Recently, colleagues at Elon discussed two new publications in the Center for Engaged Learning’s Open Access Book Series: Pedagogical Partnerships and The Power of Partnership. Folks in these conversations repeatedly returned to the challenge of working through the disagreements that may emerge in partnerships among students, faculty, and staff– and highlighted how collaboration across these different roles may exacerbate disagreements. Disagreement is a hallmark of human relationships more generally, and inevitable in close collaborative work. I’ve written in a previous blog post about what happens when disagreements in partnership reinforce hierarchy and lead to negative lessons for students about their voice and agency in higher education. But reflections on partnership also demonstrate the generative potential disagreements may hold. I wish to offer some hope about disagreements in partnership during this moment of global unease and uncertainty.

In January 2018, Alison Cook-Sather, and I launched research exploring the ways student and faculty partners navigate generative forms of disagreement. We sent a survey out to former participants in pedagogic partnership programs at 16 different institutions internationally, and received responses from [21] faculty and [23] students (as identified at the time of their partnership). This month, we published our work in which we summarize themes that emerged across the reflective data about what can make disagreements generative. We found that one of three options most often occurs following disagreement:

  • Disagreement can serve as an opportunity for student and staff partners to clarify their own and each other’s perspectives;
  • Disagreement and dialogue about it can prompt staff members to explain their pedagogical commitments to students enrolled in their courses; or
  • Disagreement did not seem, from the perspective of the partner reporting, to be at play in the partnership. (Abbot and Cook-Sather 2020)

We found in the first case that many times disagreement could be an opportunity to clarify folks’ intentions, thereby resolving the conflict organically; it could lead to a unique compromise between student and faculty partners about a pedagogical approach; or it could clarify commitments while maintaining the difference of perspective, allowing partners to “sit with disagreement.” In the second case, disagreement between partners might raise a point of potential miscommunication between faculty and students in their class, leading faculty to clarify their pedagogical goals for students. In the third case, some faculty and student partners shared there was an absence of disagreement due to the openness and vulnerability each displayed in their approach to collaborating. Our article includes stories and reflections from student and faculty partners about their experiences of disagreement to illuminate these three themes.

Each of these possibilities offers up a hopeful vision for what can happen in partnership: we may learn how to disagree better. Indeed, the benefit of working in a partnership model or with a partnered ethos is to bring together different perspectives. If we spend all of our collaborative time agreeing unanimously with one another, how much are we truly bringing to bear and learning from our differences? Rather than serve as immovable barriers to our work, disagreements have the potential to push our teaching and learning together into newer, more creative, or more transparent spaces.

Wondering about how to promote the kinds of attitudes in partnership that support these generative forms of disagreement? In addition to checking out the implications Alison and I include in our article, I encourage you to check out the P.O.W.E.R. Framework (Verwoord and Smith 2020) in The Power of Partnership as a helpful tool to help build trust and reciprocity across differences.

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, March 30. Generative Disagreements in Student-Faculty Partnerships. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from