Student-Faculty Partnership as Cosmopolitan Practice
by Ketevan Kupatadze
In this blog post I reflect on a recently published chapter “Ethics of Academic Leadership: Guiding Learning and Teaching” by Cook-Sather and Felten that appeared in an edited volume titled Cosmopolitan Perspectives on Academic Leadership in Higher Education (2017). The topic attracted my attention for two reasons. First, more obvious, was its focus on student-faculty partnership as a paradigm shifting practice in western higher education systems. Second, perhaps less obvious, but personally very interesting for me, was its connection to cosmopolitanism. The term and the practice of cosmopolitanism have fascinated me for long, particularly in its contemporary reconfiguration thanks to such philosophers as Kwame Antony Appiah, Seyla Benhabib, Jonathan Reé, Homy Bhabba, etc. as a practice that on the one hand unites us all as humans but, on the other, does not negate our rootedness in the local, acknowledging the importance of particular, parochial circumstances.
Cook-Sather and Felten draw on Appiah’s ‘rooted’ (2005) and Hansen’s ‘embodied’ (2014) cosmopolitanism to argue that academic leadership, when and if successful, should not aim for some sort of uniform and universal values, but rather embrace the differences of the people and the circumstances of local environments. Leadership should consider partnership, and reciprocity upon which partnership is based, as fundamental for its success (p. 175). The authors recognize from the start that the ethics of reciprocity and partnership challenge western higher education system and that they, by proposing it, work against current dominant model(s) of the system. They write: “Most institutional structures and practices within education reflect age-old assumptions of hierarchy and transaction. In typical academic practice, inequities of position and power are built into and reinforced by the standard roles and relationships of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’” (p. 176-7). Quoting Hansen (2014, p. 4), Cook-Sather and Felten agree that education should cultivate “moral sympathies, deepened democratic dispositions, and a serious sense of responsibility for the world,” but instead, as it is practiced today, it functions as a way of “training human capital” for national and multinational economic markets (p. 177). Using Walker’s (2009) description, they argue that, by today’s academic leadership, education is perceived as “an instrumental investment to improve productivity, […] and its interactions are reduced to profit-seeking exchanges” (p. 177).
As a counterpoint to such “dehumanized” education system, Cook-Sather and Felten employ Nixon’s “ethics of connectivity” (2012), according to which certain fundamental changes should be introduced to the education system in order to bring the ‘human’ element back into focus: it should redirect its attention at the process of teaching and learning; let go of ‘learning outcomes’ since the value of learning lies in its un-determinability, in the open, unknown outcome of the process ([education] “constitutes an uncharted, unpredictable journey into self-awareness, self-understanding, and knowledge of the world in which we live”(p. 179)); and try to develop an inclusive and collaborative relationship between teachers and students (p. 178).
Cook-Sather and Felten acknowledge that this type of reform would require a fundamental shift in our higher education system. But, in the spirit of reconciling what the reality of current education system is and what the ideal could or should be, they propose the partnership model of teaching and learning as “one powerful means to construct liminal spaces” (p. 179). Within this model, Cook-Sather and Felten focus on three major concepts: liminality, reciprocity and partnership.
They employ the term ‘liminal’ or ‘liminality’ to describe an ideal space for higher education institutions. It is a stance, that in their opinion and when taken willingly (not as an imposition), embraces ambiguity, marginality and in-betweenness. It refuses to adhere to “classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space” (p. 181). When positioned in a liminal space, one acquires a unique opportunity to challenge the assumptions that had turned into unquestionable and unquestioned truths though time. They write that when someone is in a liminal space, they are “ambiguous, neither here not there, betwixt and between all fixed points of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (p. 181).
The concept of reciprocity, as described by the authors, entails “balanced give-and-take” (p. 181), although both sides might and should have different things to offer and to contribute. The difference in experiences and perspectives is not diminished in the process, but rather acquires a heightened value. Thus, education can become a perpetual dialogue between equal, but diverse parties that collectively share responsibility (p. 182).
When it comes to partnership, Cook-Sather and Felten reiterate their definition of it stating that it is “a collaborative, reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualization, decision making, implementation, investigation, or analysis” (p. 182; originally quoted from Cook-Sather et al., 2014, p. 6-7).
To connect these concepts back to cosmopolitanism, Cook-Sather and Felten go back to the original Greek use of the term ‘kosmopolites’, meaning the ‘citizen of the world’ and referring to one’s obligation and responsibility towards all humans and their allegiance to humanity. But, also propose to consider the local realities, local interests, contexts and settings, following Appiah’s philosophy of ‘rooted’ cosmopolitanism in which there is no tension between the universal and the local. Viewing ‘unfinishedness’ as the very quality of education, of what “makes us educable” (p. 186), Cook-Sather and Felten propose that the leadership be open to new ideas, values and practices; that they reconsider education as a space of encounter, of a dialogue though which one acquires new identity, but this very identity is undetermined and can never be predicted.
I am fascinated with what today’s refocused cosmopolitanism proposes, whether Appiah’s ‘rooted’ or Hansen’s ‘embodied’, and completely agree with Cook-Sather and Felten’s proposed direction of higher education system. On the other hand, I cannot help but think of how to even start working towards these ideals. An idealist in me says: let’s do it. A pragmatist responds: but, this means going in a completely opposite direction from where the majority is headed. Won’t someone who has actually experienced what it means to stand in a liminal position, what it means to be marginalized, feel apprehensive of voluntarily taking that position? And, on the other side, won’t those who have enjoyed the privilege of forging cultural narratives (whether national, institutional or even personal) feel apprehensive of letting this position go? In my previous posts I have pondered upon the question of discomfort of occupying a space that makes one feel vulnerable, as well as that of belonging and inclusion. I imagine that this is a particularly difficult task for those who have consistently experienced marginalization. So, I would like to pose couple of questions in hopes of engaging in dialogue with my readers and that bring us back to the issues faced by the model of student-faculty partnership and its hurdles: How can we navigate through the relationships that, on the one hand, are born out of the honorable and honest desire for equality and partnership and, on the other, have to exist within the current reality of inequality and marginalization? Would those who involuntarily occupy the liminal space be willing to voluntarily continue occupying it? What will these relationships look like when these two sides start taking steps towards each other? (How) will the nitty-gritty obstacles be overcome?
Cook-Sather, A. & Felten, P. (2017). Ethics of academic leadership: Guiding learning and teaching. In F. Su & M. Wood (Eds.), Cosmopolitan perspectives on academic leadership in higher education (pp. 175-191). London: Bloomsbury.
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.