Friday, June 6, 2014

Theory 45: Group work is funky.

Forty may be the perfect age, but College at age 40 is kicking my rear end. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago in Theory 43: A working mother can only do so much, taking nine credit hours is tough at my age with my job and family responsibilities. But, now that I've met my teachers and I've sat through student presentations on Realism, Idealism, Confucius, Plato, and Socrates, I've had my own philosophical epiphany to which many of you will relate: Theory 45: Group work is funky.

Let me clarify a bit. Group work is funky in SCHOOL.

Group work is natural and normal at, now this is crazy, ya’ll, WORK.

My first bad experience with group work (that I can remember) occurred my senior year at The University of Tennessee. A finance professor had the genius (eerily Common-Core-ish) idea to have us collaborate with art and architecture students on a massive, semester-long project. Basically, we were forced to work together on a pretend building development. The architecture students designed and constructed the buildings. The finance majors financed the thing. Ugh. My group consisted of three: Roommate and I covered financial interests and CAD (Covert Architecture Dude) took care of the building stuff. I tag him Covert because we could never find him.  What was that professor thinking? There were no cell phones back then. Email was new. My communications professor gave us extra credit if we sent him an email, for Heaven’s sake. Computers? Excel and Word were a junior level university course! In other words, that group project was completely inconvenient, over my head academically, frustrating, and socially awkward.  The roommate dynamic is challenging enough, why add schoolwork to the list of potential fight stimulants? Maybe we chose that. I can’t remember. CAD was a problem. He was an old man. Well, to Roomate and me, anyway. CAD was 25. Even weirder, he and his wife (gross) had a newborn baby. I don’t remember what it was; I just remember thinking that being married in college would suck, and being married with a baby would double-suck. Another Theory perhaps? When one of my college buddies would whine about stressful coursework or being broke or whatever, I’d always try to cheer them up by saying, “Things could be worse, you know. You could be living in married student housing.” That always put things in perspective. 

Also, we could have had/could have this as a classroom:

Little Greenbrier School in The Great Smoky Mountains

I don't know how those teachers and students coped with the weather and conditions, but that is one spectacular setting in which to learn.

Anyway, Roommate, CAD, and I struggled through that project, but not without injury. I learned that the hardest part of group work is not the workness, it’s the groupness. That was the ONLY time in college that I visited a professor in his office hours. Pooh had passed away. Delicious and I were flat broke. I figured out a way to graduate a semester early, which would save Delicious (a public school teacher and 49 year old widow at that time) an important amount of money. I’d also already gotten a job to start in January (which again would help my sweet, grieving, financially strained mama). We couldn't seem to get the project together and Roomate and I didn't really understand our part. I was scared, so, I saw the professor. I explained to him that the project was wearing me out and that I was truly worried it would keep me from passing and graduating. He said one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard a teacher say. Ever. He said, quite fatherly, “I don’t fail seniors.” Whew!

People. People make work hard. People also have the power to make work happy.

By comparison, group work at work makes perfect sense. I just wrapped up a lengthy project called “End of Course Testing” with an awesome group of women. Red Hot Back Space (my teaching colleague with whom I co-plan, co-lunch, co-llaborate, and co-harass cute male teachers), Digits (our school attendance secretary who just happens to bring an accounting degree, a seemingly photographic memory, an awesome play list, and a giant bag of candy with her, and Ticonderoga (the fabulously gifted guidance counselor who can count fast, coax co-workers, and calm a frantic ADHD tech teacher like me with one sentence or, better yet, one funny story).  That group project was one of the most complicated, logistically difficult, and high-stakes nerve-wracking I’d ever attempted, but those ladies made it fun, FUNNY, and an overall positive experience. In the end, end-of-course testing went smoothly. I did gain three pounds, though, because Ticonderoga brought cakes and cobblers every day. That reminds me of another little group that always seems to appear together: women, stress, & carbohydrates.

Someone was anxious about the tests.

So, like I said, I’m slammed this summer with coursework and, yuck, group projects. On grad school registration night, I sat with Cool Country Ginger and our exceptionally attractive 8th grade math teacher. Let’s call him Hot Math. Someone should send his Olan Mills school picture to the Ford Modeling Agency. Anyway, the moment I sat down, Cool Country Ginger whispered, “Hot Math and I are scoping out potential people we DO want or DO NOT want to work with on group projects. We don't want to get stuck with any weirdos.”

Freshman Humor

This stuff can get funky, so I have a few coping mechanisms. I either take what/who is left, or, if I have the energy, follow my personal 5 STEP Group Work Survival System:

STEP 1. Identify the people who live the farthest away so it just doesn’t make sense to meet in person.

STEP 2. Identify the person who brought a laptop to registration or the first class so he/she will likely do the technology stuff. You see, the person who puts all the PowerPoint slides together is kind of like the person who allows the baby or bridal shower to be at her house. She is an equal group member, but will do more work because you’re using her turf. I’ve also noted that MAC users are really excited about their equipment. Kind of like breast feeders. They are super eager and want you to know how awesome Macs and breast milk are, so milk it. Ha!

STEP 3. Once the group is assembled, I try to take the lead. Yes, that means more responsibility, but it also means I’m the delegate-or, not the delegate-ee.

STEP 4. This one is the most important ya’ll. I flubbed the dub on Step 4 back in college with Roommate and CAD. I know better now. Step 4 is a step I TRY to take every day in every group project. Step 4 is “Let the other members be right, even when they are wrong.” Only children can struggle with this one. I have. I am learning. I like to go on and let other folks think they are right, even when it’s obvious to me that they are wrong, because, well, because, sometimes they are RIGHT. Ha!

STEP 5. Drop the ego. Bring the snacks.

Wait a minute. Chocolate?

At this point, I’d like to give a shout-out to my LMU Post-Bacc Realism Project Group from 2009/2010. We had the perfect mix of personalities.
  • Me, Bug: I was the interpersonal glue; I injected humor at will to bond our unit. I was also creative.
  • County Boy: We grew up together. We had good history, so he trusted me. He trusted me enough that he let us put him in a fake Cialis commercial to represent Realism.
  • My dear colleague, let’s call her “Tech Savvy” because she is gifted at manipulating software and Savvy because she masterfully directed a diverse mix individuals to complete a first-class group project final product that is used as an example for master’s level students. You can see us on the big screen, ya’ll, well, the big projection screen, at the LMU Cedar Bluff Campus, Room 115. I’d be honored to work with Tech Savvy on any project.
  • Good Sports (2 guys). These two were normal men who had great senses of humor and did what Tech Savvy and I told them. Usually on time, too! Nice.
I was later blessed to work with my now dear friend “Mother Of The Year Every Year” (MOTYEY for short). She is so stinking smart and an incredibly good mama to four children. She knows all about group dynamics. And literature. And grading papers. And the Bible. And coffee. And allergies. When I get stressed, I think I’ll just put life in perspective by whispering, MOTYEY .

~ ~ ~

Readers, I want to know your group project horror or funny stories! Email me at, comment below the post, or message me on Facebook.

If you are in the Knoxville/Lenoir City area this weekend, stop by the Lenoir City Arts and Crafts Festival. I'll be meeting readers and signing and selling books with fellow members of the Authors Guild of Tennessee. We'll also participate in storytelling (near the main performance stage). My time is 1:30 Saturday. Go to my events page on for more info.

Otherwise, I’ll see you next post – likely on June 20. Until then, think outside the barn!

Also, visit or my website to read about my book, The Eye of Adoption, my short story, Field Day, and my collection of essays for parents and teachers, Parents, Stop and Think.

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Just thinking outside the barn...

Just thinking outside the barn...