Group Work

Ask anyone. I hate group work. I had a showdown with a fellow graduate student in one of my classes over the subject of group work. For a while, that interaction was the stuff of legend. People loved to relive their favorite lines from said disagreement. (Although the list of people who were present for said discussion is getting shorter the longer I remain here.) I admit it. I don't like working in groups. My problem with group work is that groups waste time and productivity on social interaction that could better be spent in pursuit of the objective. I can stand a lot of things but wasting time on extraneous matters--like other people's feelings and sensibilities--when I could be getting something done is among my top pet peeves. When I work alone, I don't have to worry about how someone else feels about my ideas, whether or not my perspective is getting it's proper due, and so on. I can just tackle the assignment. So the people responsible for wasting my time when I could be getting things done tend to fall deeply in my estimation. I view group work as an abyss that I'd do best to avoid.

I don't understand our love affair with group work. I think there is this mistaken idea that groups are democratic and therefore are inherently superior to any other schemes, that groups promote cooperation (which seems to always trump efficiency or productivity, much to my puzzlement), that group members have a greater investment in the effort due to broader participation (this may or may not be true, depending on the initial investment of all members in the outcome), and that groups foster creativity in problem solving (of course, this assumes that group members feel secure enough to interact creatively). And why is it always group work? I have seen many a group bypass an expert in some particular field for allowing a group to tackle the problem.

Oh, I will admit, if education and growth are the objective, groups may be the way to go. Giving someone a safe place to expand or experience something might best be done in a carefully constructed group. By and large, however, most groups are not carefully constructed. Who hasn't been stuck in a group because they needed a warm body and you were at the wrong place at the right time? But when conquering some objective is the point, group work can muck up the works. And the main problem in groups is the scarcity of effective leadership and the lack of appropriate authority.

I am involved in a seminar that has crashed and burned due to the misuse of group work. Foremost, the group tasked with organizing the seminar was not given the proper authority. There is a higher body of the organization that can and has abused the schedule to the point that the organizing committee looks unorganized and foolish and feels they have to apologize to the group or blame the higher-ups for the disorganization. Net effect? Group confidence is undermined at all levels. Still, I feel for them. Been there, done that.

And as if we weren't all enduring a shining example of the problems of group work, the entire organization is married to group work. I have been asked to volunteer for committees, based not on my expertise or interests but to fulfill a requirement that I be on exactly 2 and no more committees, that each contain a predescribed number of participants of my category. When our group did not do so willingly, there was a bit more than a little resistance. I offered a solution which was seconded by another newbie like myself and STILL the older group bristled. But my main complaint with the group organization is that I have been asked to do nothing alone. Not only that, but I have been given no time to explore my own thoughts on any subject. Instead, every time I was asked to accomplish some task, I have been asked to collaborate. At every turn, I feel this crushing responsibility to involve my partner in some aspect of every activity that I am not bringing my best self and my best ideas to the project. I have been given no time for personal reflection. The only way I can think to describe this feeling is being sleep deprived. I feel like I am simply being jerked from one situation to the next and asked to react. Who knows if I am acting appropriately, inappropriately, efficiently, effectively or otherwise? I have no time to plan a best approach. It's just, "Here's the task. Go!"

I find this particularly amusing? frustrating? peculiar? because this seminar is about education, and so much in education is about working within people's comfort zones and capitalizing on their strengths. As teachers, we have to provide a range of experiences so that students who work best by reading, doing, and watching can all have an opportunity to learn. And yet, in a seminar about education, I am not given the opportunity to work in the style that works best for me with at least some time allotted for personal reflection. Alone. I would never undertake a project without first thinking through a plan, potential problems, and possible workarounds. But over the past week or so, I have been asked to achieve some goal--even if I am expected to bring some expertise to the table--without having been given the space I need to bring my best effort to the task. End result? I'm doing a half-assed job. I have been paired with someone, then pairs are paired, and pairs of pairs are paired with a more experienced pair and so on.

Tempers are getting short. And it's not just my temper. (Those who know the true me would be proud of the exhibition of tolerance I have maintained in light of my frustration.) I see it in the teachers. I see it in the new grad students. But I think the utter frustration is with the group organization. It's ineffective and people are getting tired of failing. Ok, maybe we aren't failing, but we certainly aren't making progress consistent with our capabilities. Unstable group membership demands we constantly renegotiate leadership positions. Stable groups only have to establish dominance once.

Look, I am willing to let someone else lead. In fact, I like it when I don't have to lead all the time. I am willing to defer, even if it means that someone with less experience gets a chance at learning something from the whole leadership experience. But for God's sake, I need a little space. I need some room to think.

There has to be a place where it is okay for someone with MY learning style to exist outside of a group.

1 comment:

  1. Never have liked group work. Sorry you've had to put up with it. I am also sorry for your summer frustrations, though I do have to admit that I like your perspective on something I've been seeing for the last two years!


Please. Feel free to tell my why you think this is my most brilliant post ever.