classes.

I have discovered that two important aspects of joining two classes are flexibility and communication. To work together, each instructor and each class must be able to adjust to the other instructor and class during the semester. I found the physics professor accommodating, but her syllabus and teaching method were rigid. She had a certain set of information to cover in a certain way, and I found that it was up to me to do most of the adjusting. This was a problem because the physics textbook did not particularly lend itself to the needs of a composition class. Therefore, instead of using the same readings, I found my own readings that corresponded to the units she was teaching. For example, when the physics teacher taught a unit on how sound is produced by the human voice and from musical instruments, I taught a poetry unit on the musicality of language and had students read aloud works by Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon. When she taught a unit on how the ear hears sound, I did a unit on a controversy over whether deaf children are being discriminated against when they are encouraged to use hearing aids and how whales hear or don’t hear oncoming boats.

Also, the physics professor relied almost entirely on lecture and lab work, which worked for her class but did not promote collaboration between classes. Because she was teaching physics, her lectures were focused almost entirely on mathematical formulas, and she made only passing references to their practical application. It was difficult to find a link between the physics equations and the compositions I wanted the students to write and revise. Instead, the students based their writing on poems and critical essays that discussed the same topics as the physics class.

The physics professor and I did do several things to bring the classes closer together. First, I did use the physics textbook as the basis of a couple of assignments. For example, I asked the students to analyze the author’s rhetorical strategies in paragraphs they understood and in paragraphs they had trouble reading. The students enjoyed learning why certain sections of their scientific textbook were clear upon the first reading and why other sections were almost indecipherable.

Second, we held a joint complaint session. Because we usually could not attend each other’s classes, the students had not seen us together in the classroom. Therefore, at midterm we got together and asked the students to critique both classes. With both of us there, the students seemed more comfortable criticizing each of us and the classes. They wanted me to teach them how to write coherent paragraphs about scientific issues and how to understand and analyze information in a dense, confusing science text (and spend less time on the poems and articles I had chosen). My relationship with the students immediately improved, and they said later that I became much more responsive to their specific concerns and needs.

Overall, I was pleased with what our students had learned by the end of the semester, and the physics professor told me that the students wrote better essays on her exams than any other freshmen class she had taught. Although I did not specifically teach how to write answers to essay exams, she attributed the students’ high level of writing in her class to the fact that because her class was linked to mine, the students were more aware of writing in a clear, articulate, organized, well-supported, and grammatical manner in both classes.

United We Stand

After my first experience with the FLC program, I approached my second semester of linked classes in a new way. I actively encouraged my new partner, Matt, to focus more on student-oriented learning and less on lectures, which he did. Matt and I agreed to meet every week to discuss readings, assignments, and students. We planned assignments and activities that provided a cooperative learning community. We agreed on a common set of readings—some for Matt’s class and some for mine. And we discussed what students could learn in each of our classes from the perspective of the other instructor’s discipline. Finally, we agreed on some teaching and learning goals. We wanted the students to see that critical thinking and writing skills applied across the disciplines and that clear, organized, informed communication is essential to any intellectual community, within the university or outside of it.

In all of this, we wanted our classes to appear part of a larger whole. Though we had agreed on a reading list, we each assigned different readings from this list. However, we talked in class about each other’s readings from a scientific perspective, in his case, and from a composition perspective, in my case. We attended each other’s class to discuss social issues related to the readings from both a scientific and a rhetorical standpoint. On these days the class would consider such issues as global warming or New Mexico water resources, and each of us would help the students address the facts and myths of the data as well as analyze the personal interests and rhetorical strategies of the scientists and politicians who wrote or spoke about the issues. In addition, in my class, the students used research that they had gathered for Matt’s class from books, articles, and websites. I asked them to use this material to write summaries, and informative, evaluative, and exploratory essays.

One reason students considered the two separate classes as part of a larger whole was because Matt and I were flexible about class time. Several days we held both classes in the library or the computer lab, giving the students a single, two-part activity. Matt divided the students into pairs or larger groups and asked them to find articles or websites that discussed global warming or water issues and prepare informative posters, analytical outlines, and argumentative presentations. I asked them to analyze and write essays about the articles’ presentation of arguments and information, and how the authors used language and data to communicate with a particular audience.

Matt and I often met outside of class, but we occasionally conferred in front of the students. We wanted them to know that we cared about each other’s class, and that we cooperated on assignments and class goals, respected each other, and were able to joke with one another. In addition, Matt and I sometimes donated a portion of our class to the other instructor if more than the normal class time was needed for a discussion or a project. Once, early in the semester, we even traded class times. The students soon realized that the twenty-five of them and the two instructors were all part of a single, cooperative community, not two separate classes that focused on separate things and always met at 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. They also learned that peers, even those who work in different disciplines, can communicate and collaborate to create a positive, interdisciplinary environment for learning.

Possibly the strongest link Matt and I forged between the classes was our commitment to teaching the students to think beyond the narrow scope of what is expected from a science class or from an English class. We tried to expand the students’ perception of learning by allowing topics to cross the boundary between the classes. I asked the students to freewrite about texts, guest lecturers, and websites that they only encountered in Matt’s class. I also asked them to write summaries and evaluations of what they learned from doing oral and poster presentations in Matt’s class. Finally, I spent a couple of class periods teaching the freshmen what to write on a PowerPoint slide and how to answer questions on an essay exam, specifically Matt’s essay exams. Matt asked me to schedule this class for the day he handed out the first exam, a take-home exam. He provided a sample question that was similar to the questions on his exam. The students and I worked on an answer to the sample question, and then they went home to work on the actual exam.

To link his class with mine, Matt introduced a much larger writing component into his class than he had originally intended. In his instructions, he asked the students to do more than just provide the correct information about earth science issues; he asked them to focus on a purpose, write to an audience, and write several drafts, so they would learn that the writing process includes a series of tasks, specific rhetorical and organizational considerations, and revision. Both Matt and I required that the students write multiple drafts, and we asked them to rethink as well as revise their writing. Matt even required a majority of the class to revise the answers they gave on the essay exams.

In addition, Matt provided topics, reading lists, and research guidelines for the final, exploratory essay the students wrote for my class. In this assignment, the students explored one of four water resource issues: the silvery minnow, water conservation in Albuquerque, arsenic in local drinking water, or big industry’s desire for an unlimited use of water in New Mexico. Furthermore, Matt devoted some of his class time to teaching the students how to use the campus libraries, how to do research on the Internet, how to critique a peer’s writing when working on a group project, and how to communicate information and opinions intelligently in an oral presentation. As a result, I had a more cooperative, more highly skilled group of students than is typical in a freshman composition class.

The students themselves recognized the value of the skills they were learning because the same skills were applied to different tasks in the two classes. In fact the research the students did to complete the exploratory essay in my class was also used for a big assignment in Matt’s class. After the students explored the scientific data and political partisanship associated with their issue, they wrote a paper for me and staged a series of mock debates for Matt.

Linked but Not Codependent

Certainly Matt and I did our best to make the link between the classes a practical reality that benefited the students. However, I have found that sometimes it is important to teach material that is more discipline-specific. Matt occasionally lectured to his class because he knew freshmen cannot learn all of the important concepts about a complex, scientific topic or discipline on their own. Sometimes they need a professor to synthesize the important research for them and explain difficult concepts or the larger picture. I occasionally focused the students’ attention away from the scientific concepts and data of Matt’s class, devoting class time to grammar lessons and workshops devoted to revising their writing. This discipline-specific instruction, however, was beneficial to the other class because Matt appreciated seeing well-written answers to his exam questions and I could help the students learn to write summaries and informative essays without asking them to do any extra, out-of-class reading or research.

Linking a required course with a small seminar has proven extremely beneficial to my students in the last two years. The students have direct access to a professor who wants to teach interesting scientific, historical, or cultural material to freshmen. They write about topics that are more interesting than the standard, outdated topics that the ninety-two non-FLC freshman English classes use. Moreover, the community environment helps the students succeed in these classes and at the university by giving them the confidence and potentially a support group as they begin their second semester. Each teacher is allowed to design a lively, interesting class; work directly with the students; and collaborate with a colleague—an experience that can be frustrating but also invigorating and instructive. It has worked so well for Matt and me that we had planned our FLC classes for fall 2004 long before our first semester of linked classes was finished. I have found that as long as the instructors remain flexible and enthusiastic, and as long as they communicate with the students and each other, “linking” classes can make the whole better than the sum of its parts.