What is student-faculty partnership anyway?
by Ketevan Kupatadze
Although student-faculty partnership is a relatively new concept, there’s a growing international interest in the topic, demonstrated by publications such as Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (2014) by Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, as well as the International Summer Institute on Students as Partners at McMaster University, Canada, that celebrated its second gathering in the spring of 2017.
So, what is student-faculty partnership? What does it aspire to be or to do? How is it supposed to change the way I, a faculty member working in the context of the higher education system of the United States, think of faculty-student relationships and interactions, and about education in general?
My first reflection will be personal, and I will try to answer the aforementioned questions as I understand them, not necessarily as they are addressed by scholars who have more experience with student-faculty partnerships. As I learn more about the issue, I imagine that my responses to the questions above will change—improve, become more thorough, and, at times, more complicated. More importantly, in the future, I hope to include students’ voices in the definition of student-faculty partnerships and in the shaping of its goals and its ultimate purpose.
For now, I will start with what I understand student-faculty partnership to be, what my reasons for developing such partnerships are and what I wish to learn and do as a result of my involvement in the project and my collaboration with students.
Let me be blunt: I believe in equality and frequently question the foundation and the necessity of all sorts of hierarchies; I believe hierarchies tend to separate rather than unite us. While I do not pretend to know how to eradicate all the hierarchies that already form an integral part of our societal structure, I would like to think that I actively fight against those I inadvertently generate, whether in my personal life or in my professional career. This dislike for hierarchal structures and a very strong urge to deconstruct them are the reasons for my personal interest in student-faculty collaborations or partnerships for I understand partnership as a non-hierarchical, egalitarian relationship and interaction between faculty and students. Any type of hierarchy that influences the power dynamics, in my opinion, destabilizes the notion of collaborative work and breaks down all prospects for partnership.
Our societal structure at large, and the structure of higher education institutions specifically, is built on hierarchical, unequal relationships. As faculty members, we assume our superiority stemming from the knowledge and experience we possess and students tend to assume their own inferiority stemming from their lack of knowledge of the material. Therefore, it is often a challenge for me, as a faculty member, to relate to students as an egalitarian partner, and it is an even greater challenge for students to relate to me as their egalitarian partner. While one can think of many reasons for such hierarchy to be useful, my question as I start exploring the field of student-faculty partnerships is: is it unavoidable? Will the world (college/university, in this case) change if we were to get rid of such hierarchies? What would the college/university and education look like without such hierarchical structures?
At this point you might ask: how can faculty and students be viewed as egalitarian partners when one has the knowledge of the subject, the expertise, and the other only aspires to have it? This brings me to the need to explain my understanding of the words “equal” and “egalitarian” in this context. We all bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as we decide to work together, so it isn’t possible to regard us all as equals. But, only if we refuse to acknowledge the strengths of others, the contributions of others, do we build unequal relationships. In my understanding, if all parties involved in partnership come to an agreement that each of them contribute with what their strengths are, the differences in their sphere of knowledge won’t generate inequality, but rather a community that will be built on shared knowledge and experience.
I started with some very basic questions about my understanding of student-faculty partnerships on curriculum design and development, my reasons for being interested in such collaborations, and my hopes for where it could lead me. In summary, I would like to think that it is possible to have a genuine partnership, i.e. a non-hierarchical relationship, between faculty and students. I also wonder how successful (or unsuccessful) such partnership will prove to be and how it can give us a glimpse of a possible non-hierarchical relationship between students and faculty in the higher education system of the future.
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; this post is the first in a series on the topic that she will contribute to the Center’s blog over the next two years.