teamwork, or lack thereof

Picture this: you are a (somewhat) hardworking, ordinary student struggling to graduate from the unforgiving institution that is university. During the prelude to every semester, you reiterate to yourself with renewed gusto: this semester is the semester I will finally get myself together! I will pull up my GPA! I will pursue the modules I enjoy! I will set unattainable standards for myself!

You have enthusiastically prepared a list of electives that sparked your interest earlier. A quick online query pulls up the course outline of a module for your viewing pleasure. You scroll down the document eagerly, barely glancing at the syllabus breakdown, to identify how your marks will be divided.

Oh, there seems to be one component in particular that contains a large chunk of information. Your eyes locate the source; it reads ‘Group Project’.

Beside it, marked in bold, is (40%).

Instantly, your gut squirms. Memories of pain come flooding. You remember the last time you embarked on a risk of such enormous scale, and how you were duly punished for your arrogance. You remember everything, from the genesis of team spirit to its inevitable demise.

The veil of unfounded optimism shrouded all in the beginning: everyone was brimming with ideas in early brainstorming sessions, and the future glittered with potential. Then, tears in the fabric: tags unanswered on WhatsApp, conversations left hanging, meetings increasingly elusive. Next came suffocation: one night before the deadline, you realised only 50% of the report was presentable. The other half was fluff, or missing altogether. The references lay in shambles – who was in charge of them? Nobody knew. Desperate, you pulled an all-nighter to compensate. Then again, when was the last time you didn’t pull an all-nighter to deal with such events? It’s the rule, not the exception. Last on the list to deal with was the implicit question written on your professor’s face, even as he commended your group for the effort: is this the best you can do?

Is it?

You remember the names and faces of every ex-groupmate who failed you. You remember how you swore that you’d never collaborate with them again (yet at the same time taking care not to actually burn bridges, because god knows it’s better to retain undesired connections than have none at all, right?). You remember parting with the others for the last time, smiling at each other and waving goodbye, in a coordinated farewell, to your grades.

You snap back to reality at the end of your extended montage. The lingering discomfort unsettles you, and you are eager to rationalise it away. Ah, but this module looks so interesting, though. Surely it would be a waste to let it go just because of a few bad experiences in the past. Besides, group work is merely part and parcel of university life. Like it or not, you have to overcome it. That’s what your professor would say. You talk yourself into a state of ease.

That’s right. Everything will work out.

Maybe this time it will be different.

*

Now I am not saying group work is inherently problematic (though it is a tempting conclusion, given what I’ve experienced). We can’t do great things without collaborative efforts, unfortunately. Only together can we can do so much. The trade-off is that as the group size increases, the individual effort decreases. Obligatory trivia time: the social loafing effect is studied in social psychology. There’s a whole journal article with a title that begins with “I hate group work!” here.

I digress.

What baffles me is the complacency that some students shrug at their core modules with, or their education in general. It might be understandable if we’re looking at a pass/fail subject or you plan to S/U it. (Since we’re on the topic of pass/fail modules: just this semester, I was in a 7-man group. We had to deliver a 5000-word report for a graded elective. 3 of my groupmates, who were taking the module as a pass/fail subject, disappeared into thin air and only magically reappeared on the submission deadline to enter their matriculation numbers on the first page of the report. I’m not kidding. One out of the three contributed a total of 150 words, and I deleted it all because it was irrelevant, had no theoretical or empirical basis, and just because. We got an A for the report. Yes, we pulled an all-nighter.)

Back to the topic, your core modules are directly linked to the credentials you’re going to enter the future with. Fine, perhaps you’re not motivated and you’re here just to get your degree because your parents threatened to disown you or something to that effect if you didn’t follow their wishes. It is unfortunate, but you can at least try to make something of it. Sorry, but ‘not giving a rat’s ass about my studies’ is a badge of honour in nobody’s book.

Also, is it not basic decency to at least put in some effort when you see your teammates trying to do their best? Is it not? Tell me if it isn’t so. Delivering slipshod work is telling of an abysmal work ethic and betrays a lack of respect you possess for your teammates. It’s worse if you call them friends. Your friends may close one eye in the beginning, but even they will end up resenting you when you are consistently taking them for granted. See: you might not owe anyone anything, but it is nobody’s obligation to coddle you either. If you think that you will be able to get by easily because you’re comfortably nestled in a team of people who you think will carry you all the time, you are jolly well wrong. I have seen this happen with my own eyes.

It’s not a matter of ability. We are all in university. We have established that we possess a basic level of competence, such that the institution has been convinced to invest its resources towards each and every one of us, to develop us into productive members of society. The spot that you hold as a student here is a opportunity cost that the school undertook for you at the expense of someone else who received a rejection notice. Whether you like that fact or not, it is true. Incompetency is not an adequate excuse, and it shouldn’t be a problem that the people around you have to deal with. Even if you are bad at what you do, it is your responsibility to work on improving yourself. Does this even need to be said? Or are expecting others to inform you and carry you?

I’m not saying good results are always achievable. Some subjects may challenge us more than others and it’s unrealistic to expect one to perform excellently all the time. There are instances where I was out of my depth, and I was not useful. What I am asking for is simply effort and initiative. And it’s not that hard to tell if one has it or is just pretending. Missing a meeting once in a blue moon is understandable, not when you miss three in a row because you had inexplicable ‘personal reasons’ or worse, no reason at all. If you genuinely had issues, you could at least briefly discuss it with another person in the group so the rest can make the accommodations to cover for you. That’s basic respect. Nobody will blame you for circumstances beyond your control. That’s just an asshole move. But we will blame if you just can’t be bothered. It is disgraceful.

I’m no saint myself. I have done my share of social loafing before, though I should mention not often (? maybe others think otherwise?) – and virtually never for my degree’s subjects. I can’t afford that, and I can’t imagine who would think they could afford to. If I take an elective that I plan to S/U, I go out of my way to look for modules that don’t have group work components so I don’t implicate others with my lack of effort. Too bad the thought isn’t reciprocated, it seems. I know there are at least a few people who wouldn’t enjoy working with me. But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t tired of carrying people who take me for granted all the time. We are not here to cover your asses, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

I don’t know if this post comes off as elitist or entitled. I’ll admit that studying (and working on group projects) comes easily to me because I possess privileges that enable me to focus on my academics without having to be worried by other things. Not everyone has that privilege. Yet I’ve met people who have fought against the odds and made it. They, unsurprisingly, seem to think like me. Still, I may have made a few implicit/overly idealistic assumptions, so feel free to check me on those. Also note that this post is not directed at anyone in particular, but if the shoe fits…?

I have my flaws too, mainly for being uncompromising and pushy. And arrogant, possibly. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Case in point: I repeatedly requested, almost begged (except that I would never, because i’m too egoistic), an ex-teammate to use a script that I wrote for her for a presentation. Why? Because she didn’t write her own, which was because I did most of her slides for her, which was in turn because she didn’t have a good grasp of the article we were assigned to analyse. She refused to use a script at all, because she – I paraphrase – ‘didn’t do scripts’. She panicked during the presentation, overran her allocated time, and because I was after her, I had to shorten mine. We don’t acknowledge each other now.

But in the end, that’s just part and parcel of things, huh?

– This post is dedicated to all my teammates, past and present, who managed to put up with me… and who put in effort, of course 🙂

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