Thursday, August 11, 2011

Group Projects: The Bane of My Existence / The Future of My Career


My hatred of group projects began in the third grade. I can be very precise about this because it was one of the most traumatic developmental moments of my life.  Like my traumatic moments, stripped to its bare bones, it was pretty silly.  But to third-grade-me it world-shattering.  It shaped how I felt about projects, but more than that it shaped I perceived other people and developed my sense of ownership over that in which I have invested.

Here's the scheme.

It's third grade.  Social studies project.  I love history, far more than any other kid in the class.  We're supposed to build some sort of diorama or model.  Another kid and I hit on the idea of making a model of an aztec city.  We divide up the labor based on parts.  Per usual, I did most of the work, all of the research, and my parents purchased most of the supplies.  The other kid who'd helped develop the idea helped a little.  Another contributed a plastic motorcycle.  Yes, a plastic motorcycle for a model Aztec city.  I worked hard to turn it into a bicycle which, I reasoned, was at least a little more plausible. The others did nothing.

At the end of project day, we got to take our projects home, and I was deliberately squeezed out by the other kids who developed a plan for taking a few pieces separate and having a rotation of having the model at home.  I got no turn in the rotation.  They got the teacher's blessing by taking all the credit for the work, while I stood to the side.  Stunned.  Crying.

From then on, group projects were to be avoided at all costs.

Over time, the sting of that experience softened, and by the time I was in college I didn't hate them with quite the same passion, but I still dreaded them.  Rather than credit or ownership, it was carrying the load that wore me down.  I remember a series of group geography projects in which I was the only one in my group who knew roughly where London and Paris were and knew that Egypt was still a country, not just something "from Bible times."  I wasn't just producing the work, I was having to remediate their education.

Group projects, it seems, are either hateful or wearying.

Grad school forced me to change that, though.  A research project cannot be a one-person job.  A thesis is the work of the entire committee.  Solitary work was a non-starter.  Avoiding group edits or contributions to to my thesis was a non-option.  In the end, my thesis had my name on it.  In the end, it defined my academic career.  In the end, it established my foothold in the world of scholarship.

And yet, in the end, it was no longer the research I had done or the thesis I had written.

It was the research we had done, and the thesis we had produced.

Sometimes the contributions were valuable.  Sometimes the edits, corrections, and suggestions made sense.  Sometimes the shifting of my theoretical framework were welcome.  Being forced to soften my conclusion?  Not welcome.  Neither was getting back an entire chapter back with one comment: "This is too poorly written for me to even read and comment on."  Neither was being forced to include data from researchers I didn't know or didn't trust.

I had to learn to separate my work from our work.  I had control over my research, and I had to learn to be satisfied in that.  I could write the thesis the way I wanted to before giving it to my committee, and I could be proud of that.  Once I had done my part, and it was in the group's hands, I had to to realize that it was no longer mine.  It was ours.

And, in the end, I'm proud of the thesis we produced, too.  Is it the thesis I would have written on my own?  No, not entirely.  Is it true to my essential vision for the project, though? Yes.  Is it better?  Maybe; they think so.  And the truth is, it doesn't matter if it's better or if it's worse.  Because, even though it's my name on it, it's the product of all our combined efforts.

Now, as I prepare to query Sublimation to agents, I'm glad that I've had that experience.  A novel that is published out of a publishing house is a group project, too.  I can write the novel I want and be proud of it.  But, in the end, the novel that hits the shelves will be the product of our combined efforts, even though it's my name on it.



  1. There's a name for a person who's temperamentally unsuited to working in a group, and can only fully commit to a project where they control all the inputs and outputs.

    That name is "writer"...

    It's the most solitary job out there, but one of the main rewards is that you get to do it your own way: if it's crap, no-one to blame but yourself; but if you pull it off, the credit's all yours.

  2. My name is Jenny and I'm the kid who contributed the plastic motorcycle.

    I was an okay math student who, based on early testing in grade 4, somehow got placed in Enhanced Math in grade 10. Not Advanced. Enhanced. For gifted kids.

    Well, by spring I was failing. No surprise there. Other than me, the next lowest grade was around 70%, and the top three students in the class - Bill, Jeff, and Hugh - were averaging 99%, 100%, and 101% respectively (because Hugh kept getting all the bonus questions on the tests right). The three of them were also best friends, and fiercely competitive with each other.

    So there was an end of term group project worth 30% of the final mark we all had to do, but to keep things fair, the teacher decided to do a random drawing to determine the groups. Wouldn't you know it? Bill, Jeff, and Hugh got put in the same group. Along with me. The teacher wasn't impressed with that her names-out-of-a-hat plan backfired. And neither were Bill, Jeff, and Hugh, for getting stuck with me as their fourth.

    I was so out of my league I didn't even try to help with the project, and the boys never asked me to do anything, either. Except on the night before the project was due. Bill called me up at 10:30 pm and said, frantic, "You're good at art, right? We don't have a title page!"

    So I got out my paper and colored pencils, and drew something artsy fartsy.

    The next morning, we did the oral presentation (my job was to be Vanna White - pointing to the graphs and charts they were discussing, while the three of them did all the talking), and then we handed in the written part with my beautiful title page.

    Of course we got a 98% (and of course they all lamented the loss of that 2%). I passed math with a 60.

    This really has nothing to do with writing, but your story reminded me of it. :)

  3. Surely Sublimation is all yours, Nevets? If so, are you referring to edits, publicity, cover design etc? I'm with Tim. Both up- and down-sides of writing are that it IS all you; the good, the bad, the disappointment, the triumph. I really admire people who co-write books (like Nicci French), but I don't envy them!

  4. @Jennifer - Great story! :) At leas you had a part to play and when the time came for it, you played it.

    @Tim and @Frances - Surely there are parts of your published books that were beyond your control (cover, perhaps title) or the subject of internal struggles between your desire for control and your need to relinquish some of it (edits)? I just know several published writers whose experience was miserable for them, largely because they felt such individual ownership of the entire book and could not get around the fact that it was their name on the cover but someone else was impacting what the final product was going to be like.

  5. Nevets, I was very fortunate in my editor, who worked constructively and respectfully on the text. I'd say 80% of his changes were improvements, 10% were no worse, and he graciously allowed me the final say on the remainder. I was never in any doubt that it was "my" book. Frances had the same editor, so no doubt we were lucky.

  6. Yes. I agree with Tim. I agreed with (almost) all the edits, and was allowed my own way when I felt strongly about it. Though in restrospect I wish I'd stuck with my original title for book no. 2 and I didn't much like the paperback cover. But the cover I liked was vetoed by W H Smith (major retailer), so that was that!

  7. Hehehehe I hated group work for almost exactly the same reason as you, except that I was absolutely ruthless about cutting out people who didn't pull their weight on the project.

  8. "Anonymous" also goes by "William of Baskerville."
    In more than thirty years of college teaching, I can remember assigning a group project only once, other than allowing them on a voluntary basis, which makes a lot of difference. I thought it was a pretty safe project to assign, with each group making a contribution to a larger project, and I laid out the parameters very specifically. I even tried to set up balanced groups. It was a disaster. This would have been in the mid-2000's, and to my horror I discovered that about half the students (juniors and seniors) did not even know how to do a web page on "Front Page" or other wysiwyg program. Some groups, as I expected, did genuinely excellent work in every respect; others basically copied what I had written in my text book. So, what grade do I give myself? It became pretty apparent, too, which groups had worked as groups, and who had coasted on someone else's work. So, how does one assign grades in that kind of mess, which, I repeat, I had should have known better than to create to begin with. One of the worst things about college teaching is that, at the end of the day, one has to assign grades, as though it were all an Olympic competition where someone has to get the gold, silver, and bronze. I would much prefer a system that consists of "Thank you," "Okay," and "Here's what you can do to fix this. Please do it over." One of the best things about being retired is that I can now relate to students or others who send me some work of theirs on exactly that basis. But, I might be digressing. Teaching and refereeing are two very different things (or should be), and, after that one experience, I'm more convinced than ever that group projects in the humanities are one of the worst ways of teaching or learning. Before anyone responds to this assertion, I think it's best that I say this now so that I won't have to say it to anyone personally: If you're a college teacher in the humanities areas, and you're assigning group projects, there is a slight possibility that your standards for teaching and learning and mine do not coincide. In the technological areas, where your entire professional existence consists of being a member of a hive, I suppose it's unavoidable. (As you know, it was Rose, who took the whole mess and straightened it out for me.)

  9. Great story! So many of us have been there, and had that unfortunate experience. By the time I reached univeristy level, I often volunteered myself to write the papers that were the result of "group" research. It was my way of having a controlling interest on the results. I ended up being a bit bossy about it, which I'm not proud of, but I tried to make sure every group project I had to be involved in ended in excellence with my name on the paper in addition to everyone elses' names. I just didn't want to repeat the experiences I had in elementary, junior high and high school where the project ended up bad. I didn't care that much if I didn't get all the credit. I just wanted it to be good. I learned that in junior high biology when I ended up doing all the dissection work, and my lab partner didn't write it up . . . and didn't want to touch anything on the lab table either. Thankfully at the college level, everyone seemed to be "all in" when working on projects.

  10. So true! I had to learn to separate my work from our work too!

  11. Best of luck with your submission, Nevets, but you need to email me your snail mail address or where I could gift you a copy of Bears With Us with the name you chose in it. Let me know which one you'd like.



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