What Happens if Disagreement in Partnership is Unevenly Experienced?
by Sophia Abbot
This past January and February, my colleague and I launched research exploring the ways students and faculty in partnership can experience disagreement in generative ways that ultimately enhance their partnered relationship along with the broader goals of their work together. We’d both personally experienced or observed such instances of clarity developing through conflict, and we were excited to see whether this experience was more broadly shared and what implications it might have for disagreement within relationships beyond pedagogic partnership. We collected 45 responses to a qualitative survey, asking former and current student and faculty participants in pedagogic partnership programs to reflect on their experiences. For the most part, we saw some similar trends and themes across the reflections, but after analyzing and writing about these stories (Abbot & Cook-Sather, under review), a group of common responses and two outlier responses continued to sit with me.
First: of our 45 participants, 14 shared that they experienced no conflict or disagreement within their partnership. Eleven of those 14 were faculty. We analyze this data in more detail within our article, but one hypothesis that I’ve been mulling over is the idea that perhaps disagreement is more likely to be noticed or experienced by those who are more vulnerable or hold less power in a relationship.
Second: in outlier responses, two different students shared that they worked with faculty in what was initially framed as a co-researching or partnered research experience, but that key decision-making in the process was ultimately dictated by the professor. One student explained that authorship hadn’t been previously discussed and when the faculty member made unanimous decisions, the “students were dismissed when they expressed differing opinions.” The lessons the student learned were negative: they had assumed faculty had students’ best interests in mind, but realized they needed to “be more assertive and vocal” in collaboration.
The other student described working with a professor who “already knew what they wanted done and more or less assigned the work to [me] and my partner” — leading the student to feel that this was “less of a partnership and more of a glorified assistant position.” The student described suggesting that a survey their research group was developing ask for consistent demographic information across both student and faculty respondents, and facing immediate disagreement from their faculty partner due to a small faculty sample size and a desire to avoid handling “that type of sensitive and potentially confidential information.” Unfortunately, what could have served as a learning moment for the student and the professor together was instead experienced by the student as a moment of shaming. The student reflected: “I think the main lesson was more to be careful what you do when working with faculty as an undergrad, because it is easy to make yourself seem ridiculous… simply because of your lack of experience.”
These two outliers were difficult to read, and they prompted me to reflect on what the faculty partners in these instances would have shared about their understanding of the experience. Would they have read these experiences as disagreement within the relationship? Or, perhaps, would these moments have barely registered — a sharing of opinions with no broader impact on the project?
While we won’t be able to know how the faculty or students experienced the conflict (or lack thereof) their partners described, there are some significant takeaways we can glean from exploring these anecdotes:
- Address the possibility of conflict and your ideals for responding to it early within your relationship to make space for open disagreement further down the line.
- Discuss differences in power, and be clear about external parameters that may prevent change in spite of shared goals or personal ideals.
- Practice deep listening to recognize and affirm one another’s risk-taking in sharing new ideas.
- Co-develop expectations for your work together, and revisit those expectations frequently.
These strategies can help partners communicate openly and sincerely from the beginning of their work together, which may help each share disagreements, and recognize and work through conflict. The impacts of disagreement (negative and positive) are not limited to relationships explicitly framed as partnerships. In future posts, I’ll be exploring how disagreement may arise in undergraduate research relationships and the effects such conflicts may have on research and knowledge generation.
Abbot, S. & Cook-Sather, A. (Under Review). The productive potential of pedagogical disagreements: From conflict to clarity in classroom-focused student-staff partnerships.
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.