I admit it; I often hate working with partners. Small groups I can usually handle. But there is something about working with partners that makes me anxious. I'm sure my anxieties stem from personal fears about awkward social situations. Nevertheless, I have grown to really appreciate my class this semester that involves a great amount of working in pairs. The key is that, in this case, partners work together throughout the entire semester, allowing them to get to know each other and each other's work.
At the beginning of the semester, the professor has each person share their research interests with the class (I should say that this is a methods course so students are required to develop a long-term research project). After a couple of classes, the professor puts the class in pairs based on what she deems to be parallel research interests.
The class has a blog where we post all of our research notes, and it is the job of the partners to comment on each other's blog posts. In addition, partners are also obligated to do close readings and provide insightful criticisms to drafts of papers throughout the semester.
I have found this practice to be useful on multiple levels. Most simply, I have gotten to know a great person who I might not have otherwise. My partner and I regularly exchange emails, suggest readings to each other, and generally get a long pretty well. In terms of blogging, the commenting partners ensure the blog stays active without overburdening the students. A couple of side notes: students are also allowed and encouraged to comment on other entries, but the entries of commenting partners should take priority. Also, about half way through the semester, students email the professor, indicating whether they would like to keep or change commenting partners. I think everyone in our class kept the same partner.
From a feminist perspective,commenting partners help transfer some of the professorial authority onto the students. Here, teachers and students alike are seen as being equally valuable resources. In many ways, I regard my commenting partner as more of an expert on my research area than my professor. This practice could be especially helpful, then, for students with more unique or marginalized research interests in creating a sense of solidarity and reinforcing the import of their work (that is, assuming there is someone who at least tangentially shares their interests). Moreover, the practice encourages a certain amount of sharing and intimacy not found in traditional classroom settings, which benefits the overall class dynamic.