Partnership with students: an example and lessons learned
by Ketevan Kupatadze
To put words into action, this past semester (spring of 2018) I decided to partner with students to design and redesign courses that I will be teaching next academic year. I chose two very different courses: a first-year honors course titled “Cosmopolitan Latin America” and a third-year course taught in Spanish, “Socio-political conflicts in Spanish speaking world.” While I had taught the honors course previously, I had not taught the Spanish course, so I redesigned one in partnership with students who had taken the course (including Erin Jenkins) and designed the other one in partnership with a student (Lucia Craige) who hadn’t taken the course and wasn’t going to, but who was majoring in Spanish. I note their names here because they will be co-authors of the next several blog posts in which we will be reflecting together about our experiences with partnership and its benefits, as well as risks.
In both cases my personal goals were to hear students’ perspectives on the course goals, topic, material, assignments, and assessment. I was particularly interested in co-developing the course materials with them and in finding out what their priorities were when selecting these materials.
Developing better and, most importantly, collaborative, egalitarian relationships with these students, and observing the educational benefits (if any) of such relationships between faculty and students were my other, not any less important, goals.
The process of this partnership was quite simple, which in retrospect had many flaws that I would like to address in the future. In a nutshell, I invited these students to partner with me on (re)designing a course. In one case, I invited everyone who had taken the course previously to join me. I explained the basics of the partnership and told them that I could offer them $400 for the semester. Two students responded and expressed their interest in partnership. One of them was Erin. Another student left the partnership mid-semester due to other responsibilities.
In the other case, I invited Lucia, who hadn’t taken the course but was majoring in Spanish. I knew of her interest, as well as her dedication to the subject matter and high level of responsibility. Having previously taught her in a different setting, I knew that she was a very intelligent and engaged student, but also extremely quiet. I wanted to offer her an opportunity to share her thoughts more freely and perhaps acquire a better sense of pride.
Throughout the semester, students and I met regularly to talk about the courses, their content (course materials), the assignments, grade distribution, etc. While Erin’s and my goal was to (re)design the course (including the course description, its goals, and some of the texts, broadly speaking), Lucia and I worked on developing the content for the course, including some of the units and materials to be included in each unit.
Final thoughts and lessons learned
While we will each reflect on the positive outcomes of this experience in the following blog posts, here, before continuing with the “lessons learned,” I wanted to say very briefly that as a result of these two partnerships the three of us shared the roles as teachers and learners and it gave us all a sense of pride.
One aspect of partnership that, as I mentioned above, should have been better planned out was preparing students for this kind of work. From hindsight, I think that I should have thought more carefully and planned more thoroughly how to develop students’ basic knowledge of the pedagogical value of partnership, spent more time thinking together and having conversation(s) about what our individual, as well as mutual, goals and expectations were when partnering on course (re)design. It made me understand now why, for example, Bryn Mawr’s model requires students who wish to partner with faculty to register for a course that exposes them to some of the most important and relevant pedagogical theories. Even if one doesn’t require a course like this, there are ways to incorporate such pedagogical preparation before or while partnering with students.
Besides preparing students for pedagogical partnership, I would also consider developing mutual goals. This time I developed the goals on my own and partnered with students on the process of achieving these goals. In the future, I would like to involve students in the development of the goals of partnership as well and see how this changes the process of teaching and learning and particularly if and how it enhances students’ awareness of themselves as teachers and learners.
I think that these issues are easier said than done, for various reasons: time, money, and the traditionally hierarchical model of education. We all seem to be extremely busy and have many responsibilities. Finding time to meet was sometimes an issue and we only met twice a month. Such pedagogical preparation would have required twice as many meetings, if not more. Considering our schedules, this would have been highly problematic. The obvious solution here is quite pragmatic: time and money.
Another reason is the traditionally hierarchical relationships that exist between faculty and students. Students are very used to occupying a passive role in their relationships with faculty. They are often unwilling and/or apprehensive of actively engaging in a dialogue with faculty because they are taught to accept and work with very hierarchical relationships in the academia. So, trying to break down this hierarchy is extremely difficult. It takes a shift in faculty and student mentality, a process that can be quite lengthy and complicated. Both students and faculty should first think together about the ways to address the hierarchy and ways to overcome it in order to then engage in a genuine partnership. I don’t think that the collaboration is devoid of value if true equality is not established between faculty and student(s) from the get-go (after all, I don’t even know what true equality looks like), but the more one strives to achieve equality in partnership, the better. And for this to happen, once again, universities should support the partnership model of education. It cannot be sustained by individual faculty members’ attempts to work outside of the system. No matter how much I tried, I was still a professor in my students’ minds; I was the one designing the partnership, deciding how to structure it, where and when to meet, etc. Even if I had managed to change this mentality, would I be doing a service to the students who would then have to reboot the rules of their relationship with other faculty?
Hence, I am continuously coming back to the idea of student-faculty partnership as a revolutionary pedagogical practice and the (im)possibility of it existing and thriving within the current the higher education system. For so many reasons it has to become an integral part of the system in order to be sustainable.
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.