Pedagogical Example #3- Semester Parters


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.


Really interesting post, Madison! Thanks for sharing. I've never had to work in partners, but just reading your post made me anxious about it! (at least the beginning part of the post) Especially the long term relationship part of it! Although, I can also see how partnering can offer a unique supportive and encouraging experience. I found your point about how often times a partner can be more of an expert than the professor to be very telling. I think you're right, and I never thought about the potential success for students to be engaged with such an intimate "community" of two. It makes sense, because one can offer more time and attention to just one student research interest, especially when the topics are so closely related. I am super interested in how this might work at the undergraduate level. The commenting aspect seems like it would be a good idea to try with undergrads, since they would only have to engage with one other student. Sounds like it was a wonderful experience for you. I wonder if other students in your class will be continue to work with their partner after the semester is over. What do you think?

You're right, it has been a very positive experience for me! I think it is especially useful to connect people who have similar substantive interests but come from different departments. My partner is in American Studies, and even though that department shares some things with Sociology, I have learned so much about relevant literature that I otherwise wouldn't have.

I don't know if the professor has tried this for undergrads, but I do think that it has definite potential. Obviously, undergrads do not have independent research projects to allow partnering from the outset of the semester, but maybe students could be paired for like the last half of a semester while they work on their final projects.

I love this idea! In some ways, it reminds me of my "it's diablogical!" diablog. I have found writing with a partner to be extremely rewarding: it helps keep you on task and makes the process of researching and writing a lot less isolating and overwhelming. I might have to try something like this in my queer ethics grad seminar next semester! I also like Reina's suggestion about using it in an undergraduate class--how do you think this would work in a bigger class with students who have less experience/training?

@Madison: Do you use any class time to connect with your partner, or is that work done exclusively/primarily outside of the class time?

Sara, we sometimes use class time to work with partners. Throughout the semester, we have spent half of the class period discussing literature and half the class discussing student work. When we discuss student work, two students are selected to share, and the class splits in half, with the person's commenting partner their own group. One day when our professor was out of town, we met with our partners one-on-one to review drafts of our work.

We also have been spending the entirety of the last few class periods workshopping everyone's work. Two or three students have their work reviewed in-depth by three other people in the class: their partner and two others.

My prof has used a similar strategy of writing groups- we are a group of 3 throughout the semester but it hasn't worked out as well as yours because it requires a lot of engagement with the other's research process which is still developing and changing. We've used only class time. Might be better next sem. I wonder whether partners are not changed because it's such a sensitive thing to tell your partner you want to change and what if the one with whom you want to partner with doesn't want to. If it hits off it's great and if not, well...

I think the idea of a commenting partner is an EXCELLENT idea particularly in graduate courses as we work toward developing our dissertation topics and building relationships with those that we could see perhaps forming a writing group with later. Also, in regards to undergrads I think giving them a commenting partner and arming them with the tools necessary to become critical readers is an AMAZING idea particularly if there is an end of the semester paper that perhaps all the former assignments is helping the students work toward. However, for undergrads I do not believe you can expect them to know what it means to be a critical reader or commenter. This could also be a GREAT way to introduce the students to the writing center and/or bring someone in to talk with the students about critical reading and commenting.

I like the insight and comments on this post (I also enjoyed the class to which Madison is referring but never considered the partner thing in this light, so thanks!). One risk of doing this with undergrads seems to be that there is a much higher risk of having people stuck with partners who are not as helpful/engaged/interested. This doesn't really happen in grad seminars that I have observed. But perhaps if the partner system were just arranged around the students getting extra out of it (i.e., they would be able to do well in the class even in a not-very-helpful partnership), it might be a great opportunity for many students.

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