Vulnerability in the Classroom: CELT’s Pedagogical Partnership Program

The Tufts Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching is pictured on April 8, 2019. Christine Lee / The Tufts Daily Archives
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Over the past five semesters, the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching has worked towards fostering more equitable and inclusive teaching practices through their Pedagogical Partnership Program (P3). The program pairs a student and faculty member in a mutually beneficial partnership in which the student attends and observes one session of the faculty member’s course a week. The pair then meets once a week to discuss equity, inclusion, student interaction and other general feedback on the classroom environment as well as the pedagogical practices of the faculty member.

Heather Dwyer, associate director for teaching, learning and inclusion at CELT, described the program as “an opportunity for faculty and students to partner together to work on what teaching and learning looks like in the classroom.” The main mission of the program is to create a sense of belonging for all students. 

“Generally, [the student partners] are coming in with a lens of equity and inclusion. Many of them are bringing perspectives from underrepresented or minoritized backgrounds,” Dwyer said.

Nicole Setow, a three-time student partner and fall 2022 Tufts graduate, elaborated on the importance of the program.

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“I think that everyone benefits from having a more equitable learning environment because then you end up getting more out of your academic experience,” Setow said.

 Creating equitable and inclusive classroom environments is vital to Tufts’ commitment to being an anti-racist institution; however, the program seeks to go further to make the classroom feel more like a space of belonging for all students involved.

Another aim of P3 is to shake up power dynamics within the classroom.

“[In P3] the inherent power dynamics between a student and faculty member … are interrupted in some way because the student is working closely with that faculty member and the faculty member has to make themselves vulnerable in the process,” Dwyer explained.

This sentiment was echoed by Courtney Maloney, a lecturer in the English department. “[The student partners] give you a perspective, who’s not afraid of you … [or] how are you going to grade them or how are you going to think about them after this. Their job is completely outside of the traditional power dynamics. It’s a wonderful gift … to have a student perspective coming from a free place,” Maloney said.

Ryan Redmond, a senior lecturer in the education department, acknowledged the value of this type of practice in the education space.

“I think [participating in the P3 program] has to do with a kind of recognition that teaching is really challenging, and it doesn’t serve anyone if faculty don’t have space to brainstorm with other people about it,” Redmond said.

In line with the aims of the program, each partnership creates goals based on what the faculty member and the student partner hope to achieve throughout the semester.

Setow identified her goals as a student in P3. “I want to be able to advocate for students … and to advocate for what their needs are, as well as listening,” Setow said. She emphasized her role as an observer as well as a recipient of student feedback for the faculty member. “[I] make sure that [students] can reach out to me anonymously or personally.”

During this process, student partners send out surveys to the students of the classrooms they observe in order to gain honest feedback. This feedback is then communicated anonymously to the professor by the student partner with the goal of improving the classroom environment.

Whereas the role of the student partners is quite clear — including supporting fellow classmates and pushing for more inclusive classrooms — the goals for faculty involved in P3 can range widely. This is where student partners come in to assist faculty with improving a broad scope of issues in the classroom.

“It has been a real goal to figure out how to make the classroom a space where things can get messy and complicated, but in productive ways … for example, around questions or topics or issues that might be really contentious,” Redmond said.

Another one of Redmond’s aims is to have someone act as go-between for classroom activities.  “[A goal of mine is to] have a thought partner and have someone who could … check in and see the gaps between what I think is happening or what I have planned in my mind and what’s actually happening in the room,” Redmond said.

When asked about her key takeaways from the program, Dwyer explained it helped her understand the implications of education on a deeper level. “[The program] helped me … understand how high-stakes this work is,” Dwyer said. “[Students’ classroom experiences] make or break a student’s decision to major in something or to continue pursuing education after undergraduate.”

Maloney echoed this position. “We don’t live the same lives as our students. It’s really important to have the perspective of people who are experiencing your output. We work really hard on crafting our courses … but we really don’t know how it’s landing because we’re not our students,” Maloney said.

“One takeaway, which I think is always important, is that students know a lot and have a lot to say about teaching,” Redmond said. He stressed the importance of students’ voices in shaping teaching practices and teachers’ willingness to openly discuss their teaching.

The program is relatively new and already exhibiting success. Currently, the program averages around 10 partnerships a semester, making each partnership vital for the program’s success. Additionally, the program was originally funded by a grant from the Davis Foundation; however, the funding from this grant is close to running out, leaving CELT searching for a permanent source of funding.

Looking toward the future, Dwyer admitted that there are many spaces for improvement within the program. “[We need to] set expectations for faculty about the fact that they truly, genuinely need to be open to student feedback in order for this partnership to work,” Dwyer said.

“I think that the tough thing about P3 is that it’s so personal to each partnership. I think that some partnerships end up making huge strides; some partnerships make smaller strides, and that’s okay,” Setow added.

Both teaching faculty said that they didn’t see immediate, drastic changes in the classroom dynamic. “It’s one of those things that takes time, but the end goal and result is that it makes the work better,” Redmond said.

 “This is a long-term learning experience,” Maloney said. She explained that pedagogical changes occur in the long term and that in-the-moment changes are not always effective.

Maloney emphasized the importance of vulnerability when it comes to pedagogy. “To have a student who wants to spend their whole semester sitting in on one of your classes per week and giving you feedback on it, that’s a huge gift,” Maloney said. “You want to always be vulnerable and be able to receive critique.”

In the end, P3 relies on faculty being willing to open themselves up to constructive criticism on their teaching practices. P3 cannot function without the willingness of faculty to deeply consider and change their pedagogies.

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