Students as Partners and Feminism: An illuminating conversation

By Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, University of Queensland and Gina Mercer, Independent, no affiliation)

Originally posted 15 December 2017.

Have you ever been made to feel on the ‘outside of things’ in your university? We certainly have. Whether it’s for being the wrong gender, the wrong age, the wrong discipline, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong whatever … the list goes on. But it’s likely that all of us have had a sense of being ‘othered’ at some point in our university experience.

This is because, traditionally, universities are elitist institutions with strong, patriarchal power hierarchies. They are hard to get into and once you are in, it’s a slog to stay let alone to work your way up the food chain (not to mention the additional battles required for those of us who are not white or male).

‘Students as partners’ is a concept gaining popularity in universities around the world. It aims to destabilize these well-entrenched power hierarchies. Partnership argues the need to reconceptualise students as active partners in the teaching and learning process with valuable expertise to contribute and valid power to co-create their own university experiences.

Partnership questions the traditional paradigm of the ‘sage on the stage’ pouring his [sic] wisdom into the passive receptacle of the student. It suggests that education might be a partnership between equals where the student’s expertise is valued, engaged and respected at all levels of the learning process. Radical, right?

In a recent article in Teaching in Higher Education, we (a mother/daughter academic duo) explore the ways in which such radical partnerships might best be able to prevent exclusion in higher education by using a feminist lens to question and problematize those power hierarchies. We argue the relevance of the connection between feminism and partnership, given that: “both fields seem to be seated in similar radical processes of challenging, questioning, destabilizing, deconstructing, and empowering”. We draw interesting lines of comparison between the fields of feminist thinking and the partnership field:

problematizing the embedded binaries of student/staff in a move toward a more nuanced understanding of the multifaceted roles we each hold within our institutions.troubling the student-centric language of partnership where those in power (staff) go unnamed and the onus of risk in being a partner is shouldered by students.considering how we write about our partnership practices.

And we don’t just talk about the theory of inclusiveness – we write it. The article is presented in the form of a conversation using language which we hope makes you feel included and respected and not ‘othered’. And we’ve all read those kinds of articles, right?  Where the authors are so busy performing their cleverness using long words and even longer sentences that you finish reading it and feel alienated and stupid. Using this form of dialogue, we wrote this article to be clear, engaging and accessible: bringing new possibilities and creating links across disciplines.

This conversation also made us think about the context of engaging students in global learning. How this dialogue between partnership and feminism has significant potential in opening up new and more productive ways of thinking about the ‘othering’ of international students and cultural minorities. Perhaps that is another dialogue for another day?