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Volume 2, Number 1, Oct 2001

A Partnership Paradigm:
A Case Study in Research Assistant
and Faculty Interaction (page 2 of 4)


Mentoring is an important aspect of the Partnership paradigm. "Mentoring constitutes a unique and personal relationship between two people: one who has achieved a certain level of experience and one who is aspiring to a higher level. In what is defined as a classical mentoring relationship, the mentor provides opportunity for the protégé and is rewarded by his or her achievements. The type of mentoring we suggest for the partnership paradigm, however, is more personal, broad and informal. We use some elements of mentoring, but the initial assignment of students to professors in the MPA program (made by the Program Director based on needs and interests of faculty students) precluded us from seeking each other out based on mutual interests.

Bruce Berger, in his article, Mentoring Graduate Students, describes some ways to create what he calls a "dynamic reciprocal relationship. "First, expectations must be discussed, and the student must be treated as a valued colleague. Then both must work together to create a context or environment for growth. In order to create this context for growth, the mentor and protÈgÈ must develop a collegial relationship in which there is shared responsibility. The dynamic reciprocal relationship involves a balance between personal and professional issues. Discussing non-work related issues and spending time together on a social basis helps to develop a more personal relationship. Our social interaction outside the office included having lunch and dinner together occasionally, introducing each other to our friends and colleagues, and participating in an MPA-sponsored team building exercise on a ropes course. We found that expanding the relationship beyond the professional realm helped us to create mutual trust, another important component of the dynamic reciprocal relationship. By creating trust, Berger suggests that" people can be confronted about problems they are avoiding or not attempting to solve.' Confronting problems and engaging in self-examination are difficult in general, but are almost impossible to do effectively without a commitment to build mutual trust.

Shared interest in a specialized area of study in another component of mentoring. In typical mentoring relationships the professor has an expertise in a particular area and the student desires to specialize in that subfield. At UNC, the MPA Program Director matches students and professors according to interests, but very few pairs can be perfectly matched. Meredith had some interest in John's field (public dispute resolution), but it was not her primary interest in public administration. The shared interest was high enough, however, to be compatible with the tasks of the assistantship. The absence of initial choice in our relationship and level of interest are two key differences between what the literature describes as mentoring and our working relationship.

Another aspect of the mentoring relationship we examined was a concern about gender factors in mentor-mentee relations. The very characteristics that make the mentoring relationship effective involve a degree of vulnerability and informality. Some people may avoid a mentoring relationship with someone of the opposite sex in order to avoid potential misunderstandings or problems, ranging from unfounded rumors of romantic interest to sexual harassment. We argue that if the relationship has open communication and mutual respect, issues can be raised and handled in a professional manner. For instance, we both receive humorous e-mail messages from friends and wanted to pass them on to each other. Since some of the humor could be considered unprofessional, we discussed whether either of us would feel uncomfortable receiving "racy" e-mail messages. By being conscious of the appropriateness of how we interacted, we have been successful in creating a working relationship that was comfortable for both of us.

Creating a Partnership

In creating our partnership, we addressed issues of power, expectations, decision-making, evaluations, and other aspects of working relationships. Although there are some aspects of mentoring in our relationship, the research assistantship's predetermined structure, including a focus on money and required hours of work, is a clear distinction from traditional mentoring. We found this structure both challenging and freeing for our work to conceive, develop and evaluate a partnership paradigm. Whereas mentoring is focused on the development of the junior person (student or faculty), our model is focused on mutual development.

Most research assistantships have a clearly hierarchical structure. If any evaluation occurs, it is an evaluation of the student's work by the professor. John- was interested in changing this power structure, believing that mutual feedback would be more effective. Our partnership might not have happened without John initiating the idea of creating a structure different than that of a typical faculty-directed relationship. This effort was not difficult for John because he was a new faculty member with many potential projects for Meredith, and many possible projects were not governed by short-term deadlines.

In order to create a partnership, John had to empower Meredith with the right to contribute to decision-making, raise problems or issues, state her interests, and question John's judgment. To shift away from a hierarchical structure, we attempted to create an environment where communication and coordination were more reciprocal and more equal. This resulted in a structure with an exchange of power. An exchange can only happen when both parties are getting things that they need. In our case, John was getting help with research and writing work and gaining experience that was both collaborative and social in nature. Meredith was learning about mediation, improving her writing skills, and experimenting with a partnership management situation while being paid.

Initial Discussion of Expectations

Having an initial discussion of each person's expectations of the working relation ship decreases misunderstanding and is an important element of the partnership paradigm. In our first few meetings, we discussed goals, interests, modes of communication, priorities of the job, and our level of flexibility in the hours and the locations for carrying out the work. These initial discussions to set mutual expectations were important in establishing an open working environment and setting the tone for shared decision-making. We should also note that the MPA Program Director told us about the strong accomplishments of one another before we met. Therefore, we had high expectations for the relationship from the outset.

In addition to discussing expectations, it is also important for both the faculty member and the RA to understand each other's expertise and capabilities. At the first meeting, as part of John's interest in providing background reading to Meredith on public dispute resolution, he asked Meredith to summarize an article. John wanted some way to gauge Meredith's analytic and comprehension skills, and her level of writing. It was important for John to determine the level of Meredith's ability for appropriate projects and responsibilities. In retrospect, neither of us could recall if John shared all his reasons for this Assignment. In a partnership/mutual learning model, John would have shared all of his interests, and said that the request was not a make-or-break test, but one way of learning more about Meredith's knowledge, skills and abilities.

Mutual Evaluations

One major way we attempted to change the power structure towards a partnership model was to have mutual evaluations rather than just the required formal evaluation of the student by the professor at the end of each semester. This process allowed us to express our opinions about our own work, each other's work, and our joint work. We decided on several elements for the evaluations: (1) we would each determine the criteria by which we would be evaluated; (2) specific times would be set aside for evaluations; (3) evaluations would occur several times throughout the semester; and (4) the evaluations would be conducted through a dialogue rather than a written document.

Rather than evaluating each other using the same criteria, we decided to each draft our own lists of skills and competencies by which we wanted to be evaluated. We each had different things that we wanted to work on that were specific to our role in the partnership. Together, we created the criteria for judging our joint work.

We scheduled distinct sessions for our mutual evaluations. When we encountered special difficulties or successes, we noted them at the time they occurred. Even though we had a comfortable relationship and provided informal feedback regularly, a planned meeting with specific preparation was an important guide to our work. It was also a deliberate part of enacting the partnership paradigm. A designated occasion for feedback encourages reflection on overall progress o' projects and the working relationship. Perhaps most importantly, a scheduled feedback session sets a point for both the student and the faculty member to inform each other how they could alter their expectations or behavior to make the relationship more effective. Ongoing informal feedback tends to focus on short-term, content-specific information, whereas a specific time for mutual feedback is more conducive to analyzing patterns and processes of work for long-term improvements in effectiveness.

Rather than having just one formal evaluation at the end of the assistantship period, we scheduled several informal evaluations each semester. For August-December 1996, we set three dates for evaluation sessions. We found the first one, approximately six weeks after the start of our work together, was very helpful. The subsequent two were less helpful. We attributed the difference to less contact and fewer observations of behavior and work products on which to alter our first assessment. The second and third evaluations explicitly addressed how to mutually evaluate our joint work. As a result of our learning, we scheduled only two feedback sessions during January-April, 1997, both of which were useful.

We determined that feedback from outside our working relationship- faculty colleagues reviewing drafts of case studies, for example would be helpful. Unfortunately, we had few opportunities to pursue outside perspectives on our joint work. We did have positive informal feedback from both students and professors after a seminar we presented on the partnership paradigm. Most seemed intrigued by our ideas and by the steps we had taken to achieve a partnership.

Finally, our mutual evaluations were conducted through discussions rather than formal written documentation. We have found that a discussion allows us to be more thorough while at the same time remaining informal. A brief written evaluation was, however, completed by John at the end of the first and second semester as required by the MPA program.

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