Pedagogical partnerships or students-as-partners pedagogy has become increasingly popular internationally due to its promise to be transformative in building considerably more equitable and collaborative relationships between diverse players in higher education institutions, most importantly between students and faculty/staff (Matthews, Cook-Sather, and Healey 2018; Healey, Flint, and Harrington 2014; Cook-Sather 2014). Partnership-based philosophy is based on three tenets:

  • It views education as an open-ended and exploratory process (Bovill and Bulley 2011; Werder, Thibou, and Kaufer 2012; Healey, Flint, and Harrington 2014; Matthews 2016);
  • It views the university as a place that is potentially hospitable to all and can develop and nurture every single individual’s sense of belonging (Healey, Flint, and Harrington 2014; Cook-Sather 2015; Curran and Millard 2016; Colón-García 2017); and
  • Ultimately, it views educational institutions as imaginable spaces for a non-hierarchical structure where human relationships are not governed by norms that rely and capitalize on such binaries as winning and losing, success and failure, but rather on the power of collaboration, of mutual respect, responsibility, and reciprocity (Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten 2014; Cook-Sather and Felten 2017).

In this context, the two titles reviewed here, The Power of Partnership: Students, Staff, and Faculty Revolutionizing Higher Education edited by Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and Sophia Abbot, and Pedagogical Partnerships: A How-To Guide for Faculty, Students, and Academic Developers in Higher Education by Alison Cook-Sather, Melanie Bahti, and Anita Ntem, make important contributions to the emerging body of scholarship, as they engage with the conversations that are happening around the topic of partnerships in higher education.

The Power of Partnership offers perspectives from numerous authors—faculty, staff, students, and academic developers—with partnership experiences in multinational and multi-institutional contexts. With an inspiring style that, from the beginning, breaks from the confines of established scholarly narratives, the authors pose challenging questions that ask the reader to seriously consider the flaws of the current higher education system and the ways we may revolutionize it. Pedagogical Partnerships, on the other hand, offers a practical, how-to guide to understanding partnership, seeing its value and potential in the specific context of an institution, establishing a partnership-based program, and running it. The authors, while acknowledging the revolutionary characteristics of partnership-based pedagogy, develop a roadmap with practical strategies for turning the theory into practice.

Mercer-Mapstone, Lucy, and Sophia Abbot, eds. 2020. The Power of Partnership: Students, Staff, and Faculty Revolutionizing Higher Education. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning.

The editors of The Power of Partnership, Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and Sophia Abbot, don’t shy away from letting the reader know that this book is going to be different—it won’t fit within the “corsage like” frame of traditional academic work, instead trying to free itself from these restrictions, explore and experiment with less familiar genres. In the introduction, playing with poetry and free-writing style, the definition of partnership that the authors offer sounds refreshing. All the characteristics of partnership come alive in this brief poem: freedom to explore new relationships, opportunity to belong, vulnerability and trepidations about one’s identity, occupying a marginal space, unfinished and unfinishable nature of education, etc. The poem and, consequently, the partnership are calls for radical freedom, for an opportunity to break down many different shackles within academia, within the system (beyond academia) that is constructed on and restricted by hierarchies.

The chapters that follow explore many different angles of partnership, including its definition, its essence, and its potential for revolutionary change. They present the current neoliberal higher education system as one that is market-driven and student-as-consumer oriented and invite the reader to consider partnership-based pedagogy as one that offers an alternative to this model; they describe partnership as an invitation to explore all the diverse aspects of our identities and an opportunity to find ourselves and be, as opposed to the constant process of acting and pretending. The chapters also highlight the messiness and the complexities of student-faculty partnerships, coupled with the complexities of all genuine human interactions. Nevertheless, they argue that the vulnerabilities brought out throughout the process turn partnerships into friendships, developing deep and long-lasting human relationships.

In this review, I present three themes that interested me the most from the collection: the ability for partnership to re-humanize us, our ability to use this re-humanization to dismantle existing power structures, and the extent to which such a process can happen or be sustained in isolation.

Partnership aspires to dismantle hierarchies while building genuine relationships

Mirroring the complex and fluid nature of our identities, the book includes pieces that play with creative genres to counter the straightforward dominant narrative structure of scholarly articles. These  dialogues, poems, manifestos, and essays challenge the current “way of being in the academy” (Flint, chapter 11) while discussing the challenges of partnership as it tries to dismantle the hierarchies that have been engrained in student-faculty relationships. For example, Verwoord and Smith (chapter 1) describe the P.O.W.E.R. framework to address the potential of partnership to challenge and change these traditional relationships. With the help of this framework, they underscore that the engagement with each other through pedagogical partnership creates opportunities for the participants to address: the positionality of students and faculty, i.e., their identity vis-à-vis their social position; the openness towards diverse identities and others’ perspectives brought about by the dialogue; the willingness to invest time and energy in relationship-building; the ethnocentricity or, rather, the awareness of it and conscious effort to fight it; and, finally, the reflexivity on how the society and the environment that surrounds us shape our identity. Throughout their dialogue, Verwoord and Smith, student and professor, ask questions that delve into human relationships that surpass the boundaries of our professional lives, suggesting that partnership challenges and potentially dismantles the power structures of our society.

While I am inspired by the enthusiasm of many of the book’s authors to fight for a more just academia, I wonder if humanity, and academia as its microcosm, sees radical equality as just. Moreover, through focusing on mutual reliance and shared identities, are we, as an academic community, prepared to give up the idea of an autonomous self and consequently, of authorship?

First of all, as Guitman, Mercer-Mapstone, and Acai (chapter 3) note, dismantling hierarchies means that those who are in power have to let it go. This is not only true for those whose position of power in our opinion is unjust and unjustified. It is also true for many of us (as faculty, I intentionally use “us” here, “us” as in women, women of color, and/or women of diverse ethnic groups, etc.) who would argue that the merit-based hierarchies in academia are there to acknowledge the hard work that goes into achieving the positions of power and who would say that we merit the role that we have come to play in this ladder of hierarchy that is the structure of the higher education system. While I am not suggesting that racism, sexism, and other “isms” do not feed and nurture the hierarchy, I wonder if such a non-hierarchical, radically equalizing system will be just.

Secondly, structure is a fundamental element of the Western higher education system. Messiness, in-betweenness, and uncertainty simply aren’t acceptable concepts. If something is uncertain or messy, it needs to be cleaned up, studied: Western academia has cataloged every single thought into a discipline that is supposed to study it and set boundaries on who is granted the authority to speak about it. All of the authors of the book had to include references after their pieces, and they had to use quotation marks for the ideas “borrowed” from these sources. Even when explicitly going against the grain of the disciplinary discourse and accepted forms of writing, they complied with the imperative to acknowledge the names of those who had written before them. But, if our identities are messy, if they are fluid, if they are in-between, these words do not come from one autonomous self, one author; they are eternally borrowed. Finding the original source is simply impossible; hence attributing an idea, a thought, to one particular author is falling into the trap of defined identities and strict hierarchies. If we genuinely wish to understand partnership as a revolutionary, “re-humanizing” move for the higher education system, then we, following Jorge Luis Borges’ notion, should be open to the concept of de-authoring every single work that we read, that influences us, and that we create. How far are we prepared to go? Is it possible for us to seriously consider Borges’ proposal that Pier Menard can be the author of Don Quixote? As we read a text, do we simultaneously become its authors? Can we genuinely accept a socio-cultural space in which there is no authorship, no single identity to claim such authorship?

Can partnership avoid domestication?

How does partnership retain its goal of deconstructing the hierarchies in academia and avoid being domesticated by it? How does it avoid being assimilated into the current neoliberal structure of the higher education system? Guitman and Marquis address this question in chapter 9, “A Radical Practice.” As the authors point out, there is an identified potential of partnership being used by the administration (as well as understood by students and faculty) as yet another tool for “quality assurance measures” and for enhanced “student feedback” (140). Many faculty and students I have talked and even partnered with have not gone to the length of seeing partnership as a subversive practice, rather understanding it as another, perhaps more profound, way of soliciting student feedback and improving teaching. Guitman and Marquis respond to this concern by saying that partnership “creates alternate, often countercultural institutional environments that can allow other forms of radical resistance to flourish, even if it doesn’t enact radical systemic change in itself” (140). It creates spaces where one “could be critical and political and enact more change than in most other institutional settings” (140). Even if partnership is not transforming an institution, it is (or can function as) a transformative practice for an individual (145). This idea is supported by the individual accounts about partnership experiences offered by various authors of the book. They spoke to the transformative power of partnership for an individual. For example, for Desika Narayanan and Sophia Abbot (chapter 12) partnership meant developing community in which to belong; for Abbi Flint (chapter 11) it was the possibility to “co-create alternative futures” (177), and for Evgeniya Macleod (chapter 14) partnership meant a “commitment to dreaming about a better world” (215).

As partnership scrutinizes the competitive, business-like model of the higher education system and offers an alternative with collaborative, supportive, non-competitive relationships that recognize our interdependence, mutual reliance, and shared humanity, it will need to be supported by other structures. For the philosophy of life that is advocated by partnership to be successful, we should be exercising more kindness to each other, nurturing each other with a “deep generosity of spirit,” in the words of Mathrani and Cook-Sather (164). But this nurturing will need to extend well outside the limits of this pedagogical practice, even outside academia. A change of this magnitude in our philosophy of life cannot be brought about by one pedagogy. Partnership alone cannot stand up to the powerful systems that govern our societal structures. If left alone, partnership runs the risk of being domesticated by these very structures and reinforcing instead of dismantling them.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Melanie Bahti, and Anita Ntem. 2019. Pedagogical Partnerships: A How-to Guide for Faculty, Students, and Academic Developers in Higher Education. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning.

Pedagogical Partnerships is written with a similar impetus of imagining our campuses as places of belonging “in which a diversity of learners and teachers can thrive” (1), as well as fostering “more equitable and inclusive teaching and learning environments” (2). Additionally, it offers practical suggestions for diverse participants in the academy on how to implement this pedagogy in sustainable and systematic ways. Informed by the principles of partnership and the existing research around the pedagogy and varied international institutional experiences, and cognizant of the challenges that partnership pedagogy faces due to its transformative nature, the authors present a clear roadmap intended for faculty, students, and academic developers interested in exploring partnership at their institutions. The authors state that while they offer guidance in terms of how to start and support such initiatives, their suggestions and advice are not prescriptive and can be adapted to different institutional contexts, disciplinary frameworks, and students’ and faculty members’ individual needs.

One notable aspect of the book is that two of its authors are recent college graduates who draw from their personal experiences as students-as-partners, as well as their experiences as the (co)facilitators of focus groups and workshops on the topic. And, even though this guide focuses specifically on the SaLT (Students as Learners and Teachers) program’s approach to pedagogical partnerships developed by Alison Cook-Sather at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, it is “informed by the perspectives of numerous other academic developers, faculty, staff, and student colleagues who have developed, facilitated, and participated in pedagogical partnerships at a range of colleges and universities around the world” (9). The authors have compiled an array of resources, referenced and linked in the book, suitable as much for readers wishing to explore overarching questions about pedagogical partnerships, as for those with more practical and pragmatic goals.

While there are many benefits to pedagogical partnership (Mercer-Mapstone et al. 2017), Cook-Sather, Bahti, and Ntem see the most value in partnership’s promise to nurture a “sense of belonging” (3), as it gives an opportunity to everyone to find their voice and build a community within their institution to which they will feel “meaningful connection” (3). Employing this very principle, the authors assert that the how-to guide is for anyone involved in a higher education institution in any capacity. Because partnership blurs traditional and strictly defined roles that we all have become accustomed to assuming in the academy, such unlikely actors as librarians, instructional technologists, and others can and should be invited into the partnership space to develop different kinds of relationships and brainstorm the ways in which everyone can be a partner in the process of teaching and learning, as well as curriculum development (6).

The guide is intended to answer such fundamental questions as:

  • Why might one wish to develop a pedagogical partnership program (chapter 1)?
  • How does one determine the type of pedagogical partnership that is right for the context of one’s institutional culture (chapter 2)?
  • How does one get started and what is needed to develop a sustainable culture of pedagogical partnerships (chapter 3)?
  • What are the shared, as well as individual, responsibilities of diverse partners? What roles are specific to academic developers, faculty, and students, and what different approaches might they take when it comes to institutionalizing pedagogical partnerships (chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7)?
  • What are some of the biggest challenges of this pedagogy and how might they be addressed (chapter 8)?
  • How can partnership work be assessed (chapter 9)?

The book offers practical recommendations, and Cook-Sather, Bahti, and Ntem do not overlook the challenges that the pedagogy has presented or might present. They highlight some of the major challenges: pedagogical partnerships encounter strong resistance as they try to break down the power structures and the hierarchy established in institutions of higher education; they have to exist within institutional cultures that are strictly prescribed and limit one’s independence; and they have to overcome deep-seated social, racial/ethnic, and gender inequalities that go beyond the limits of higher education institutions. These challenges, according to the authors, can be addressed by employing Sharon Welch’s (1990) principles of an ethic of risk: “an ethic that begins with the recognition that we cannot guarantee decisive changes in the near future or even in our lifetime” and that “responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible, the creation of the conditions of possibility for desired changes” (278). So, borrowing from Antonio Machado’s poem, the authors point out that the road is made by walking (“se hace el camino al andar”) (278). While pedagogical partnerships might be less successful in turning the current system upside down, meaningful change will come slowly and incrementally.

One particular theme of the book that caught my attention was the reason why one might wish to develop a pedagogical partnership: to explore and deepen the understanding of one’s identity and consequently to feel a connection and belonging to the place where such experience is nurtured. Partnership pedagogy, in the authors’ words, can “foster in students a sense of belonging, … support faculty in generative reflection, and … contribute to the evolution of an institution into a place where members of the community feel a meaningful connection” (16). Once again, partnership in this context goes far beyond a pedagogy, generating a space for individual and creative freedom, as well as reducing a sense of isolation (in faculty and students) who, through partnership, develop deeper and more meaningful, long-lasting relationships (17). Hence, one of the most cherished outcomes of partnership is the reconceptualization of education as a collaborative and iterative process in which one is constantly required and allowed to share their viewpoint and hear that of others, leading to an understanding that every single individual in the academy has a valuable and complementary role to play in both teaching and learning practice.

Pedagogical Partnerships offers insights into this pedagogy and the work involved for students, faculty, and academic developers at any stage, but the book can be particularly helpful for two types of audiences: for a faculty member interested in developing partnership and trying to figure out where to start, what steps to take (as well as what steps not to take), how to plan each of these steps, what to expect, and later, how to assess the work; and for an academic developer who is interested in establishing such a program at their institution and wishes to recruit faculty and students. As mentioned above, the guide offers an impressive list of resources and very detailed guidance on every step of the way and will be a highly valuable go-to resource for these two types of audiences. As a thorough catalog of ideas, research, and experiences related to pedagogical partnerships, it stands in sharp contrast with The Power of Partnership. The two books complement and complete each other: one addressing an overarching philosophical premise of partnership as a way of being and the other offering profoundly practical, methodic, and, I dare say, pragmatic suggestions to those interested in this pedagogy. If any readers of The Power of Partnership were to resist this pedagogy as a revolutionary, counter-cultural practice, Pedagogical Partnerships would persuade them to view this pedagogy as an attainable opportunity, as the authors outline the steps to be taken for its successful implementation.


Bovill, Cathy, and Catherine J. Bulley. 2011. “A Model of Active Student Participation in Curriculum Design: Exploring Desirability and Possibility.” In Improving Student Learning (ISL) 18: Global Theories and Local Practices: Institutional, Disciplinary and Cultural Variations, edited by C. Rust, 176-188. Oxford Brookes University: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

Colón García, Ana. 2017. “Building a Sense of Belonging through Pedagogical Partnership,” Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education 22.

Cook-Sather, Alison. 2015. “Dialogue Across Differences of Position, Perspective, and Identity: Reflective Practice In/On Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnership Program.” Teachers College Record 117 (2).

Cook-Sather, Alison. 2014. “Student-Faculty Partnership in Explorations of Pedagogical Practice: A Threshold Concept in Academic Development.” International Journal for Academic Development 19 (3): 186-198.

Cook-Sather, Alison, and Peter Felten. 2017. “Ethics of Academic Leadership: Guiding Learning and Teaching.” In Cosmopolitan Perspectives on Academic Leadership in Higher Education, edited by Feng Su and Margaret Wood, 175-191. London: Bloomsbury.

Cook-Sather, Alison, and Alter, Zanny. 2011. “What Is and What Can Be: How a Liminal Position Can Change Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 42(1): 37-53.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Melanie Bahti, and Anita Ntem. 2019. Pedagogical Partnerships: A How-to Guide for Faculty, Students, and Academic Developers in Higher Education. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Cathy Bovill, and Peter Felten. 2014. Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Curran, Roisín, and Luke Millard. 2016. “A Partnership Approach to Developing Student Capacity to Engage and Staff Capacity to be Engaging: Opportunities for Academic Developers.” International Journal for Academic Development 21 (1): 67–78.

Healey, Mick, Abbi Flint, and Kathy Harrington. 2014. Engagement through Partnership: Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. York: Higher Education Academy.

Matthews, Kelly E. 2016. “Students as Partners as the Future of Student Engagement.” Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal 1(1): 1-5.

Matthews, Kelly E., Alison Cook-Sather, and Mick Healey. 2018. “Connecting Learning, Teaching, and Research through Student-Staff Partnerships: Toward Universities as Egalitarian Learning Communities.” In Research Equals Teaching: Inspiring Research-based Education through Student-Staff Partnerships, edited by V. Tong, A. Standen, and M. Sotiriou, 23-29. London: UCL Press.

Mercer-Mapstone, Lucy, Sam Lucie Drovakova, Kelly E. Matthews, Sophia Abbot, Breagh Cheng, Peter Felten, Kris Knorr, Elizabeth Marquis, Rafaella Shammas, and Kelly Swaim. 2017. “A Systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education.” International Journal for Students as Partners 1(2): 1–23.

Mercer-Mapstone, Lucy, and Sophia Abbot, eds. 2020.  The Power of Partnership: Students, Staff, and Faculty Revolutionizing Higher Education. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning.

Werder, Carmen, Shevell Thibou, and Blair Kaufer. 2012. “Students as Co-Inquirers: A Requisite Threshold Concept in Educational Development.” Journal of Faculty Development 26(3): 34–38.

Ketevan Kupatadze, Senior Lecturer in Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, was the 2017-2019 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Kupatadze’s CEL Scholar project focused on student-faculty partnerships.

How to cite this CEL Retrospective:

Kupatadze, Ketevan. 2020. November 19. “Pedagogical Partnerships and The Power of Partnership: A Roadmap to Revolutionizing Higher Ed.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog).