Letter to the Editor responds to Editorial Board’s criticism of group projects, author reflects on own practices

Sanjay Paul September 25, 2015 0

Homer was so shaken by an editorial in a recent issue of the Etownian that he tottered immediately to the Blue Bean in search of sustenance. There, fortunately, lay a single scone without icing, and Homer fell upon it with such vehemence that the proprietor looked at him in alarm.

His nerves calmed, Homer read the piece again. The subject was group projects, and the entire editorial board had seen fit to deplore the assignment of such work by their professors. Group projects, the editors said, could lead to friction, even “uncomfortable clashes,” among members of the group, resulting in “ill will and inconvenience in all aspects of your life.” They lamented one such inconvenience in particular: being forced to meet at 4:30 a.m. to finish their work on time.

It was all very unpleasant, Homer thought. Why were his colleagues requiring students to meet at such ungodly hours? He thought back to his own undergraduate days. He could not remember studying at 4:30 a.m. Well, maybe that one time, when a big project was due, and he had to stay up late to complete it. Had he cursed his professors then? Or had he blamed himself for neglecting to work on it in a timely fashion? Who knows?

But the editors were just getting started!  They turned to the professors’ principal argument:  that group work prepares students for the “real world.” Ha, scoffed the editors, who knows for sure what the real world holds? After all, there are many kinds of jobs that do not require one to work in groups. And in any case, could they not learn the required skills on the job itself?

After having demolished the professors’ feeble defense, the editors went in for the kill. How much of your own work, they asked, is done in groups? And isn’t assigning group work a means to reduce your own workload?

Yikes, Homer thought, as he took a final bite of the scone. These were penetrating observations, striking at the very root of our academic being. How could Homer deny that the life of an academic is a largely solitary one? The teaching, the research—they are largely done by oneself, with scant oversight. Well, one had to serve on committees that required some degree of collaborative work, although even here, Homer had to concede, the workload tended to be rather uneven, with some hardy souls (called chairs) shouldering most of the responsibility. This state of affairs, Homer noted, was not unlike the one the editors decried—viz., the awarding of the same grade to the group regardless of the work done by individual members.

And what of their explosive charge that professors might seek to lighten their own load by requiring students to work in teams? That all this talk about preparing students for the rigors that lie ahead in the real world, or the professors’ claim that they are being forced to include group assignments by some nameless pedagogical police, is just a smokescreen?

At such times, Homer thought, it is useful to recall the words of Adam Smith, the great 18th-century moral philosopher. Smith wrote about how individuals are driven not by a desire to make the world better off, but by self-interest. The actions of bakers and butchers (and, he might have added, college professors) are motivated by their individual gains.

But economics students know how the rest of the famous argument goes. Even though increasing society’s welfare may not have been their intention, in many cases individuals (yes, even seemingly sadistic professors) are led by an “invisible hand” to promote exactly such an end.

But the editorial led Homer to wonder about his own actions. During first-year orientation in the summer, Homer had met with his group of first-year students and their parents separately. He had placed them in teams of two or three, and asked them to work together on certain questions. He couldn’t tell who was more surprised: the students or the parents.

But it all turned out well. There was no cursing, and they all had a good lunch later.

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