Thursday, June 2, 2011

Back aboard

Few of us have managed to keep actively swashbuckling this year, but in true Bookaneers fashion I’m feeling a burgeoning in my desire to post something, and in my stock of discussion topics. I promise I’ll try to keep it vaguely focused and under control (in order to spare you, dear readers, I’ve relegated some of what I feel the need to say right now to comments on previous posts).

First off, though, let my fond hope be known: that this blog will prove a gathering place for bright minds and scintillating discussion (and perhaps even idling) as we—well, most of us—move on from library school to the rest of the wide world. Let our physical dispersal only reinforce our intentionality in posting!


That said, I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on my experiences with the group work aspect of library school. In a conversation with a professor last night I mentioned that it’s only in the past two years, through having to write papers cooperatively, that I really feel I’ve learned how to write. He expressed surprise and mentioned that this isn’t a perspective he often hears. And it got me thinking—do we not discuss the beneficial aspects of group work because they're few and far between, or because group projects are just one of those things we’re used to complaining about, perhaps using to commiserate?

When I say I learned to write, of course, I don’t mean how to string a sentence or some thoughts together, but how to approach writing—how to respect and give myself enough time to work through the process. I’m sure that part of this has to do with observing other work styles up close and seeing where they are more (or less) effective than my own; and that part of it is the inevitable result of continuing to write, get feedback, adjust, repeat. But I don’t think this shift would have happened as quickly or enjoyably were it not for a few specific projects during which I was finally able to experience the ideal goal of group work: dividing responsibility and feeling confident your colleagues will do their part; refining ideas together; and building upon one another’s insights to create something that none of you could have come up with on your own.

In reflecting on the power of these experiences in my own graduate school career--the affirming effect they’ve had on my feelings about my decision to enter this particular field, as well as shifting my perspective on the value and possibilities of group work in general--I’m struck by two things in particular.

The first is the centrality to this transformation of the specific people I’ve worked with; obviously this type of learning comes most easily when the group you’re paired with are effective writers, workers, and collaborators themselves, and you all have something to teach one another (and are willing to learn). The second is the contrast between the several very positive group work experiences I have had, and the (about as frequent) extremely negative and frustrating attempts at productivity in groups that did not work well together. I’m sure we’re all more than familiar with that particular story—the member who won’t pull their weight, doesn’t follow through on promises, and/or relies on the fact that someone in the group will care enough to take on more than their share if it becomes clear that’s the only way things are going to get done.

There seems to be a prevalence of group work in library masters' programs in particular, and I've often heard its use discussed with reference to the collaborative nature of the field. Given that I've been in plenty of group projects since early grades but never found this felicitous convergence of skills and personalities until now, I would love to hear what others think. Are we all just more mature and ready to work together? Or are my expectations now too idealistic, and did I just get lucky with my groupmates? (Or my cohort—there are a number of other people I could imagine being happy to work alongside). What’s been your experience with group projects? The ratio or range of bad-to-good? Are group projects a useful approach for library schools to employ? And, for those in the work world, did any of these experiences prove useful in preparing you for employment in the field?


  1. As a grateful member of many group work projects with you, Rachel, I heartily agree with your reflections. I came to UW's MLIS program after completing an MA in Literature at King's College. My graduate work in Lit. was very individual, and I was never put into a group to do any of the thinking or writing for an actual assignment. And more's the pity.

    Though we weathered a pretty horrific group in our first quarter, every subsequent group project that I worked on convinced me that there is enormous psychological and productive benefit in laboring together cooperatively.

    I value all of the silliness, and intensity of our thinking; the tools that I learned by watching you, Caroline, Freeda, Cristina, Lyndsey, Wesley, Janelle, Greta, and James work; and the important work that we produced at the end of it all. I wouldn't have learned half as much by myself as I did with all of you. Thank you my friends and colleagues.

  2. Hello! I've just graduated from an MSIS program, and had a great time but have mixed feelings about group projects.

    I have had wonderful group work experiences where everyone was prepared, responsible, and we got our work done and I didn't feel totally stressed out by the process. I have also had experiences in school where just trying to coordinate who did what parts of the assignment or research was like pulling teeth. It depends on the personalities of the people in the group, the parameters that were given to you by your professor (as those can help or hinder your work), and how well each of us works in groups.

    Sometimes the problems were caused by partners in groups that were too worried about the assignment and asked too many questions; others who kept trying to do others' work for them; not being able to contact group members; the usual complaint of some group members not contributing as much as others; and also vague and unclear expectations from faculty members. Most of my projects were completed with students who were taking classes via distance and this only compounded the problems. But I have had some group projects that went very well, and I think they can work out depending on a variety of factors. By the end of my program, I felt that groupwork was like Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans from Harry Potter: you never know what you're going to get when you reach into the bag. It could be butterbeer flavor, or it could be booger. Yuck.

    I think all of these experiences are good for our future worklife: because committee and group work there is much like what we experienced in school. Sometimes it's great, and sometimes it's not... and you have to manage the work and personalities, and get the job done well either way.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful reflection on this, Rachel. I've been thinking a bit about group work in graduate school, and I'm especially interested in the ways group work will and will not prepare me for collaborating with colleagues in my professional life.

    The work we do in grad school, though it may be designed to mimic the kinds of projects we might work on in our careers, is fundamentally different than that kind of work. In general: projects in the field most often arise out of necessity, less often interest or passion; they do not always have clear time-lines or requirements; you do not always get feedback. As someone who does fairly well in an academic environment, these are key differences between work in grad school and work in the field.

    Yet there are some important skills in common between grad school group work and collaborative work in the field, and I think it is possible to intentionally develop those skills while in school. Ability to communicate, to listen, and to empathize are all important to effective group work. This is easy when everyone on the team is motivated and shares common goals and expectations, but when that isn't the case it is difficult to effectively resolve the situation. I am naturally inclined to just do it myself when I have a non-productive group mate, but I don't think that is a good habit to develop.

    In some of my more recent group projects I've actively tried a couple of things to improve the process and the outcomes:

    - Clearly communicating goals and expectations
    - When a team mate fails to meet expectations, work with that person to improve--figure out the role that works best for that person, check in about his understanding of the tasks, work with the person, etc--don't just do it yourself
    - Continue to talk concretely about expectations (seriously--so important)

    I'm not saying that these things are always easy to do, but it has been a good experience for me to be more reflective about group work and how to improve an undesirable situation. I also think that these are the kinds of skills that will be valuable important in the workplace, when there isn't always an end to the project or a professor to act as referee.