Vulnerabilities in Student-Faculty Partnership
by Ketevan Kupatadze
Several questions came up this semester as I tried to use some of the strategies of student-faculty partnership in a course that I teach and as I reflected on the reactions that I received from students. The questions I would like to pose are:
- Can the student-faculty partnership model be successful when used in isolation or when it has not yet become a common practice across-the-board in one’s institution?
- How much ground work does one have to do to prepare students mentally and emotionally to truly collaborate with faculty to design ways to make their experience of learning better?
- And, finally, considering the fact that student-faculty partnership on teaching and learning is not a common or frequently referred to practice yet, how vulnerable are those of us who try to experiment with it in our courses? Is this vulnerability increased when the instructor is perceived as the other in the eyes and minds of the students?
I am asking these questions because of the experience I had most recently. I didn’t go as far as to engage in student-faculty partnership. I simply invited students to share with me what their learning goals for the course and the semester were and how I, or we as a group, could support those goals. The responses I received from students surprised me, because they were clearly misunderstanding the premise of my question. Some thought this was an invitation to critique the course and suggest revisions; others had nothing to say besides the fact that the course was needed for their major or minor; and yet others understood the question as my way of asking them what pedagogical practices other professors had used in the past that could be replicated in our course.
Students’ reactions and responses first made me question my attempt to engage with them in a conversation about our mutual goals, and second, made me wonder at what point and due to what did this slip in communication happen between us. Was it because of their lack of familiarity with the idea of being seen as partners in teaching and learning? Was it because I didn’t prepare the groundwork for them to understand my intentions as an invitation to collaborate on the process of learning? Was it because of my identity (as a woman? as a foreigner?) that students thought that I was asking them for help in designing learning? I am inclined to believe that all three reasons taken together contributed to this somewhat disappointing experience.
This incident made me realize that when starting student-faculty partnership one has to seriously consider several issues that seem to be the by-products of the educational model that is currently in place:
- The existing power dynamics between faculty and students and the role that authority actually has in our current educational model. While it is completely counter to the idea of student-faculty partnership, how much of a role does faculty member’s authority have in the process of convincing students of the validity of collaboration as a pedagogical tool? Will those of us who tend to have less authority in students’ eyes because of certain traits of our identity have a harder time engaging students as partners in teaching and learning?
- The importance of laying the groundwork for partnership and doing it systematically with regular discussion about its pedagogical merit and value of partnership and collaboration. It is paradoxical, but students will partner with faculty once s/he convinces them, through his/her or someone else’s authority, in the value of such partnership.
- Since student-faculty partnership is new and experimental, a practice that is not yet implemented across-the-board, are students’ inclinations to question and even suspect faculty’s authority a small price to pay for a truly revolutionary practice?
I would love to hear from those of you who have had this kind experience(s)? Have you had to put yourself out there, expose yourself to such vulnerability in front of the students? Have you had to ask the same questions? How have you responded, or how would you respond to these questions?
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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.