Students as partners – a way to re-shape higher education pedagogy or neoliberal seduction?

Amani Bell & Tai Peseta

This is our abstract from the HERDSA 2016 conference, which for some reason wasn’t made available online, so I’m popping it up here:

There is growing interest in Australia and worldwide in working with students as partners (SAP). Based on our own experiences of working with SAP (Peseta et al. 2016) and our reading of the literature, we offer a set of provocations designed to tease out some of the theoretical and methodological tensions involved in SAP initiatives. Working with SAP is seen by many as a way to reshape higher education, because such initiatives can be transformative for students, academics and universities. Examples of such transformations include changes to policy and practice, curriculum renewal, students gaining graduate attributes, and academics changing their views about teaching.

Some SAP researchers draw on threshold concepts theory to inform their work, arguing that academics and students partnering to explore pedagogical practice is a threshold concept. Once academics cross the threshold of working with SAP, they are ‘much more likely to think about their work with students less as “transmission” and as “more of a transaction”’ (Cook-Sather & Luz 2015, 1099). Linking students as co-inquirers with threshold concepts theory might help us better understand some of the difficulties that academics and students encounter in the ambiguous space of partnership. Other bodies of theoretical work may also usefully inform SAP work, including student approaches to learning and teachers approaches to teaching (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999), and Indigenous ways of research and knowing (Chilisa, 2012; Martin, 2008).

Yet claims that the field of SAP is under theorised persist. As Taylor and Robinson contend, ‘the student voice has been seen principally as a mode of practical intervention … allied to agendas around…improvement’ (2009, 161, 163). Peseta (2013) notes that the student voice can also be seen as an effect of the political desire that seeks it, suggesting that an innocent view of SAP intentions takes too little account of the diversity of methodological traditions informing its research agenda. Because SAP is inspired by everything from liberalism, critical theory, post-colonialism and post-structuralism, different views of the ‘self’, ‘experience’ and ‘voice’ circulate within its literature. Perhaps surprisingly, the effect of these differences is rarely remarked upon. This inattention is what makes the SAP agenda especially appealing to those in universities focused on the liberating tendencies of partnership as democracy and those who see neoliberal markets as key to higher education futures.

In this session, our ambition is to think with others to draw out the implications for the practice of SAP agenda.

Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous research methodologies. Los Angeles: Sage.
Cook-Sather, A., & Luz, A. (2015). Greater engagement in and responsibility for learning: what happens when students cross the threshold of student–faculty partnership. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(6), 1097-1109.
Martin, K. L. (2008). Please knock before you enter: Aboriginal regulation of outsiders and the implications for researchers. Brisbane: Post Pressed.
Peseta, T. (2013). The inevitable contradictions of student learning [Invited Essay]. The International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(2).
Peseta, T., Bell, A., Clifford, A., English, A., Janarthana, J., Jones, C., Teal, M. & Zhang, J. (2016): Students as ambassadors and researchers of assessment renewal: puzzling over the practices of university and academic life, International Journal for Academic Development, 21 (1), 54-66.
Prosser, M. & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching. UK: Open University Press
Taylor, C. & Robinson, C. (2009). Student voice: theorising power and participation. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 17(2), 167-175

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