The Center for Engaged Learning recently released The Power of Partnership: Students, Staff, and Faculty Revolutionizing Higher Education. In our E-Origin Story, Lucy and I (the collection editors) explain the conception of the book itself. But I wanted to step back and tell the original story, the foundational story, of our work together and the origins of this book’s need. 

I first met Lucy in a very large Skype conversation. It was too early in the morning for her, and unfairly, a perfectly reasonable hour in the afternoon for me. There were at least ten others on the call, and I only knew one person. I was a little intimidated and somewhat overwhelmed to be meeting scholars on this call who I’d previously known only by last name on articles I’d cited. Yet I quickly learned that this hodgepodge group of people were – like me – interested in partnerships between students and staff/faculty in higher education. We had come together to map and analyze the literature in this quickly exploding field of practice and research. 

Over the course of the next several months, our group evolved into twenty people (twelve students and eight staff/faculty) grouped into four teams across four countries and six different institutions. We narrowed a list of 386 works down to 65 for analysis. The process was hard. We brought forward vastly different assumptions and perspectives about the definition of words like “empirical,” “rigor,” “quality,” and “research.” For example, I was deeply torn when in an early round we decided all purely reflective articles would be removed from the pool. And yet, while our discussions challenged each other, they were also generative. Our final piece is clearer because we narrowed our scope.  

We talk in detail about the methods of making those cuts in the resulting article (Mercer-Mapstone et al. 2017), but the article – like many in academia – does not and cannot capture the real challenge and emotion of that process. We present our methods as a smooth and systematic process, as though we all worked in perfect lock-step to complete this shared work. Without reflecting on ourselves, we write about the literature we analyzed: “Ensuring that research focuses equally on the positive and negative aspects of both student and staff experiences will be important not only in ensuring early adopters go in with a strategy for facing such potential challenges – ‘eyes wide open’ so to speak – but also in embracing the reciprocal nature of partnership itself” (p.16). The loss I felt when those reflective articles – so rich and deep, so many authored by students – were gone from our analysis was visceral. These articles communicated the process and experience of partnership far better than empirical articles focused mainly on the outcomes of the work, but I was a new scholar, unsure of how to make my voice heard in this large group. Not only was there no space to reflect the reality of that challenge in our article, but I imagine for some of my collaborators, the reasons behind my attachment to those works wasn’t entirely clear. The challenge of communicating within a partnership through or against hierarchy and power were also at play. A traditional literature review can’t quite capture all of that. 

The literature review process uncovered some interesting findings, including that staff/faculty overwhelming authored more articles than students and that benefits of partnership initiatives are disproportionately reported over challenges (Mercer-Mapstone et al. 2017). Lucy took a lead on the literature review and played a major role in shaping in particular its final calls for more equitable authorship and more equal reporting of challenges and benefits for what staff and students experience in or gain from partnership. In the midst of collaborating on this project, Lucy was one person among the many with whom I most felt a connection and mutual understanding. We went on to collaborate on workshops and talked in other spaces about voice and genre. We reflected on how we write, with whom, and why. When Lucy asked if I wanted to collaborate on a book, I said yes without any hesitation. 

In the interim I’d forgotten about this first part of our work together, but in rereading the review article recently, I’ve realized it really was the push for what eventually became our collection. The review article’s call for more equitable authorship in partnership is what prompted us to ensure our book had at least equal representation of student and staff authors (and ultimately, more than half of our authors are students!). The review article’s call for more equal reporting of the challenges and benefits of partnerships is what led us to ensure that our collection included chapters like Chapter 2: From Novelty to Norm and Chapter 9: A Radical Practice? which both examine in-depth the real challenge of working across difference and question how much change is possible working within our social structures. And that sense of loss when we cut the reflective articles is what pushed Lucy and me to encourage our authors to play with genre and write (or draw!) in the ways that best fit the stories they needed to tell. 

I’ve spoken recently with a number of people who have read works on partnership and said things along the lines of, This sounds utopian… I’m not sure it’s real. These critiques are fair. What an amazing world it would be if folks could connect perfectly easily across vastly different roles and identities! Instead, the richness and joy of doing so is all too often accompanied by challenge, hierarchy, vulnerability, and fear. Those of us who work in this complex space struggle to find the right ways to communicate this multiplicity and see our stories fully represented. The Power of Partnership: Students, Staff, and Faculty Revolutionizing Higher Education is our response to that need: a first step towards more open and equitable communication about partnership processes. And now you know the rest of the story…


Mercer-Mapstone, Lucy, Sam Lucie Dvorakova, Kelly Matthews, Sophia Abbot, Breagh Cheng, Peter Felten, Kris Knorr, Elizabeth Marquis, Rafaella Shammas, and Kelly Swaim. 2017. “A Systematic Literature Review of Students As Partners in Higher Education.” International Journal for Students As Partners 1 (1).

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, February 28. Power of Partnership Origins: “Now you know the rest of the story.” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from