I remember when I was an undergraduate an instructor told me that democracy is like building a house where every nail has a say in how affairs should be conducted. Truly challenging group projects, unlike what detractors suggest, are the lifeblood of the democratic processes that institutions of higher learning are supposed to expose students to. In fact, collective action is the single hardest thing to accomplish, and, in a quasi-democracy like ours in the U.S., group projects, at the collegiate level, could foster the traits we expect younger students to have going into the political realm.
The problem that I often face with challenging group projects comes from the resistance by faculty members and students. Faculty members see such endeavors as extra work. They also see it as a lazier way of teaching, oddly enough. Students, on the other hand, see group projects in a rather problematic light: few people actually contribute, it’s a waste of time, and, for some working-class students, it is an undue burden placed on the shoulders of students, who have full-time work outside of school.
Mybrother, a working-class student, apprised me of the last point I just made in the above paragraph. He suggested that “group projects showed that instructors never left the academy, never had a real job in their lives, and never had real lives.” This stung when I heard this criticism. However, I have found that these critiques, although justified to a certain extent, aren’t offering a fair assessment of group projects, especially at the collegiate level.
Group projects are fundamental to the learning processes. In fact, much of the lists highlighting what students will need to master often include, and rightfully so, the ability to communicate and work with others. In other words, collaborative enterprises are, according to many workforce experts, the lifeblood of the twenty-first-century workplace. To deny students the opportunity to work together, in a collaborative and constructive environment, would be a true crime.
Inmy English composition courses, I develop group projects that encourage students to want to work together. In my Composition I classes, students are brought together to build an imaginary world or universe — anything goes. Group members are responsible for contributing their own pieces to the group’s overall project. By semester’s end, students must showcase their work to their peers. Doing so ensures they are held to some creative standard that prevents half-assed work from making an appearance. My Composition II classes push students further, and I have them create tabletop games. These tabletop games go through a series of processes until they reach a point in which they can be showcased to the public. The public, with the help of paper tickets, vote on their favorite games. The idea behind this is to encourage students to work together and put forth their best efforts. By the end of the semester, students have a finished product, something they can take to the marketplace, if they so wish.
When I first started exploring group projects, I was told that I was wasting my time. Some fellow faculty members suggested that my students weren’t ready for such endeavors. Others suggested that group projects had no place in academia. Further, others offered that group projects also succumbed to the issue of free-riding, where one or two members do a majority of the work on the project.
Although I understand the complaints when it comes to assigning group work, I have found that group work is an important part of the learning journey in the twenty-first-century. Group work, collaborative work, is important because it apprised students of the difficulties of collective action, compromise, and interpersonal communication. In other words, if we want our so-called democracy to live up to its name, we need to assign more group work. We need to encourage, hell, force, students to come together and make something, something that they can be proud of. In the process of doing this, students will learn valuable skills and gain experiences that will help them navigate the socio-political life outside of our institutions’ four walls.