Conceptions of Students as Partners: Australian Perspective
by Ketevan Kupatadze
In this blog post, I discuss a recently published article by Matthews et al. (2018) in which the authors have studied the perspectives of students and faculty in Australia engaged in partnerships on pedagogical issues. The article raises some important questions based on the interviews conducted by the authors. I will start by summarizing briefly various significant benefits of partnership, pointed out by the study, to later delve deeper into the issues that seem to be problematic or that need to be addressed.
Context of the study: As Matthews et al. write, the study “explores the implementation of the Australian TPP,” (Transforming Practice Program) the theme of which in 2016 was Student Engagement: Students as Partners. “Teams comprising staff and at least one student from 11 Australian universities engaged in year-long projects to enhance processes, policies, strategies, and infrastructure for teaching and learning partnerships at their institutions” (p. 2). Matthews et al. collected data through individual interviews that were audio-recorded and used NVivo 11 software for data analysis. A total of 16 interviews were conducted with students, faculty, and academic staff participating in TPP.
Matthews et al. point out several important outcomes of student-faculty partnerships, while recognizing its challenges, and they view the practice as new, but emerging, one that has gained considerable respect in academia, with several journals dedicated to exploring, researching and promoting student-faculty partnership (p. 2). Working in the Australian higher education context, the authors write that the purpose of their study was to explore Australian faculty and students’ conceptualization of students as partners (SaP) and the opportunities that in their mind this practice will provide for their universities (p. 2). They point out that some of the benefits of partnership that they identified based on their interviews have been previously reported. But it is important to have additional (in this case, Australian) perspective to reinforce the arguments for which partnership is worth our effort, time, and commitment. The authors say that according to their findings, SaP fosters a) the development of “broader institutional cultures that value egalitarian learning,” b) student engagement while understanding education as “shared responsibility for learning and teaching,” and c) renegotiation of “traditional positions, power arrangements, and ways of working in higher education” (p. 2).
The study shows that students and faculty “conceptualized SaP in three different, overlapping ways: SaP as counter-narrative, SaP as values-based practice, and SaP as cultural change” (p. 4). If this is the case, SaP can be considered to be a revolutionary approach to higher education (and education, in general) and, understandably, will encounter considerable resistance along the road.
SaP as counter-narrative: According to the interviewed students and faculty, SaP goes against two dominant models of higher education: a hierarchical relationship between faculty and students in which faculty is the authority and knowledge transfer is one-dimensional, and a neoliberal consumer-based model in which institutions are viewed as businesses and community interests are replaced by individual ones. Instead, SaP is, according to the study, “a mutual learning model” in which both faculty and students are learners and teachers, with the relationship being reciprocal (p. 4). According to the perceptions of the interviewed faculty and students, there were three important aspects of today’s higher education model challenged by SaP. The interviews showed that SaP a) altered the traditional teacher-student relationship based on hierarchy, moving towards an egalitarian mode of collaboration; b) questioned the neoliberal agenda of higher education institutions, the “transactional interactions between students and staff” (p. 5), instead asking students and faculty to view each-other as a community of teachers and learners, as partners who had the same goal; and c) made space for “mutually beneficial learning,” creating a space for mutual growth in which all participants could shift their positions, roles, and identities thanks to the contributions that others were making (p. 6).
SaP as values-based practice: Matthews et al. write that “[t]he consistency among both staff and students in conceptualizing values (e.g. trust, respect, openness, reciprocity) as fundamental to partnership suggests that SaP has an ideological basis within the mutual learning model” (p. 6). Reinforcing the previous arguments on the importance of respect, reciprocity and responsibility in students as partners or student-faculty partnerships (Cook-Sather et al. 2014), this study found that faculty and students had shared opinions on the importance of respect, reciprocity, and trust as foundational to partnerships. These values do go against current higher education model in which power (and, yet again hierarchy) is the dominant characteristic that rules the relationships between faculty, students, and administrations of higher education institutions. Hence, negotiating power, learning to share or let it go, is one of the challenges of student-faculty partnerships. Not long ago Cook-Sather and Felten (2017) wrote about student-faculty partnerships as an opportunity to encounter and stay in a “liminal space,” a space in which one willingly gives up power and accepts ambiguity, uncertainty, and vulnerability that the lack of power brings.
All of the above leads to SAP as cultural change at higher education institutions: change in the ways we perceive education, in the ways we have understood the relationship between faculty and students, and in the ways we exercise power and build hierarchies. It also challenges our acceptance of higher education institutions based on neoliberal consumer model, which in the eyes of interviewed faculty and students was “potentially detrimental to both staff and students” (Matthews et al., 2018, p. 9). This idea is the one that I wish to explore further: why exactly is the consumer-based model detrimental for student-faculty partnerships?
One of the most challenging questions brought up by the interviewees was the vulnerability of faculty who engage in SaP but are not fully supported by their institutional culture, their colleagues, and/or their administrations. In an environment so focused on results, one that is so “demand-driven” (p. 9), student-faculty partnerships could be challenged and viewed, on the one hand, as a threat to the existing system, and as insecurity of individual faculty, on the other. While the reasons why student-faculty partnerships can be viewed as a threat to the existing system have been explain above, why faculty would experience insecurity and vulnerability might remain unclear. Interviewees mentioned that faculty’s willingness to engage in partnership with students on pedagogy related issues might be construed by administration and by their colleagues as a lack of knowledge and experience, and as a consequence, lead to “threats to job security and academic agency” (p. 11). Faculty can be seen as wanting to “improve” their teaching, which in the times of so much pressure on all of us to excel, could be quite detrimental. In my previous attempts to partner with students and redesign a course, I had to face this very issue of a student only seeing my invitation to partner as a plea for help to improve my teaching. So, I can certainly identity with faculty who fear that their willingness to collaborate with students can be construed as their inability to teach well. And so I wonder, what would be an easier ladder to climb: argue against the assumption that some of us need to improve our teaching while others do not? Or capitalize on such an already revolutionary benefit of student-faculty partnership as a more egalitarian, democratic education with the goal of improving student learning (through engagement, active participation, etc.), NOT teaching?
While this might seem as a trivial issue, a rhetorical game perhaps, another intriguing finding of the study was precisely the use of language and the recognition of how pervasive some of the elements of the (higher) education system are, how they have infiltrated our vocabulary and, through it, our consciousness. While the interviewees were in agreement that partnerships went against the consumer-oriented and results-driven model of higher education, the vocabulary and language they used was (perhaps unconsciously) full of terminology that reinforced such system. For example, Matthews et al. note that to overcome the resistance of faculty to the uncertainty and vulnerability brought about by SaP, some interviewees suggested a “top-down, managerial” approach of universalizing this model in order to manage performance, teaching goals and learning outcomes (something that reinforces neoliberal model) (p. 11). The authors also point out how frequent the use of the phrase “using students as partners” occurred (p. 12). These concepts and traditions are so entrenched in our minds that one wonders whether it is possible to break the system from within. Hence, this study, while reinforcing some of the dominant ideas about the benefits of student-faculty partnerships, also cautions against some important mistakes that one could make without thoroughly evaluating the reasons for engaging in partnership, SaP’s potential and limitations, as well as institutional and broader cultural norms and subconscious behavior traits.
- Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., and Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.
- Cook-Sather, A. & Felten, P. (2017). Ethics of academic leadership: Guiding learning and teaching. In F. Su & M. Wood (Eds.), Cosmopolitan perspectives on academic leadership in higher education (pp. 175-191). London: Bloomsbury.
- Matthews, K. E., Dwyer, A., Hine, L., & Turner, J. (2018). Conceptions of students as partners. Higher Education, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-018-0257-y
Ketevan Kupatadze, Senior Lecturer in Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, is the 2017-2019 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Kupatadze’s CEL Scholar project focuses on student-faculty partnerships.