Works Well With Others

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March 7, 2013 by John Douglas Belshaw

The chance to work with peers is an important part of post-secondary education. Used to be it wasn’t, because a higher premium was placed on initiative, independent thought, and individualism.

It may seem difficult to believe, but there was a point when there was no higher praise than to describe a student as ‘aggressive.’  To be ‘passive’ in discussion (alias: debate) was a bad thing.  I can recall being described as ‘bulldoggish’ in seminars, meaning that I could not be drawn off of the key point by some lightweight tangent and, yes, I thought that made me, well, awesome.  Trust me on this: it’s a personality feature that does not age well.

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To be fair, I came by it honestly. Canadian professors as a whole placed a value on bulldoggishness. In fact, while I was studying abroad I found it easy to pick out the Canucks from the American and the British students within seconds of a discussion getting underway.  The Americans tended to value each opinion equally and consequently seemed incapable of staying on-topic. For their part, the British students were deferential (as long as they were within earshot of the prof).  The Hosers were distinctly different from both of these. Their rhetorical style may be summed up in one word: deathgrip. Except that might actually be two words but it looks better as one.  Okay, then maybe this: lockjaw.

Then, in the early 1980s I think, ‘aggressive’ ceased to be a compliment.  I suspect, though I have no proof, that its stock fell in academe because a new generation of politicians were aggressive enough for everyone, thank you very much.  Aggressive (à la Margaret Thatcher, the Moral Majority, the Militant Left, Israel, the PLO, the IRA, etc.) became just-plain-mean.  Civility in debate became more highly valued and then, at some point in the evolution of the PSE sector, someone noticed that our students could learn a thing or two through collaboration.

[Historical footnote time: in some parts of the world “collaborationist” is still a label for cowardice, treachery, and moral anemia. I don’t want to name names but Vichy France, Greece, Norway.]

Suddenly group projects were all the rage and getting students to learn through teaching one another took off. The obvious response to this trend is that in seminars where discussion and debate are encouraged … that is working with others. Respectfully, intelligently, etc.  But then consensus-building emerged as a privileged skill; mopping the floor with classmates fell into disrepute. Frankly, I can’t decide which I like less: fractious poseurs or jelly-kneed collaborators (naming names: Phillipe Petain, Georgios Tsolakoglou, Vidkun Quisling).

The point, however, is that the ability to self-start is not an old-fashioned skill that we ought to eschew, nor is group work without its merits – neither is it a panacea. Group work opportunities arise in many settings and it is easy to imagine Online Ed environments in which they might thrive.

Of course, the chance to work in groups – to be socially adept and respectful, to become a good listener and a genuine peer – occurs in abundance.  Join a community organization, volunteer, raise funds for a playground. You’ll learn more about collaboration there than ever you will in university. And when you’ve got a project to sink your teeth into, there’s still a role for the bulldoggish Canadian.

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