Reference List Entry:

Cook-Sather, Alison, and Zanny Alter. 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.

About this Journal Article:

Alison Cook-Sather and Zanny Alter focus on student experiences as pedagogical consultants in a faculty development program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. The authors claim that this type of collaboration between student consultants, faculty and undergraduate students enrolled in a course has “the potential to transform deep-seated societal understandings of education based on traditional hierarchies and teacher/student distinctions” (p. 37). Cook-Sather and Alter borrow anthropological concept of liminality and revise it as “a threshold between and among clearly established roles at which one can linger, from which one can depart and to which one can return” (p. 38) to describe the shift in the relationship between faculty and students and emphasize the fact that having students as educational consultants falls outside of all previously established roles and categories in higher education system.

The context of Cook-Sather and Alter’s study is Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges’ Student as Learners and Teachers (SaLT) program, which employs students as pedagogical consultants to faculty. Both students and faculty go through an established training process. The authors report several important changes in both, students’ and faculty’s perception of teaching and learning, as well as the relationship between them, as a result of the experience:

  • It prompts literal and metaphorical (re)positioning of the student consultants in the classroom, changing their perspective on learning and teaching, as well as their traditional roles as students;
  • It exposes the participants to ambiguity and vulnerability, which in the end helps in developing the capacity to be between “all fixed points of classification” (p. 48);
  • Student consultants report becoming better students as they are able to understand better the professors’ perspectives and goals and experience deeper learning as a result of being exposed to multiple angles;
  • Faculty report being more willing to shift their teaching and more open to a dialogue with students; move towards less hierarchical and more dialogic understanding of teaching and learning; and
  • Students report being willing to take more responsibility for their education and active participants in their education.

In conclusion, the authors argue that such partnerships have a potential to move us toward a more democratic education: the potential to generate a democratic dialogue about teaching and learning between students and faculty.