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‘Cat in the Stacks: The Dreaded Group Work


 I’m Michelle Callaghan, a first-year graduate student at Villanova University. This is our new column, “‘Cat in the Stacks.” I’m the ‘cat. Falvey Memorial Library is the stacks. I’ll be posting about living that scholarly life, from research to study habits to embracing your inner-geek, and how the library community might aid you in all of it.

Disclaimer: I don’t claim any authority on advice-giving, that is for absolute sure. So I’m not going to make a list of dos and don’ts or anything, but I certainly think this is a topic worth exploring, since it’s a skill I’d hazard to guess everyone struggles with from cradle to grave—and I’m one of them. So if you’ll stick with me, I’m going to spitball a bit.

How do we work effectively with other people?

And by “effectively,” I don’t mean how to be nice to people and how to split a workload, although that is certainly a part of how to work in a group. But more importantly, I want to consider how we can rethink our collaborative selves to really, really come up with something new and innovative and truly produce a great group project. How can we turn collaboration from an office or classroom buzzword into an actually useful experience? How can we collaborate in a way that isn’t just a more time-consuming process resulting in the same results as individual effort, but instead produces wildly new ideas—and helps us grow as people in the meantime?

First off, I just used the phrase “collaborative selves” without really knowing what that means, and maybe figuring that out is the first thing to do. Perhaps this collaborative version of your intellectual self has all of your ideas, skills, and worldviews, but instead of erupting with actionable thoughts, this self prefers to simmer. Let’s call this collaborative self Sam.

Sam has nothing to prove. Sam has no explosive desire to speak before listening. When Sam enters situations of collaboration, Sam has a modular list of ideas but is married to none of them. Sam, instead of listening for a moment to shoehorn a preconceived direction for the conversation, is listening and actually digesting another person’s thoughts. More than likely, this listening will result in a shiny, new and relevant idea that never would have existed before the collaboration.

Leaving control on the doorstep can be a sort of wobbly, untethered experience at times, but other people really do have great ideas. I had a fantastic collaborative experience in a class the other day with a student I’d hitherto never met. The close reading assignment was impromptu. We’d made a silent but apparently simultaneous agreement to step into the analysis of the text calmly and methodically, and since neither of us were eager to hear our own voices, we read, chatted, read some more, chatted some more, and eventually came up with a really strong response to the text that neither of us had considered on our own.

Apart from this nebulous and kooky idea of a separate collaborative self, a few concrete ideas can improve collaboration: try not to divide tasks, like splitting up paragraphs of a reading to explain to each other—that’s pretty much just recreating individual work. Silence, no matter how scary, doesn’t need to be filled (I’m terrible at this). Slow down and open your ears, and maybe open your heart, too. Collaboration is as much about a final product as it is about working with other human brains, and how cool is it that we can connect with other people’s brains?

Article by Michelle Callaghan, graduate assistant on the Communication and Service Promotion team. She is currently pursuing her MA in English at Villanova University.



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Last Modified: January 29, 2015

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