Diverse and Alternative Ways of Partnering in SoTL
by Ketevan Kupatadze
As I continue talking with my colleagues about student-faculty partnerships, whether in formal or more informal conversations, one recurring theme emerges: what does partnership look like in practice? My observations have taught me that a) most faculty immediately think of students as partners in the classroom setting and, b) most faculty immediately think of partnership as yet another way of asking for student feedback for course improvement or improvement of teaching. In this post, I address what I consider to be two serious misconceptions that make partnership somewhat more daunting for faculty.
Students as Partners is Best Pursued with an Entire Class
There are numerous different ways to partner with students, and perhaps partnering in class, in a course that one has already developed and is about to teach, is one of the hardest and scariest ways. Not that I am not attracted to the idea of partnering with 20+ students in my course, but I would prefer to develop a much better sense of partnership, have much more experience doing it, and consequently, more confidence when approaching my students with such a radical thought of co-learning and co-teaching an entire course. Since I don’t have all of the aforementioned attributes yet, I would feel far more comfortable partnering with one or two students outside the class, students who I already know, students with whom I have developed trusting and respectful relationships, students who are reliable, engaged and responsible. As we begin, we could co-design the partnership plan and decide to tackle an entire course or only certain parts of it. As someone who has experimented with this model, I can confidently say that even this one is full of unpredictable hurdles, moments that feel like failures, and those that serve as lessons. But, at least it is conducted in an environment that is less threatening, in which pressure of the outcome being anything less than successful is considerably lighter, and in which the partner is understanding and trusting.
One other possible way to reduce the pressure of full-blown partnership is taking small steps toward inviting students to co-design one aspect of course component. Giving students an opportunity to choose one out of two or three different texts or thematic units of the course could be one example. It is not uncommon in a higher education setting for faculty to frequently deliberate on what content to teach students; perhaps we should think of how to teach rather than what to teach. If this is true, we could consider giving students more flexibility with what they wish to learn. Inviting them to decide between several choices isn’t that hard of a task, neither for students nor for faculty. Partnering, in this case, means establishing a more democratic dynamic between faculty and students as we invite students to decide with us what the content of the course should look like.
While I have not experimented with the following model, another possible approach is partnering with a student to observe classes and have conversations with faculty based on these observations that come from students’ perspective. While this model could lead to many difficult conversations and put both the faculty member and the students in vulnerable positions, if/when divorced from academic credit, it could be a transformative experience that a) allows faculty to open up to a different perspective, one that is student oriented; and b) allows a student to occupy the role of a student and a teacher somewhat simultaneously and reflect deeper on the process of teaching and learning as interconnected.
While these examples are far from new or exhaustive, I have frequently referred to them as I engaged with my colleagues who were open to and interested in the general idea of partnership, but were apprehensive about trying it out in their classroom, fearing that it will result in a mess and failure that could potentially be detrimental for students, as well as their own careers.
Students as Partners is Simply Another Way to Gather Feedback about Teaching
My second observation when speaking with my colleagues relatively new to partnership is that they understand it as yet another way of receiving feedback from students about their teaching and ways to improve it. While I agree that one of the outcomes of partnership is improved and more effective teaching, I would caution against approaching student-faculty partnership from this angle. Higher education institutions in the U.S. tend to approach students as clients, and hearing from students, asking for their feedback, lies within the framework of student-as–client dynamic. As I addressed in an earlier post, Students as Partners pedagogy goes against this dynamic (see also Cook Sather et al., 2014), so the goal of partnering shouldn’t be to increase student feedback. If that were the case, the model would be reinforcing the student-as-client model instead of confronting it. Rather, partnership should aim to equalize the relationship that exists between faculty and students, placing more responsibility for reciprocity and engagement on students.
Through partnership, as I understand it, students and faculty take it for granted that they both have something to teach and something to learn, that the processes of teaching and learning are not one-sided, but they are intertwined. Hence, the success of a course (of a teacher) is not independent of the amount of effort and engagement that students contribute to the process but rather depends on it.
Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., and Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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.