Tales from the Writing Center: The Engineering Group Project

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

Remember group projects? Yeah, I hated them too. If you are a regular reader of this blog, I am just guessing that you were probably the kid that wound up doing all the work, because everyone else was perfectly willing to allow that to happen and let’s face it, you’re a bit of a control freak. I get that–particularly for engineering and business majors, who are about to enter a workforce in which teamwork is sort of the norm–doing group projects is an important educational experience. To me, it seems like part of the educational experience is figuring out whether you are going to be one of the high functioning employees who routinely covers for your co-workers or one of the sponges. The best group project designs that I have seen have the work already pre-apportioned in some way (Person A does B, Person B does C, etc.) or contain some kind of mechanism for peer evaluation, but those are kind of rare.

You can tell that a group project has been well-designed when the entire group shows up in the writing center at once to talk about their work in a holistic fashion. Less encouraging is when each student comes in separately to have their pieces of the project checked–so you can’t really address continuity or flow. But at least everyone seems to be more or less doing their share. No, the real bummer is when one student is appointed as the “writer/editor” of the group (read: the one who does the majority of the work) and is therefore responsible for having the entire project “checked” (read: copyedited) by the writing center. In cases where students have divvied up sections and paragraphs, I tell The Editor that I will just go over her sections, since I’m really only supposed to address the work of the person in front of me, but it’s truly sad when The Editor can’t really tell me what’s his and what’s everyone else’s, because it’s sort of clear that everyone else decided they were “big picture” people or just did tables or something and let this kid do, you know, most of the project.

I suppose this isn’t a nightmare tutorial situation so much as it is a situation that always gives me sympathy shudders in solidarity with the go-getter in question. However, it also gives me pause to consider the status of writing in the egghead professions, those to which the self-labelled “bad writers” tend to gravitate because it seems unlikely that they will have to deal with comma splices and metaphors in those fields. They aren’t lazy, not by any stretch of the imagination(I know how hard it is to get into business or engineering at my university), they are just occasionally writing-phobic just as many humanities grad students I know get heart palpitations during tax time (despite the fact that most of us qualify for the 1040-EZ form), because MATH.  This is where I think our cultural tendency to separate the humanities and language arts into one category and the “hard sciences” into another does a serious disservice to our students. I know many middle aged adults who went into engineering or medicine or computer science because they hated English class only to find out that a good portion of their job consists of writing reports or articles. As one chemical engineer recently said to me, “Given what I do all day, I might as well have been an English major.” That’s not to say that we should be funneling all budding biochemists into English classes, just that in terms of “real skills” that have immediate application to on-the-job situations, writing is way up there on the list of “stuff I ought to be pretty comfortable with before I enter the work-force.” One of the reasons I think that one student winds up in front of me in the writing center, having been delegated total responsibility for writing up the project is because the other four have self-selected into the category of “was terrible at writing in high school and am not comfortable with this stuff.” But I’m generalizing pretty ferociously here, so perhaps that’s not most people’s experience. I just feel a bit bad for the kid that gets stuck with all of that work because he supposedly has a “natural gift” for it.

6 thoughts on “Tales from the Writing Center: The Engineering Group Project

  1. This is sort of a tangent to group projects, but I don’t think that groups for school assignments give the right kind of preparation for the “real world”. I have a degree in engineering and I’ve had plenty of group projects and group problems.

    There are two main issues that come up often. First, everyone in the group has basically the same skill set, at least in the area of that particular class. The group members don’t really compliment each other and there’s a lot of redundancy. In the real world, there are clear roles for each member to play, depending on their area of study, previous experience, etc. So the different team members each bring something extra to the table.

    The second problem is authority. In a class setting, all the group members have had approximately the same education, so there aren’t really “experts”. In cases where someone is factually wrong, it’s harder to convince them that they are wrong without any authority to back it up. I had a classmate in my senior year chemistry class who adamantly insisted that mass chemical equations are identical to molar chemical equations. She would not listen to any of the group members, and only changed her stance when our adviser told her that she was wrong. This was one of many factual mistakes she made, and she wouldn’t believe us until a professor agreed with us. Of course we can’t run to a teacher with every minor dispute so we ended up just re-doing everything after she left and turning it in before she had a chance to argue about it. But in the real world, other people respect my expertise in chemistry or engineering, just as I respect their expertise in other fields. I don’t expect them to treat all my words as gospel, but they tend to be willing to at least consider that they might be wrong about something.

  2. The division we place on students between the ‘hard sciences’ and the ‘humanities’ is dangerous; it creates a divide that can’t hold up in the real world.

    No, the real bummer is when one student is appointed as the “writer/editor” of the group

    That was me. I was a double humanities major in college, and most of the classes I took were usually filled with people by that major, and I still did most – if not all – the work, whether as the main writer and/or researcher. And I don’t think it was just writing-phobia (my two majors lived on essays), and I don’t think it can all be blamed on other people being lazy, or thinking they could piggy-back off of my good student work ethic, or because they thought when I took charge I wanted to do it all (especially when we broke it up on assignments and they just didn’t do their part). I’m not sure what it was, except maybe bad luck. I know group projects are important in the real world, but in school all they gave me was extra work, when I was already taking extra classes.

  3. I said I was getting off the computer, but I wanted to add to the chorus of hating on group projects. They do not simulate “the way you’ll work the rest of your life” because in the working world, someone can get fired. It always felt to me that the instructor was off-loading the work of interacting with the slackers on to the shoulders of the students who were engaged. This burden then makes those students question whether or not they’re stupid for being engaged as well as resentful of the responsibility.

    I truly, truly loathe them.

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