I thoroughly enjoyed the individualistic meritocracy of school, with the minor exception of when it was interrupted by the dreaded group project. Socially awkward since birth, I complained about each and every one of them, and I always heard the same reasoning: Learning to work with others helps prepare students for the “real world,” where idiot collaboration is inevitable. While the bit about dealing with other people is unfortunately true, I think, like most of my liberal arts education, group projects fell short in preparing me for Corporate America—or at least the very bottom rungs with which I'm familiar.
First of all, they had due dates. Conditioned by 16 years of schooling, when I first entered the workforce, looming deadlines filled me with a familiar sense of anxiety. When I stayed late to finish my part or feverishly called MIA co-workers to check on the status of theirs, however, I became increasingly frustrated. It took me a while, but I came to realize that, like almost everything else in Corporate America, deadlines are merely suggestions. Consequently, projects don’t “end” so much as “evolve,” allowing for levels upon levels upon loops of feedback, suggestions, comments, reviews and approvals. In addition to incorporating everyone’s “two cents” (in hopes of creating a mosaic of currency that might be worth something somewhere), this method has the added benefit of spreading responsibility so thinly that no one is left red-handed when someone inevitably drops the ball.
And secondly, we were given a grade. Sigh… I miss getting papers back from the teacher… the anticipation, the validation; that was the life. After graduation, however, I soon learned the best I could hope for is an e-mail response that goes something like: “Looks great. Sending on to Idiot McMoron and Nitpicky Von Controlling—will forward their feedback.” And for my sanity’s sake, I’ve had to stop equating “Thanks, but we’ve decided to go in a different direction” with a big fat F (suppose I'll save that designation for Fired). Actually, I'm encouraged when I get any response—sometimes projects simply disappear into the black Outlook hole of minimized archive folders, forgotten or killed, never to be heard from again. I was a little excited for my first “professional” review because I heard it incorporated an actual grading system. I was quickly brought down to earth, however, when my supervisor sheepishly flew through my evaluation and explained that HR instructed managers not to give perfect scores, and that pretty much everyone was getting a standard minuscule percent raise.
I’m trying to think how group projects could have been structured to better prepare me to not want to drive myself off the road ahead… Perhaps instead of rewarding students with praise and encouragement, teachers should give everyone Cs, blame the economy and then take credit for all their work.