Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Group work: Work is fine, group sucks

I started my (supposed) final semester as a Masters student-cum-teaching assistant on Monday and found out that future term projects which involve team effort will see students preallocated to their teams by the instructors/lecturers/tutors.

This means, students will not be able to form their own groups. From what I heard, this is to prevent the formation of similar groups across other courses/modules so that the workload would be shared in this exemplary case of good teamwork/friendship.

It is all the more challenging for the students, and if I were a student affected by such a policy, I'll probably be crossed. There are so many undesirable characters out there. Let me list a few nasty folks I will probably never get along with:

1) Uber alpha male: This is the guy who will want everything to go his way, and pretends to listen to you, but in the end tries to control the project and the group. It would be a worse scenario if this person happens to skive and does not walk the talk or take any responsibility. This guy is holier than thou, and onus will always be on others to convince him their ideas are worthy of his consideration.

2) Tiger woman: Similar to the uber alpha male, but more dangerous because she possesses female privileges. You can't talk her down. And you can't punch her in the face. Her sarcastic non-verbal cues get well under your skin, and combined with her overbearing personality, she is a deadly groupmate to have.

3) The ninja: This person doesn't reply emails, calls and texts on time, or rather at all. You see him/her once and that's it. He/she will do the minimum and often times, there's no value added to the project on his/her part. His/her efforts usually require editing and reworking from other groupmates. In the end, with the ninja, everyone does more work than they should be doing.

4) The nice-when-they-want-something-from-you person: These goal-oriented folks are manipulative self-serving snakes who will want to get a free ride from those who usually have a better track record for term assignments. They'll sit near you during the first couple of tutorials/lectures and propose a union, before they wrap their tentacles around you and suck you dry.

5) The overpromiser: This person gives a lot during the brainstorming session, but does shit to fulfilling a fraction of it.

6) The kancheong spider: This person worries about a lot of things, including what the lecturer/tutor will think, and how the group can craft the project in a way the lecturer likes. There goes the group's identity. This person also pushes other groupmates more than necessary too. They will demand the group meet regularly just for the sake of it, even though it doesn't translate to any substantial work being done. They will also breathe down your neck and be concerned with the process, rather than the outcome of each member's efforts.

7) The part-timer: Slightly different from the ninja, this person works part-time just to earn some pocket money, but it often comes at the expense of the group project.

8) The incompetent: There are so many of them. They don't know how to use the "page break" tool and use "enter" instead. Their written English is appalling and makes your essay look like a kindergarten kid's love letter. These folks also have no idea what is the meaning of deadline, and of course, what is the meaning of "incompetent". They do so many amazing things, you wonder how many people they had to sleep with in order to get a place in the university.

9) The clique: Sometimes, the mates you are with are already friends to begin with, and you are at their mercy when they decide (based on this fair thing called "consensus") the direction of the project and internal deadlines.

10) The not-so-serious: Sadly enough, you get those mates who are not very interested in a university education. The reason why they are in the course is so that they could pass it and eventually get a degree. All they want at the end of 3 years of campus sex, part-time jobs, networking and all that, is a degree, so that they can pay off their tuition loans or embark on a journey towards financial independence.

Well, that's all I can think of for the moment. I have had my fair share of ups and downs doing group projects, but the fact remains that I really hate group work. There is always a high probability you will meet someone who will either ruin the project or your day.

I have met my fair share of self-serving bottom-feeding snakes, pushy characters who talk too much and do too little and indifferent folks who are armed to the teeth with smoke bombs.

Sometimes, I wish the courses in the university were further divided into 2 categories. The first one would be for the serious students, interested in scholarship and intellectual inquiry; and the other one would be for those who are just there for the ride and grab their degrees and make a run for it. Of course, this world can do without that degree of frankness.

For a group project to work, you need the following:

1) Good leadership: Someone who is responsible, able to manage and disseminate the workload, and also manage the group according to the strength of each member - i.e. who writes well, who is more proactive in seeking information and research, who can design well, who is a good presenter. This leader is able to coordinate the frequency and duration of meetings and will competently aggregate the ideas of the group and decide the direction of the project. The work of the leader doesn't end there, as he/she also continues to consult each group member and get feedback pertaining to the project.

2) Good followers: A good follower is someone who firstly knows his/her role in the group. It is beyond taking order orders and executing them, but also believing that what he/she does complements the efforts of the other mates in a value-adding way.

3) Communication: Every member needs to communicate his/her goals and concerns. Members will appreciate if stuff like the following is communicated: "I'm going to be very busy for the next few days, sorry."; "I think you're not doing enough for the group,"; "You are not managing the workload well enough!"; "Ok, who is going to skive or smoke out, please raise your hand now, so we know how to manage this."; "I cannot finish this by the internal deadline, will be late by a day."; "Your idea sucks. No go!"

4) Pride: You must have pride in whatever you're doing, not matter how small the contribution is. For instance, self-serving people will only have pride in what they WANT to do, rather than the positions assigned to them.

5) Goal: It is important for the entire team to share the same goal. You may have mates who are just there for the ride and want to get their degree, and you have those who are pushing for a 2nd upper or 1st class honours degree. The bottom-line is that communicating your goal and sharing it is essential to the team's success.

I love team sports and being part of a team working towards a common goal, but the experience of working in groups for course/midterm projects has ruined it all, and left a bad taste in my mouth.

There have been 2 occasions when I sent an email to my groupmates shortly after our formation, asking when would be a good time we could meet to have some preliminary discussions. And none of them replied for almost 5 days. That is something I personally cannot tolerate. What is the point of working with these people?

Pertaining to this preallocated grouping policy, I feel that if the choice is given to the students, they can team up with people of the similar sense of urgency. This random preallocation will only result in kancheong spiders teaming up with skivers. And who suffers? Students will complain and lecturers have to mediate. The folks at the dean's office just sit pretty and marvel at how well their policy has gone.

This preallocation does not solve the problem of skivers and self-serving snakes that populate NUS any way. I wonder if the administration actually told the undergraduates directly about the policy, or if they threw the responsibility of breaking the news onto the shoulders of lecturers and instructors.

Fee hikes, inflexibilities, project work, BAH! If only our transition into the rat race could have been more pleasant. Perhaps this is what is needed to turn us into rats in the first place.


SnoopyLover8 said...

You're so amazingly brilliant. :)

Sam Ho said...

thanks for your kind words. this is an old entry though