In new program, CELT pairs students, faculty to address inequity in classrooms

The Tufts Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching is pictured on April 8, 2019. Christine Lee / The Tufts Daily Archives

This semester, the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) launched the Pedagogical Partnership Program, an initiative that pairs faculty and students to foster conversation about pedagogy and equity in Tufts’ classrooms.

In need of an outlet to express concerns and provide feedback to instructors, seniors Jillian Impastato and Langley Topper conceived of the program last December. They expressed discomfort regarding some of their in-class experiences at Tufts. For Impastato, it was an instructor who stood defensive and unyielding after hearing her voice concerns. For Topper, it involved a professor who enacted microaggressions, and to whom she was uncomfortable approaching with criticism. 

Though course evaluations are an anonymous outlet for students to assess professors, Topper felt that they aren’t effective and often don’t enact the changes that many students hope for. Approaching faculty members directly can be difficult for students whose grades are on the line. 

Topper and Impastato developed the Pedagogical Partnership Program as a tool to amplify and empower student voices in the classroom. Students are paired with a faculty member for a semester and tasked with attending their partner’s class and giving feedback in a weekly, one-on-one meeting. Student partners do not earn a grade, and they take notes on student engagement, the instructor’s wording, and the extent to which the classroom is inclusive of those with marginalized identities, among other aspects of teaching.

“One of the key goals of the program is to really co-create learning environments between students and faculty where, specifically, students with marginalized identities can feel respected and centered in their intellectual contributions,” Topper said. 

Tufts joins a network of other schools, including Smith College, Oberlin College and Bryn Mawr College, that have feedback-oriented, student-faculty partnership programs. Inspired by the one at Bryn Mawr, Impastato and Topper reached out to Alison Cook-Sather, a renowned scholar and a leader in the field of student-faculty partnership programs. She spearheads Bryn Mawr’s SaLT program, which is “one of the longest-standing pedagogical partnership programs in the world.” Cook-Sather led Topper and Impastato toward the director of Tufts’ CELT, Annie Soisson. 

At the time, Soisson had already been in contact with Cook-Sather, and she had wanted to create Tufts’ own version of SaLT. Until Topper and Impastato came around, it “never quite had the gas behind it to get it going,” Topper said. 

The two students met with Soisson in January and used the spring semester to outline a plan and apply for grants. By September, they had secured two sources of funding: a one-year, Tufts Springboard grant run through the Office of the Provost for Research, and an external, two-year grant from the Davis Educational Foundation. The funding goes entirely to Impastato, Topper and the other student participants.  

“It was really important to us that we were able to pay student partners because what’s challenging about a program like this is that it’s so different from the traditional academic hierarchy, in which a professor has a lot more power than a student,” Topper said.  

Impastato added that the transition to hybrid learning may have helped to attract funding as well as attention from teachers and students. 

“I think it helped in our ability to sell the program to students, to faculty members and to different people to give us grants,” she said.

Over the summer, Impastato and Topper piloted the program as student partners. Topper was paired with Professor Sara Gomez and observed her course on food sustainability. From her experience, Topper believes the partnerships will encourage faculty members to think more deliberately about their classrooms and their approaches to teaching. 

“It’s interesting, as a student, to have the faculty perspective. I was impressed by how intentionally she chose how to put her course together,” Topper said.

Impastato was similarly moved by her experience, but noted that a partnership can be especially empowering for students whose voices often go unheard. This semester, she and Topper recruited students through the FIRST Resource Center with the help of former Director Margot Cardamone. 

The result is a group of five student partners, most of whom are first generation students, people of color, or students who come from low income households. Ryan Rideau, associate director for teaching, learning, and inclusion at CELT who in recent months has replaced Soisson as program adviser, shared his thoughts on the program’s role in making Tufts a more equitable institution. Higher education, he said, is “centered upon whiteness,” and students with marginalized identities are often left in silence.

Although the Pedagogical Partnership Program on its own will not cure educational inequity, Rideau hopes that it will play a role in doing so. 

A student perspective

Michelle Nguyen spends her Tuesday afternoons in Professor Kerri Modry-Mandell’s developmental psychopathology course. With her camera turned off and her microphone muted, she observes and takes notes in preparation for her weekly meeting with the professor. 

Nguyen, a junior, is one of the five student partners in the program this semester. She and the other four have been placed in classes from a variety of departments — physics, biology, child studies and religion — and of various sizes and modalities. 

In her weekly meetings, Nguyen has worked with Modry-Mandell to improve student engagement. She also plays a part in reviewing class activities to ensure they are as inclusive and respectful as possible. Nguyen spoke to the role the program has in centering students with marginalized identities. 

“The program has a really, really big potential to help and give voice to marginalized students, especially because it’s already hard for marginalized students to advocate for themselves in a space that’s predominantly white,” she said. “A lot of the student partners are people of color. We all understand the struggles that we had to go through, so we’re trying to make it a lot easier for other students.”

Outside of her work with Modry-Mandell, Nguyen meets weekly with Impastato, Topper and the other student partners. They build community — sharing their highs and lows from the week — and devote time to skill-based trainings and discussion. 

A faculty perspective

Rideau selected faculty partners who have worked with CELT in the past. 

“A faculty member can’t be getting feedback from a student unless they want it,” Topper said. “So it’s really targeting faculty who are already thinking intentionally about learning and teaching.”

One of those faculty members is Erin Seaton, co-director of educational studies and a professor in the Department of Education. Paired with Impastato over the summer, Seaton found great value in her experience. 

“As a faculty member, it’s sometimes difficult to ask students how things are going when you’re the person that’s grading them,” Seaton said. “Even if you work really hard to create an equitable classroom, there’s always a power dynamic as a faculty member, so having a student who sits in class, and is kind of filling that intermediary role between the faculty member and the students, is such a thoughtful idea and such a wonderful way to help faculty rethink their practices and the student experience.”

Seaton appreciated how the program bridged the gap between her perspective and those of her students. 

“I felt like it made me more prepared, more attuned to the student experience and better able to respond to students,” Seaton said. “There were also moments when [Impastato] noticed things that, from the faculty member [perspective] as a white, cisgendered, heterosexual female, I didn’t always notice the way students might have felt silenced or left out, or the way in which my own practices were disempowering to students.”

Faculty participation in the program can also shed light on some uncomfortable moments in the classroom, ones that might be hidden in professors’ “blind spots,” according to Seaton.

“Having this program in place offers a really powerful check against moments when students might experience microaggressions, might feel silenced, might feel voiceless,” Seaton said. 

Like Rideau, Seaton hopes the program can play a role in making Tufts a more equitable institution. 

“Systemically, there’s so much that needs to be done to overhaul Tufts as an institution. But in classrooms, as one piece of those larger systems, this makes a huge difference,” Seaton said. “It’s a way to give students a voice, and to be seen and heard when that might feel impossible; to engage in conversations with faculty that takes that power dynamic and shifts it a little bit; and that gives faculty a partner who really, I think authentically, wants to offer support and wants to help faculty engage with students, and maybe reengage or re-understand how they create a classroom environment that feels more equitable.” 

Plans for the future

Given the intersection of a pandemic with the university’s June 19 commitment to becoming an anti-racist institution, Impastato said this semester is an opportune moment to introduce the program. 

It gives administrators an opportunity to “put their money where their mouth is” and invest in more equitable classrooms, she said. It also captures faculty members at a time when they are forced to reevaluate their pedagogy and rethink their courses.  

Impastato and Topper hope the program will expand in future semesters and outlive their tenure at Tufts; after the current grants expire, they hope that the university will incorporate funding for the Pedagogical Partnership Program in CELT’s annual budget. 

More than anything, Impastato views this program as a vehicle to empower students.

“We see this program as professional development, but it’s also really important that we don’t forget that it’s also a student engagement and empowerment program,” Impastato said. “It was really empowering to hear [professors] want to hear my opinions and my observations. The current student partners — I think they’re already feeling that.”


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