The first section of The Power of Partnership is called “Power and Politics” and focuses on the way power and hierarchy impact our ability to connect with one another across roles in meaningful partnerships in teaching and learning. When Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and I started this project together, power was the first topic we knew we needed to include as a major theme in this book. With the range of social identities and roles present among those working in partnership, the challenges of hierarchy and power negotiation are bound to arise. Power in partnership is also the topic I’ve seen come up most frequently in recent conversations on Twitter and in the Center for Engaged Learning’s recent reading groups on pedagogical partnerships.

In early March, just before social distancing began in full, a The Power of Partnership reading group met at Elon University to discuss Section One of the book. I was excited to hear readers’ thoughts on the first five chapters, and our discussions were diverse and thoughtful. I continue to think about one comment in particular, though. One faculty participant reflected that she had to pause several times while reading because she was excited by the idea of partnering, but not confident she could ever do it “right” as she was so used to taking a more hierarchical approach in her work with students. I was surprised by the idea that partnership is something that can be done “right.” While I have strong personal definitions for partnership, reflected in the introductory poem and glossary for The Power of Partnership book, I’m not so sure there is a right way. Indeed, Section One offers grounding questions, frameworks, and examples, but no single guide for how partnership should look or be conducted. Rather, as Huang Hoon Chng suggests in her introduction to the section, the Power and Politics section is explicit in offering many stories to counter the “single story” model we have traditionally held.
section one graphic illustration by sam hester
This reading group participant prompted me to think, if there are many stories of partnership, how can we know whether we are practicing it? In our discussion, another participant referred to Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Anti-Racist and summarized: we know how to be racist, and we know how to pretend we are not racist, but we need to practice being anti-racist. That practice is a series of acts rather than an identity. I wondered aloud: is there a similar analogy for partnership? Perhaps we know how to work in hierarchies, we know how to pretend we are adopting a stance of equality and partnership, but we need to actually practice partnership. And like being anti-racist, being a partner is a series of acts rather than an identity a person can claim for themselves.

So what are the partnership acts we might practice? The chapters in Section One offer key examples. To begin, the P.O.W.E.R. Framework (Verwoord and Smith) and feminist manifesto for partnership (Guitman, Acai, and Mercer-Mapstone) give us theoretical and grounded tools to grow our partnership actions to be as inclusive as possible. Both recommend explicitly asking: what are the identities and power dynamics present in this partnership? How will we work to unlearn those hierarchies together? The section continues with examples of partnership in research and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Wilson, Phillips, Meskhidze, Lockard, Felten, McGowan, and Bloch-Schulman); partnership in student governance structures and representation systems (Goddard and Flint); and partnership in university-based civic engagement (Lenihan-Ikan, Olsen, Sutherland, Tennent, and Wilson). These chapters offer other specific examples of partnership acts.

Chapter 2 (Wilson et al.) suggests that a first step partnership act is to ask, “Where are the students?” Such a question pushes researchers to change their frame from “could students be partners in this work?” to “why aren’t there student partners in this work?” From there, the culture in academic spaces needs to shift. Wilson et al. suggest three main steps:

  • Before asking a student researcher a question, ask yourself: would I ask a faculty researcher this question?
  • Assume students and students’ perspectives are valuable.
  • Make sure students are treated with respect, and act as allies toward them.

The other chapters in this section extend these ideas. Chapter 4 (Goddard and Flint) suggests that some power “needs to be relinquished” by higher educational institutions and leaders in order to effectively partner with students and students’ unions. Chapter 5 (Lenihan-Ikan, Olsen, Sutherland, Tennent, and Wilson) acknowledges the things that make relinquishing or sharing power challenging. Lenihan-Ikan et al. suggest laying out expectations at the beginning for sharing administrative load and drawing on each other’s strengths. In particular, they recommend specific approaches such as “rotating tasks such as setting dates and chairing meetings, taking notes, identifying readings, and sharing the load of investigating flight and accommodation options” (p. 89) for their shared conference travel.

Because the whole book is filled with grounded examples of partnership practices, Sections 2 and 3 offer more inspiration for partnership acts one could practice. I’ll be writing posts for each of those sections soon. As you read the book, you might ask yourself: “which chapters share partnership acts I could adapt in my practices? How else can I make partnership a regular practice in my everyday work?”

Sophia Abbot is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Graduate Apprentice and a student in the Masters of Higher Education program at Elon University.

How to cite this post:

Abbot, Sophia. 2020, April 23. The Power of Partnership, Section One: A Series of Partnership Acts. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from