Making Groups Work

Over the last week, my students have been making a series of unusual presentations. In my bid to:

  1. make conversation classes more interesting, and
  2. get students to think about conventional problems in unconventional ways,

… my second-most-recent homework assignment for them was to consider major potential problems like a possible influenze pandemic; global warming; peak oil; and the ecological collapse of certain areas of the world.

However, getting people to just talk about these problems rarely does any good. Young people are aware of them, are used to their existence, and seem less than appropriately concerned about them. So having students devise solutions to these problems seems, well, like boring homework. Likewise, having them just discuss these problems seems a little, well, boring.

So I thought up an interesting twist on the whole subject.

I told them, a couple of weeks ago, to turn on the nasty, evil bits of their brains that are made for corporate thinking, and try to figure out a way to make money off these problems, without having to devise solutions for these problems. “You don’t have to fix the problem!” I said, “Just find a way to make money off it.”

This is craven, of course. This is exactly what we don’t want people to do. But more importantly, this is exactly what we don’t want the public to accept. So of course, I noted how, businesses that operate this way might be the death of the planet. How it’s important to watch out for, and oppose, businesses that operate in this way. And how it’s easier to spot an irresponsible company when you know how they operate, and what their attitudes are.

Thus, the exercise is useful. Now, for their general lack of interest in the issue of, say, global warming, my students surprised me in their quite natural assumption that companies ought at least not to do further harm, and that profiting off a problem without somehow working to fix it is, well, bad.

But anyway, they came up with some great stuff to pitch to groups of imaginary investors. Canned fresh air from the Alps, fully-self-contained underwater habitats, eco-tourism (not to places with wonderful environmental conditions, but to places like Tuvalu that will soon wiped out by the rising oceans), some bizarre theme parks, and even an (epidemic-stopping) digital mosquito repellent device. The powerpoint presentations, and the verbal presentations, were mostly pretty good, and at least entertaining if not convincing. Some of the student questions that followed each presentation — pointing out design flaws, questioning specific elements of the business plans — were excellent. Like so many group projects, the whole was greater than the sum of the individual contributions.

Yet group work assignments are fraught with problems. This is true in all educational settings, but it seems especially so in Korea university settings. There are a variety of reasons why group work is even more problematic in Korean classrooms than in Western ones:

  1. Hierarchy. I’ve lost count of the number of times that students have complained about some group project that they had to complete in some other class where one of the members — often male, usually older than other members — basically contributes nothing, sometimes even declaring he doesn’t care about the grade. Other students who do care about their grade are stuck trying to make the presentation work, and they tend not to have recourse to help when a member of their group refuses to pull his weight. More often than not — though, I must emphasize, not always — the slacker is older, and male, and thus it’s much harder for his “juniors” to buck the trend, complain to the prof, or kick him out of the group. Now, this is tough for students in the West, too, but in my experience, it’s tougher here. Where the discourtesy of not participating is enough to provoke a reasonable reaction among Western students, Korean students have age-hierarchy to consider, and this in itself makes it harder for them to react in any other way than to try and cover for the slacker.
  2. The Perception of Professors’ Attitudes About the Problem: It seems to me that when I ask students complaining about this in other classes why they haven’t just complained to the prof about the lazy group member, they imply that it’s not just because the group member is (usually) older, but also because they don’t want to be tarred by association — they would prefer not to be considered people who could not make their group work. This is interesting, since for me, with my cultural background, sometimes making a group work means confronting the fact it isn’t working, working through whatever problems exist, and maybe reformulating the group. (Yes, sometimes kicking out the member who doesn’t cooperate, for example.) I’m not saying Korean professors ignore the problem, but my impression is that students believe they will blame or judge all of the members of the group when dysfunction sets in. This seems to fit with the kinds of management styles I encountered here, too, which (with notable exceptions) rely on groups to solve or ignore their personal differences and not to come bugging the manager with petty problems. (For a definition of “petty” that is much wider than would be in a Western organization, such as sexual harassment, or illegal smoking in the workplace, and so on.)

There are probably more things to consider, but these seem like the major ones.

So today, when I went to class, I found one group (minus one member) at the door, waiting for me. They informed me that one of their members had collapsed on the subway. When I asked why, and whether she was okay, they told me that she had skipped sleeping the previous two nights in order to prepare the group’s Powerpoint presentation singlehandedly, because, as a couple of them put it, “We don’t know how to use Powerpoint.”

Which got me pretty angry. I mean, I’m sorry, but Powerpoint is not very bloody hard to use. It’s not hard to learn. Anyone with the intellectual competence to get into university has the intellectual competence to teach himself or herself how to make a bloody Powerpoint slideshow in a couple of days, even if it’s not a perfect slideshow, even if it looks slightly less than professional.

Worse, this was a group that had come to me earlier with other problems: a different group member, male but not older in this case, had not shown up for — according to him, had not been informed of — three of the group’s four preparatory meetings. When he wasn’t around, they expressed considerable frustration with him. When I talked to the group today, he claimed that there had been a misunderstanding. I asked if the misunderstanding had involved him trying to reschedule the meeting to a time he could make, or him just not telling them he couldn’t come.

“He had a personal problem,” another student — who just two days before, had been outraged at the guy — said.

“Last year, I had a young woman in one of my classes whose mother died suddenly. She missed one week of classes — and wouldn’t take a second week off, even though I offered it to her — and she neither fell behind on homework or course topics, nor failed to participate in groups. So unless you’ve all had a death in the family, you’ve failed to meet my standards for having a good reason for this breakdown.”

Then I told them that they owed the young woman collapsed an apology, but also noted that she, too, seemed to be having a problem in setting boundaries regarding acceptable teamwork — that she should have had the common sense to tell other group members to get up off their butts and do their bloody share.

All in all, I told them that their interaction as a group left much to be desired, and was not acceptable from university students, some of whom are even seniors. The result was that I gave them an assignment to be complete for a week from Monday: they must get together, discuss the problems that arose in their teamwork and communications and why those problems arose, and then they must come up with some solutions as well as a game plan for working out their difficulties cooperating. Then they must collaborate on a report for me discussing their group’s problems, solutions, and observations. Once they submit that, their mess of a presentation will be forgotten and they will get credit for completing the assignment.

This, at least, will force them to be a little more self-reflexive in the way they approach group work, and force them to interact directly more. I doubt I can “teach” them much about conflict resolution, since it’s apparent they’ll probably just continue following the cultural norm — which to me seems to involve putting up with people being jerks until it reaches ridiculous proportions, because that’s better than confrontation and the fallout that may come of it — but who knows? Maybe an active analysis of group dynamics will set something niggling in their minds so when they see these dynamics again, they might try to find a way to solve the problem instead of just letting another train wreck occur.

Speaking of conflict resolution and uncomfortable confrontations, Michael of Scribblings of the Metropolitician got fingerprinted and booked because, when a drunk old Korean man started harassing him, he actually called the cops for help. Yes, that’s right: he was being harassed by a drunk; he tried to leave and was followed by the aggressive drunk; he called the cops; the cops came, brought him and the drunk to the police station; then they fingerprinted him and let the drunk walk.

The cop’s final advice?

“You should have just gone home. You shouldn’t have called us. Next time, just leave.”

What interests me about this is a point that came up when Yae Rim and I had an argument about my own anger and worry about this situation: the fact that essentially, the foreigner is supposed to run and hide in his home whenever some jerk feels like harassing someone. Even my statement of the issue is a declaration of my (and Michael’s) Western propensity to want to better the situation — to get some option made available, so that the foreigner’s freedom of movement is preserved. (Because, after all, when a Korean assaults a foreigner, the foreigner, even not fighting back, may be accused of starting the fight and of having struck back. Without witnesses, it’s widely believed that the foreigner’s testimony will be disregarded. If one cannot defend himself, and cannot call the cops for help, it means the only option is to run home from every belligerent jerk, and also to just put up with the occasional assault.)

So my mentality about the injustice of having no valid options for action — but only the freedom to put up with it — is clashing with what I perceive as a very Korean idea that this is just the way it is and there’s nothing anyone can do but just bear it and live with it and put up with it. That “bearing” something is an active verb — an action in itself.

Lime’s criticism of this idea, to be fair, is very interesting. She thinks I’m not giving Koreans enough credit. She said that socially, Korean society is actually changing: people are beginning to talk critically about things, and take problems like this seriously. She also pointed out that I don’t know enough Korean to see the wider discussions and debates that are taking place in Korean society, and that’s true — and something I am aware of.

So maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that for whatever changes that are happening here, this idea of “bearing” things does still have great currency. The notion of Han still has traction here — and is brought up explicitly in all kinds of contexts, such as, in my experience, children having their lives dominated by overbearing parents, and brides being abused by their mothers-in-law. Central to the notion of Han is the unchangeability or unredressability of the injustice being borne. I can’t see such a notion evaporating suddenly, any more than I can imagine the Western tendency to conceive things in terms of rights and freedoms evaporating as certain elements in our Western governments seem to wish they would.

Anyway, I think next semester, I’m going to have to simply devote some time — that is, practically speaking, I’m going to have to schedule some time — for studying the language, and I’m also going to have to make more of an effort to have enough leisure time to resurrect my friendships with Koreans which I have let shrivel up over the last couple of years. I’ve neglected both for too long, and to rather negative consequences. I don’t want to be bitter and isolated, and it seems to me the more I let myself overwork, the lower my quality of life and less pleasant my experience of this society becomes.

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