One reason I have the best friends an academic could ask for is that they often give me fantastic reading suggestions. Two of my friends have given me great advice on what manga to read,* another has suggested some wonderful books on literary and cultural theory, and a third has excellent taste in contemporary fiction. One friend in particular is perhaps the most emphatic recommender I have ever met. Last year at the MLA, she literally started putting books into my hands, commanding me to buy them. No kidding, it was hilarious. I was holding some half dozen books, and here she is adding to my pile, demanding that I buy All The Books and rush home to read them. One of her most charming traits is her absolute enthusiasm for what she loves…and her refusal to let me leave the book room at the MLA without pulling out my credit card and buying those books. All of them.** I’ve read some of them – such as Tobin Siebers’ brilliant Disability Aesthetics – but others are still waiting. But I tell this story because earlier tonight I finished a book she recommended to me some time ago (perhaps years): Merry White’s The Japanese Educational Challenge.
As a teacher, I try now and again to read books about teaching or the profession in general, especially books about the college classroom and how I might improve what I do. But that’s not exactly why I read this book. One reason I read it is because of my friend’s insistence. But more importantly, I read it because of my commitment to expanding what I know about my profession. This book, however, isn’t about the college classroom, nor is it about how to do things better. Rather, it’s a detailed study of a system fundamentally different from the one I know, a system that operates from different assumptions about parenting, socialization, and education than what I grew up with, teach in, and prepare my own students for.*** And while reading this book, I certainly kept a mental list of things I wish we could adopt from the Japanese system, even as the author made clear that simply picking individual items out of a complex system with a vastly different genesis from our own could be problematic. But I think what I most got out of this book was a reminder of something I do poorly, something I’ve always done poorly as a teacher, that the Japanese system would seem (based on this study) to have done well.
I’m talking about group work.
I suck at assigning group work. I have tried it on a number of occasions – from peer review groups in Freshman Writing courses to group projects in a graduate seminar – and every time I know that I fail my students. When the groups do something spectacular, I know they do it in spite of my efforts. And when they fail, I know that I failed them far more than they failed me. And given this, I have eliminated any group work from my classes. One reason I suck at assigning group work is the fact that I suck at participating in group work. Or at least, I suck at unstructured group work.
You see, I prefer baseball to basketball.**** Baseball makes sense to me. On the field, the team works as a larger group in order to (defensively, anyway) keep their opponents from scoring runs. Every player on the field has a clearly-defined role in the larger system and, while they all work together toward a goal, everyone pretty much sticks to their roles. One person pitches the ball; one catches for him. Infielders are assigned bases; outfielders have a patch of territory to cover (and there are rules in place to clarify who has priority where those zones meet). There’s order and reason; and when the ball is put into play, it’s often very clear how the team will react. By contrast, while I know that there must be some reason and order to basketball, it always looks to me like five people are randomly opposing five other people. They don’t cover the same people, or in the same spots, or for the same reasons. No matter how many games I watch, no matter how many times I look up the difference between a point guard and a shooting guard on wikipedia, I can’t figure out just how they manage to work together as a team in the way baseball players do. It’s like group work. I have seen successful group work, and I know it can be done, I just can’t ever figure it out. And when I try – even with the help of smart, well-meaning people – I can’t ever get it to work right. And while I played baseball, basketbal, soccer, and even floor hockey as a child, the only team sport that made sense to me as a player was baseball (and softball).*****
Anyway, this leads me back to White’s book. White demonstrates why – given the various differences and emphases at home and at school – Japanese children are able to work successfully in groups, and why so many of them both desire and thrive in such a system. She opposes this to American home and educational life, with its focus on individual achievement and competition. And while I don’t want to burden this post with all the details (which you can certainly read on your own, and I encourage you to do so), I do want to note that one reason why I suck at group work is because I never learned how to do it well, nor why it was important. I was always taught – at home and at school – that my educational career was my own, and that my successes (and failures) were my own. And this is a lesson I have passed on to all of my students, in my 15 years of teaching at the college level. And while this is a valuable and important lesson for students to learn, I sometimes can’t help but wonder if I would better serve my students by being more attentive to how they can work together, and by being better at facilitating group work. I know that I try to foster a sense of group identity in my classes, but rarely am I successful. I may think of my class as a unit, but I suspect that they all see themselves as individuals inhabiting the same space for a fixed period of time every week. And every assignment – and grade – that I give them only confirms this for them.
So this is my challenge, one I’ve taken up many times in the past: to try and do a better job of encouraging productive group work. And it has to be productive, because I have seen – and employed – too many examples of shitty group work in the past. Yes, peer review in writing classes can be helpful, but done poorly it can also be a complete waste of time. (And at its worst, it is used as a break for the teacher, as a chance to burn minutes off the clock by casting off responsibility in the name of student-centered pedagogy.) Group projects can pull from the strengths of the individuals in order to create something greater than the sum of their parts, but done poorly group projects can also lead to one person doing all the work while the others contribute (and likely learn) nothing.
Oh, and I should note, I have absolutely no idea how I might do this. I’m not ending this post with some great insight about how I can improve (because I have no idea). That, in the end, is not the point. Sure, I will continue to think about my craft and learn from others, but that’s not the point of this post.
So what is the point of this post? That what we know – about anything – is such a small piece of the much, much large puzzle. That how we do things – no matter how successfully – is only one way of doing things. And that when we have the chance to learn something new, read a book that promises to challenge what we know, we should take it. And in that vein, I promise to start badgering some of my friends to write guest posts for this blog. If only because I know they will provide a different take, and I want to see what that is.******
*Do yourself a favor and read Yotsuba! Trust me on this. If you stopped reading my post right now to go read Yotsuba!, I would understand. Seriously, go here: http://koiwai.biz/
**I spent nearly $100 on the books she recommended for me (in addition to the money I had spent on other books, many books). And I don’t regret a single penny of it. If the MLA book room issued gift cards, and somehow I had one, I’d probably ask her to spend it for me. I have no doubt she’d come back with the awesomest stuff at the conference.
***Many of my students are Education majors.
****Bear with me. It will make sense.
*****As any graduate student from UConn between 2000-2006 will tell you, I am not a very good softball player. I was a thoroughly sub-par player with random and unpredictable bursts of mediocrity. But I understood the game and, more importantly, I could perform as part of a team given a well-defined role.
******Some of you know who you are. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.