July 20, 2018 | Students Experience Empowerment and Empathy Through Pedagogical Partnership

By Alison Cook-Sather and Yeidaly Mejia
This article originally appeared in the British Educational Research Association Blog
Student empowerment can take many forms. Some, such as new student activism and student consumerism, can feel threatening to faculty and higher education communities. Others offer a counternarrative to the divisiveness that is intensifying on some college and university campuses. Our own and others’ research has found that pedagogical partnerships foster positive forms of empowerment and greater empathy. By supporting sustained dialogue between students and faculty, they offer an especially promising way to ‘only connect’.
‘Pedagogical partnerships foster positive forms of empowerment and greater empathy.’
We have worked together in one of the longest standing pedagogical partnership programs in the United States, Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT) – Alison as director and Yeidaly as a student consultant and a researcher. This program supports pedagogical partnerships through which an undergraduate student not enrolled in the focal course works for a full semester or longer with the faculty member teaching that course. Through weekly classroom observations and meetings, student consultants explore with their faculty partners pedagogical and curricular issues, such as how to make classrooms more welcoming and responsive to a diversity of students.
Over the last decade or so, engagement through partnership has become an institutional commitment in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, is beginning to evolve in other countries as well, and is spreading into the world of publishing. The challenges and limitations of such work are documented alongside the benefits and possibilities. A consistent outcome reported by the vast majority of student partners, however, is a sense of empowerment within and beyond the pedagogical partnership itself. As one student consultant in the SaLT program explained,
‘It definitely gave me the strength to find a voice in the classroom. I was always aware that I had a different perspective from my peers just because of where I was coming from and my first language and my culture being different. But the student consultant role, because it gave me the space in the work, it gave me the language to talk in class about my experiences more than I would have had I not been in the program, for sure. It empowered me to talk to professors taking all those factors into account—where I come from—having that be part of the conversation.’
Through having supported opportunities to engage in dialogue with faculty about issues of teaching and learning, and through having their voices and perspectives heard and valued, students develop language, confidence and commitment that inspires them to continue in such dialogue.
Some might worry that if students ‘find a voice in the classroom’ and feel ‘empowered… to talk to professors’, they might become overly aggressive and demanding. The fear of being perceived in this way is one of the reasons students of color do not speak up in the classroom. Their place in the classroom is often a dichotomy: they are either perceived as the person who is angry and demanding a place in the conversation, or they are quiet and anxious, ready to speak but feeling that no one will listen. This is particularly prevalent in the context of predominantly white institutions.
We have found that pedagogical partnership provides a context within which to address such dichotomies. Rather than the enmity that some forms of activism and consumerism can exacerbate, partnership fosters, alongside a productive sense of empowerment in students, empathy for faculty members and their efforts to connect with students across differences of position, perspective, and identity. In the words of another student consultant in SaLT,
‘[Participating in pedagogical partnership] made me a lot more compassionate towards my professors, more empathetic, because I saw how hard my faculty partners were working, it made me a lot less likely to disparage my own teachers and less willing to tolerate that from other people.’
In the feedback they offer, like the above, and in the essays they publish about their experiences, students convey the ways in which pedagogical partnership affords them not only the space but also the right to care.
To our minds, the combination of feeling a greater sense of confidence and capacity and feeling more caring toward others holds promise for more engaged and empowering educational experiences for everyone. It holds particular promise in these times of heightened tension between faculty and students on campuses, when what we need is more dialogue across differences, not less.
Alison Cook-Sather is Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Education at Bryn Mawr College, and director of the Teaching and Learning Institute, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, in the United States. She teaches courses focussed on advocating diversity in higher education, and has published and consulted widely on an approach to educational development through which undergraduate students work in pedagogical partnership with college faculty. Founding editor of Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education and founding co-editor of International Journal for Students as Partners, she has written, more than 85 articles and five books, including Engaging Students as Partners in Learning & Teaching: A Guide for Faculty (with Catherine Bovill and Peter Felten).
Yeidaly Mejia is an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, class of 2019. She is a Posse Foundation scholar, a sociology major, and co-founder of Breaking Barriers, a program for first-generation college students at Bryn Mawr. As a student consultant through the Teaching and Learning Institute she has worked in pedagogical partnership with faculty in different disciplines and, with support from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, conducted research into what makes college classrooms and campuses inclusive and responsive to a diversity of students.