Faculty Seeks to Build on Partnership Program Model
The Student-Faculty Partnership Program is looking to expand next semester. The program seeks to engage students and faculty members in a semester-long collaboration to improve teaching quality. As different groups at the College have recently grappled with questions of transparency and structures of hierarchical governance, several of the program’s participants believe the partnership program models how dialogue and trust among groups on campus can spark collaborative and productive developments.
Former History Professor and Co-Director of the Student-Faculty Partnership Program Steve Volk first started the program spring 2015 through the Center for Teaching Innovation & Excellence. Paid, participating students are paired with a faculty member and attend one of their partner’s courses a week. The student is not registered for the course but rather takes observational notes on the class. Once a week, the two meet to discuss takeaways from the class and how to improve the teaching process.
“It’s not intended [for students] to oversee the faculty, make sure they’re doing things right or help them in the sense that students know better than teachers of what the pedagogic process is about,” Volk said. “It’s to allow faculty this sort of deeper reflection that comes with continual dialogue about what’s going on in your class.”
The program has had 16 partnerships since its founding, engaging students and faculty from both the College and Conservatory. Volk said that the program has been overwhelmingly beneficial for its participants.
“What faculty get from it at the end of the day is a regular, structured ability to reflect on their practice in the classroom, and — if needed and called for — to change practice,” Volk added. “But it does give them the opportunity to talk about it, which we rarely have and never with students. … For students, I think, everyone who’s come through has come out with the same thing, which is that teaching is a lot of work … and that the great majority of faculty think a great amount about how they’re teaching.”
College junior Naomi Roswell, one of three students participating in the program this semester, got involved, in part, because of her interest in education. She observes her faculty partner Associate Economics Professor Ron Cheung’s Urban Economics class, and her testimony echoes Volk’s observations of the partnerships.
“This is a cool way for students to engage in dialogue about teaching with teachers without there being any power dynamic of risking grades or teacher’s opinions,” Roswell said. “It’s the part of the week that I look forward to most, and it’s definitely the work I look forward to most. I feel like it’s taught me not only how to look at teaching differently and to understand the different nuances of teaching, but also to know what I can expect from my teachers and what to ask of my education.”
Cheung noted that one of the important aspects he wants to improve upon in his classes is expanding student engagement. He said that Roswell has been responsive in developing ways for him to make changes in pursuit of that goal, such as arranging a diagram of student participation in class and discussing what would help all students engage.
“Naomi has been really instrumental in providing me a diagram of all the students in the class and who’s doing a lot of the speaking,” Cheung said. “I can see by looking at the graph what parts of the room I’m calling on, when I’m calling on students, who’s asking me the questions, providing me that really hard data. I’m really finding it useful in figuring out how to include more students in the class discussion.”
One of the changes that Cheung said he and Roswell have tried is taking longer pauses after asking a question. He admitted that in the past, he tended to answer his own questions when students were not responsive, and since changing that behavior, student engagement increased.
Cheung added that the continuous dialogue with Roswell is more effective in improving his teaching than having teacher evaluations at the end of the semester — something that he said ultimately makes improving teaching difficult.
“I think that type of continuous conversation is representative or reminiscent of … this collective conversation that faculty and students can have together about how to best approach learning, as opposed to at the end of the semester, reading the evaluations and me … trying to figure out what was going on in the class that led to these types of evaluations so that four months from now I can try to remember how to address them,” Cheung said.
Another participant, College junior Nina Afsar, said that she became a student partner after being a chemistry tutor for the OWLS program last semester, adding that the neutral power dynamic between her and her faculty partner, Assistant Musicology Professor James O’Leary, has been a valuable component of the program.
Afsar also said that participating in the program has allowed her to explore new areas of Oberlin. As a neuroscience major, Afsar said that it can be difficult to meet new students and explore the full scope of academics and social spaces at Oberlin.
“I’m engaging with a very different student population … and seeing other students I normally don’t see,” Afsar said. “I’m learning so much more about the teaching and education opportunities that Oberlin has that I didn’t know existed, and I’m meeting other students from completely different backgrounds. And that’s really something I’ve been trying to do, especially as a science major, where I feel a little bit constrained sometimes in my own classes. This gives me a broader vision of Oberlin.”
O’Leary shared that working with Afsar has pushed him in his teaching in novelways.
“Nina [Afsar] has encouraged me to take risks in the classroom that I would normally be intimidated to take,” O’Leary wrote in an email to the Review. “I can tell Nina an idea about something or an anxiety about a certain part of the course design, and she can offer her perspective. … Often we brainstorm together. Then I can try it out with her there watching, and she can report back to me about how it went and what we might tweak next time. Maybe it failed, maybe it succeeded, but the dialogue is really remarkable.”
Volk also commented on the ways the partnership program could set a precedent for addressing issues of transparency and governance on campus — a problem that the College has been experiencing especially with decision-making around budgetary measures this year.
“I think only by creating trust among various sectors can you get to transparency, and trust comes from actual practice of talking to each other in smaller groups,” Volk said. “From trust to transparency, [you go from] transparency to work, which means if we define this as a problem, how do we solve it? There is a reality that always encompasses who and what we are, which is financial. Without money we can’t go on. Without knowing where the money comes from and how it’s used, it’s hard to make any decisions. But knowing those things without trust and discussion, you can’t do anything either. This program, in a very kind of small and granular way, tries to build trust in practice.”
Volk added that creating dialogue is also important on the students’ end in understanding institutional functions.
“If students don’t know what Oberlin’s history actually is, which is that element of transparency, then they can’t react to it,” he added. “They’ll sort of just be angry that we can’t live up to the utopia that has been set up before us, as opposed to saying, ‘This has always been a struggle. If you come here, we invite you into this struggle, but we don’t have the answers for it.’ That’s the transparency that comes through work — studying, figuring it out and working with each other.”
While Roswell agreed that the horizontally collaborative nature of the partnership program sets a model for greater productivity on campus, she was skeptical that the administration would adopt it in its functioning.
“I do think it’s a little tricky to recreate on an institutional level because part of the Student- Faculty Partnership setup is elimination of hierarchy, so it’s important that I’m a student, and it’s important that Professor Cheung is a teacher, but we take away the power dynamic in that,” Roswell said. “I can’t really foresee the administration being willing enough to let down that guard and be open to observations — and sometimes criticisms — and for that to be a productive discourse.”
Volk said that he hopes more people on campus will participate in the Student-Faculty Partnership Program next semester, as Roswell, Afsar and double-degree junior Charles Ryan are the only three participating this semester. Volk added that if students wish to get involved, they should contact him at CITE by the end of April.