2, Number 1, Oct 2001
A Case Study in Research Assistant
and Faculty Interaction*
research assistants (RAs) often encounter a game of "Russian
roulette" when working with faculty members. Sometimes
professors ask students to undertake the brainless job of
photocopying; others give substantive research projects
to RAs that stretch their skills and understanding But almost
always the RA can count on a subordinate working relationship
with the faculty member. In this article, we offer a case
study of our intentional effort to change the typical power
relationship between most RAs and faculty members. We believe
this approach, which we call the partnership paradigm, provides
an opportunity for effective and mutually enriching experiences
for both faculty and students serving as research assistants.
will describe the partnership experiment we undertook as
professor and student in a professional degree program at
a state research university. We developed a partnership
paradigm that includes aspects of mentoring and a power
structure characterized by exchange rather than authority.
After reflecting on our work relationship, we came to understand
that this model exists on a continuum. TABLE
1 depicts four models of potential RA-faculty work arrangement.
We classify our effort as "partnership light."
We judge that structural factors prevented a working partnership
evolved over the span of stronger partnership arrangement.
Table 1 summarizes the issues that affected how we consciously
restructured our relationship into more of a partnership.
In this article, we describe the challenges we faced, delineated
limitations for creating a truly equal working relationship,
and offer recommendations for others who want to apply all
or part of this paradigm to their working relationships.
August 1996, we were assigned to work together through the
Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at the University
of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. John is a faculty member
at UNC's Institute of Government, and Meredith was a graduate
student in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program.
MPA students regularly are placed as research assistants
with faculty of the Institute of Government. The idea of
a working partnership evolved over the span of Meredith's
assistantship with John (August 1996- May 1997). During
our first meeting we discussed working styles and determined
that we were both interested in a more collaborative and
less hierarchical work relationship. Over time, we realized
that the structure of our working relationship was different
from the traditional research assistantship.
John's desire for a more collaborative working relationship
arose from two factors: the value he places on mutual learning
and his discomfort with hierarchy. His interest in structuring
mutual learning relationships was heightened by a workshop
on facilitation and organizational development he took from
Institute of Government colleagues shortly before meeting
Meredith. He was exposed to Chris Argyris' research on executive
decision-making and the distinction between unilateral control
and a mutual learning model of management. Specifically,
the workshop instructors challenged participants to apply
mutual learning principles in their work and personal decision-making.
John realized that revising the relationship between him
and a research assistant was risky, and could be time consuming.
However, he pursued the project with Meredith for three
reasons. First, the faculty-RA relationship was a good setting
to apply a mutual learning, more equal decision-making model.
The projects open for collaboration with Meredith were under
John's control, and offered a way to test how he would work
with future research assistants from the MPA program. Second,
a partnership approach was consistent with John's values
and expertise in cooperative forms of conflict resolution,
i.e. seeking common interests and integrative solutions
among people who have different needs and interests. Third,
designing as equal and collegial a relationship as possible
with Meredith would recognize her experience, knowledge
and ability to make significant intellectual contributions
to joint projects. A final benefit, recognized in hind sight,
is that a partnership approach to RA faculty work is consistent
with changes in the structure of workplace relationships
to more team-based, cooperative models of decision making.
Even if the effort took more time and effort, it posed a
useful intellectual challenge and a learning opportunity
that could be applied across John's academic career.
Meredith was interested in a partnership approach to her
research assistantship be cause of her previous positive
experiences with supervisors who worked collaboratively
and allowed a high level of participation in decision-making.
As a student in the MPA program, she also had an interest
in applying aspects of her classroom learning to the assistantship.
In a fall 1996 semester course, she read an article by Chris
Argyris and was exposed too the theorists and researchers
on more collaborative, less-hierarchical forms of group
interaction and employee management. Her RA assignment with
John (8 hours per week on average) became an ideal Situation
to put such management and leadership theory into practice.
project of Campus Conflict Resolution
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo
to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication
585 Manoogian Hall
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.
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