Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 1, October 2007

Empowerment through Students as Learners and Teachers": Participation in the Teaching and Learning Initiative as Civic Engagement

Norma Altshuler, Natsu Fukui, Maeve O’Hara and Caitlin Stern with Alison Cook-Sather


While civic engagement generally evokes images of volunteering or doing service in communities beyond the walls of the College, there are opportunities within the College walls that constitute civic engagement. “Civic” is used by the American Educational Research Association to refer to “actions and strategic plans conceived to support the goal of advancing the well-being of the entire community,” particularly when differently positioned members of the community move “beyond immediate relationships and specific occupational roles toward the acceptance of their interdependence and civic responsibility” (quoted from the Call for Proposals for the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association at http://www.aera.net/Default.aspx?id=2966#section1). In the 2006-07 academic year, supported by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we worked together on a project under the auspices of the Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI), whose aim is to embody this kind of civic engagement.

The most basic goal of the TLI is to create inclusive opportunities to learn that connect all members of the campus community to the educational mission of the College. The particular TLI-supported project in which we participated is called “Students as Learners and Teachers” (SaLT). The goal of this project is to create opportunities for students and faculty members to move out of their traditional, respective roles and to enter into productive dialogue with one another about what is working and what could be improved in our classrooms. The premise underlying this goal is that through such dialogue, both faculty and students will achieve greater understanding of the complexities of teaching and learning, reconsider who has authority to discuss such matters, and work together to create more engaging and effective educational experiences for all involved, thus advancing the well-being of the entire community.

We offer here a brief overview of the structure of the project. (For a more complete description, see  http://www.brynmawr.edu/tli/faculty.html, and to read an extended description of faculty and student experiences through the TLI during the fall 2006 semester, see the report posted at http://www.brynmawr.edu/tli). Faculty who wish to participate in SaLT meet with the coordinator of the TLI, Alison, one on one to discuss their goals. Alison then identifies a student consultant to work with the faculty member, and the faculty member and student consultant meet to discuss what pedagogical issues the faculty member wishes to focus on (e.g., balancing lecture and discussion, facilitating class discussions, making large classes feel smaller, etc.) and/or focal questions for interviews of students enrolled in a faculty member’s course as well as what role the student consultant will take (e.g., silent observer, occasional contributor, active participant). Student consultants can visit between one and a semester’s worth of classes. During the class(es) the student consultant visits, she takes notes, which she subsequently writes up and shares with the faculty member either before or at a debriefing meeting. If the student consultant conducts interviews, she compiles the student responses and shares those with the faculty member. At the debriefing meeting, the faculty member and the student consultant discuss the observation and/or interview notes and implications for teaching and learning in the class. The final step of each individual partnership within the project is another one-on-one meeting with Alison during which she asks participants — both faculty members and student consultants — a series of assessment questions. This discussion and these questions provide participants an opportunity to gain further perspective on what the student consultant noted, what the faculty member learned from those observations and discussion(s) with the student consultant, and how the experience might shape the faculty member’s future pedagogical practices.

Alison meets with faculty on an as-needed basis, as many are accustomed to observing or being observed and others less so, but since this consultant role is new to students, throughout the year Alison holds regular meetings of the student consultants to process what we are seeing, hearing and experiencing, provide further support where needed, and generate further guidelines for participation in these projects. Together we revisit and reinforce the priorities of the program, including the critical importance of confidentiality and constructive, respectful collaboration. We talk explicitly about the responsibility students take on with this role and how to handle it. A central commitment of SaLT is to ensure that as students we play an active role in conceptualizing and developing the project as well as participating in it, so our input throughout the process is key to making the project what it is.

While we learned through our partnerships with various faculty members a great deal about the good teaching already practiced at Bryn Mawr and were inspired by the many ways that faculty are working to refine their teaching further, we want to focus here on how our engagement with this project empowers students and gives students a new voice on campus — both student consultants and students enrolled in faculty members’ courses. To convey our and other students’ experience of empowerment, we draw on statements we made in the fall 2006 semester when Alison interviewed us about our experiences in SaLT and on excerpts from discussions we had during the spring 2007 semester. Integral to our experience in this project is the sense of “we” that we developed in working together but also the way in which our distinct voices articulated different aspects of this experience. We use the pronoun “we” in the following discussion to signal our shared experiences, and we use our first names when we quote a particular statement one of us made.

Taking on the new role that SaLT afforded us gave us the chance to develop a critical awareness of ourselves, of our circumstances, and of the dynamics at play in those circumstances. As Natsu explains: “I think I learned a lot about the class dynamics, and it made me more conscious of what kind of environment I’m in, and I think that changed me as a student. I think I had never really thought about what the whole classroom is like; I was more focused on what I was learning or more on what my group was working on, not like the level of the whole class, including the professor.” Maeve also comments on the different role she took up through SaLT: “I have realized how empowering it can be to take on another role and to have that be supported and formalized in some sense, especially within the college atmosphere when you’re constantly a student, you’re a student, you’re a student. After 14 years of being a student, a student, a student, you’re finally able to go beyond that and have people tell you that what you are saying is valuable, that you’re an expert at being a student and that others can learn a lot from that.” These changes in our sense of ourselves are connected to the change we perceived in others’ sense of us and our role in the community.

As participants in SaLT, we have experienced a sense of enhanced respect and empowerment in relation to the faculty members with whom we have worked and from whom we take classes. As Caitlin explained: “I feel a little more respected by professors on a different level from what I usually feel. [After our presentation to the faculty meeting], one of my professors talked to me about the projects. He had a couple of questions. It was nice to engage with him on that level, completely distinct from class, not as a student who is absorbing information. It was a conversation. I felt more engaged and respected.” Maeve had a similar experience. She said: “The best part of this experience is the empowerment aspect of it. Someone in this experience is being asked to change their role and not only the role they are taking on formally in the initiative but they are being asked to be much more of a colleague in the shaping of these roles and how this project is going to look.”

The respect and responsibility we felt working with professors in this way has made us more engaged as citizens of the Bryn Mawr community. As Norma put it, participating in conversations about pedagogy and what happens in our classrooms is “so important in making you a more critical thinker and a more critical citizen, just in terms of thinking about the kinds of systems you’re in and how you are implicated in them and what your responsibility is.”

Not only have we experienced a sense of empowerment; we have found that the students with whom we have worked in faculty members’ classes also seem to feel empowered by the experience. Caitlin explains: “Probably about half of the students in both the classes that I did [interviews for] really thanked me for doing this and really appreciated that they had this outlet for being heard.” Expanding on this point, Caitlin says: “Other people are not as outspoken as I or [other student consultants], and so it was really nice for me to hear that I was giving people a voice.”

We hope that the sense of empowerment we have developed and fostered through participating in SaLT will inspire other students and professors to become involved in our community in this way. As a form of civic engagement, our participation in this project raises our critical awareness of the complexities of influencing the nature of community involvement — in this case, teaching and learning — and the responsibilities each of us currently has and could assume regarding the primary mission of this educational community. In short, it makes us more responsible members of our current community and prepares us for responsible participation in future contexts.


Alison Cook-Sather is associate professor of education and coordinator of the Teaching and Learning Initiative. Norma Altshuler ’07 earned her A.B.in political science. Natsu Fukui ’08 is majoring in psychology. Maeve O’Hara ’08 is majoring in math and pursuing state certification to teach at the secondary level. Caitlin Stern ’07 earned her A.B. in philosophy.