Seagulls, beavers and mice, oh my!

By Corky Thatcher

It’s a lazy Sunday evening in November, and I’m at home, sprawled on my couch. My gaze floats across the living room. It fondly rests on my videotaped Dawson’s Creek episodes, then lingers on my official Hanson calendar, then finally upon my poster of Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. I read the sage words again. Hmm… clean up your own mess, share everything, get along, work together, blah blah. I wonder if Fulghum ever had to produce a group project for a university course. I wonder if our group presentation tomorrow is going to suck or not.

For many students, our upcoming group projects and labs are the bane of our academic university experience. They’re time-consuming, frustrating and tedious. It is true that the learning experience accompanying group work is sometimes fruitful, and in the case of labs it is more practical to share the work with a partner. Nonetheless, as much as I’ve benefited from working with other students to produce assignments, I’ve equally compromised both marks and sanity for the “group.”

I’ve asked profs why they insist on assigning group projects, when individual assignments could demonstrate knowledge of course material equally well.

“Learning how to collaborate on ideas with a group is a valuable experience in addition to what I’m teaching in this course,” went one explanation. “It’s useful in the real world, you know.” Well I’m sure that one was covered in kindergarten (and a few more times along the way), but maybe a bit more coddling for old-time’s sake does us university students good.

“When working in a group,” he continued, “you have to think, ‘It’s not how good I can do it, but how we can do it!’” Yay! Well what if your group is populated by morons who couldn’t organize a keg party inside a brewery? This is an especially common occurrence if your group is chosen for you by the instructor. There’s a reason some wisecracker spawned the popular expression: “What’s a camel? A horse designed by a committee.”

Ideally, your group is going to be a happy family of busy beavers, each diligently tending to his or her own share of the work, eventually producing a nice finished product to get you a good mark. What sucks is that you’re just as likely to get stuck working with less productive creatures, such as:
The Mouse: The mouse remains silent in group meetings, volunteering little and basically remaining neutral. Not to be relied on for contributing ideas, the best the mouse can do is be assigned a section of whatever the rest of you come up with.
The Hyena: The hyena is an affable character-easygoing, friendly, known for cracking a few jokes now and then. Trouble is, the hyena is frequently not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and his idle banter and general slackness will often slow the group down.
The Seagull: The seagull is one of the worst creatures to be in a group with, especially if there are several co-optable mice and too few beavers. True to his reputation, the seagull flies in out of nowhere, makes a lot of noise, shits over everything and then leaves. According to the seagull, everyone else’s ideas stink, but is he suggesting how to make things better?

And where is the seagull when subsequent group meetings are called for? Nowhere to be found.

Avoid the aforementioned creatures and cross your fingers. The success of a group project often depends on how effective each member is at allocating time to meet with the others and actually get something done. Or if someone can overcome the standard crisis of leadership and assume the bulk of responsibility and creative thinking (my favourite way of salvaging a good mark). Or if one group member is lucky enough to have access to a videocamera (or tape editor, or colour photocopier, etc.).

Does anyone else see something wrong with this? Why should these things end up having anything to do with our ultimately singular grades?

Thankfully, my worst experiences with group projects came in my first and second years of university. Since then, I have worked in groups with several fellow beavers to produce more than a few grade A projects. These have been rewarding and satisfying experiences. It’s a great feeling to produce a collaborative work that simultaneously impresses the professor, the rest of the class, and the surprised students in the group who never thought a few weeks earlier that they could create something so good.

As another bonus, I’ve also been given the freedom by some professors to opt out of group projects and produce my own assignments, a sometimes practical avenue which ought to be available in more classes. If you feel overwhelmed, ask your instructor for alternatives to group work, and s/he may be eager to help you. But if you have to produce a group project or two this year, just work hard, do your best, share everything, get along, and… you get the idea. (ed note: Gareth Morgan made up the part about having a collection of Dawson’s Creek episodes on tape)

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