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A Real Leader Faces the Music, Even When She Doesn't Like the Tune
January 31, 2012 11:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm taking a graduate-level course called Leadership in Education. We are required to work in small groups of four throughout the semester to discuss the material and do group projects. I'm really excited about the class, but the other members of my group seem apathetic at best, which makes group discussion and collaboration quite difficult. Given that this is a leadership class, how should I handle this situation?

I'm working on my master's in higher education administration at a public regional college. A majority of the students currently work in student affairs, admissions or athletic departments at our university or nearby colleges and are pursuing master's degrees in order to advance their careers in these departments.

This particular course is required for our degree and the curriculum focuses on the organizational and ethical challenges of leadership. Given that this particular degree program is training us to be directors, deans and chancellors in higher-ed institutions, this is a very important class. So far, I find the material fascinating. My group members, two males, one female, do not.

I swear, it's like being in high school again. They complain about the professor's teaching, they complain about the discussion topics ("I don't even know what she means! This is so stupid!") and give elementary, surface-level answers. They pull out their iPhones and text/surf the web while I'm trying to engage and guide them in conversation related to the discussion topics. They have not read the texts required for class (one of them hasn't even bought the books yet!). They complain about the open-book, open-note multiple-choice format of our exams. One of them remarked “I suck at multiple-choice tests. I majored in sports management and we had word-bank/fill in the blank tests. I miss those.”

This is what I’m dealing with, folks.

I am frustrated because I really want to learn and participate in this class, but my group mates don't care. It's embarrassing to try to present group discussion highlights in front of the class when my group spent the last 10 minutes talking about the new elliptical machines at the gym. One of my group members has only attended one of the past three classes.

I’m dreading our upcoming take-home group exams because I know I’m going to be the one doing most of the work, just like in high school.

The seemingly easy solution would be to ask the professor if I could switch groups or if he could talk to my group members, but having worked with this particular professor before, I know that he takes a particularly hands-off laissez-faire approach to things like this and would encourage me to address the group on my own and to use this conflict as a learning experience.

The thing is, I don’t actively dislike my group members. They seem like decent people, albeit rather academically deficient. I understand that this class is not a priority to them. One of them just had a new baby and drives an hour from work to class every week. The other one has a full-time job, a part-time job, and has a 2-hour class directly after ours that lasts until 9pm. They’ve got other stuff going on. That makes me a bit more sympathetic, but I’ve got other stuff going on too. So does everyone else in the class, but every other group seems to have good participation. I look at them longingly sometimes while my group members play Angry Birds.

How can I encourage and inspire them to participate in the class without being a total bitch or a Poindexter? I have to work with these folks for the rest of this semester, plus I’m sure we’ll have classes together again, so I’d like to maintain a cordial relationship.

I’ve thought about being direct and saying, “Hey guys, I know you’ve got a lot of other stuff going on and you’re not a big fan of this class, but this is something that I’m really passionate about and I’d appreciate it if you helped me out and participated in the class”, but I think it’d backfire or just go over their heads. I really don’t know what to do. Maybe I could have a discussion with them about why they are getting their master’s degrees and help them see the importance of this class in the grand scheme of things?

I’m non-confrontational by nature, so I’m really at a loss here. Any advice?
posted by chara to Human Relations (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Talk to the instructor and get into a new group.

I will posit, though, that your classmates may be right; putting grad students in groups like they're fourth-graders? That's a bit stupid. (You've explained pretty well why that is the case.) Open-book, multiple choice exams? At the graduate level? Do you go to a Montessori University or something?

But, yeah. Just talk to the instructor. If that doesn't work out, go over her head. Maybe see about switching to another section with a more competent instructor.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:32 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've sat through classes like that (my deepest sympathies), and here's what I'd do, for what it's worth.

1) Get them to be real about the class - the class is mandatory, therefore they need to pass in order to graduate, therefore their participation and learning is also required. If they understand that there is a material benefit to them of participating, then you might have a chance of getting them at least somewhat more engaged.

2) Take the "Section Leader" approach. As a soprano, if I'm section leader, I'm responsible for making sure every other soprano in the choir knows their parts. So, start with making sure they know the surface stuff and then see if you can get them to delve deeper into the subject matter.

3) Continually tie the issues being discussed back to real life. "Hey, Harry, if this happened to you as manager of this sports facility, what would you do?"

While I agree with Sysrq that this sounds like fourth-grader work, your ultimate goal is to learn something and graduate with a good mark, right? So if the instructor doesn't look like he's going to switch you to another team, take active steps to make at least your learning experience as fruitful as possible. Then chalk it up to experience, and put it behind you.

Good luck!
posted by LN at 11:36 AM on January 31, 2012


Perhaps you can find an excuse to record the discussions?

Whether you do that or not, just honestly report how the discussion went in your presentation.

"I mentioned that this week's reading reminded me of foo from last semester. John agreed and said he'd seen a previous article on the topic that was a little clearer. Miranda says she was busy painting her toenails and has not bought the book yet, and then Steve asked her what she thinks of the new elliptical machine at their gym. I tried to bring the conversation back around by asking Miranda if she'd ever had to deal with this or foo in her experience over at BigU where she works in the athletic department. She said she hasn't yet and finds foo boring."

This kind of exposure may cause the group members to shape up. It will certainly show you as a leader who brooks no bullshit.
posted by bilabial at 11:40 AM on January 31, 2012


I guess this is one of my particular buttons, but your post just made me feel so indignant on your behalf.

I teach adults, and I have seen this behaviour at all levels and ages. Although I frequently get my students to do small-group discussion and in-class activities, I refuse to make them do formal group assignments where everyone's mark depends on the other group members' efforts. Frankly, I think it's unfair for the ones who pick up the slack to be penalized for the lazy-asses.

I think your best bet is a two-pronged approach. First, you should speak directly to your group members, maybe saying something like, "I think in order for us to be successful in this project we'll need to focus on X, Y, and Z--let's [set up a schedule for studying/discuss the topics in more depth/whatever]." You're probably right that it may not have the effect you want, but then, if that fails to motivate them, go to the next step. This involves speaking to the professor. This way, when he asks what you have done to address this issue within your group, you can tell him that you've spoken to them about it directly. Then put the ball back in his court and ask him what else he can suggest, since your efforts did not have any effect.

Even if your prof doesn't step in with your group or let you change groups, at least he'll be aware of the problem, and will (hopefully) take this into consideration when assigning grades.

Personally, if you were in my class and this was going on, I'd let you join a different group and leave your dumb-ass group members to falter and drown in their own apathy. But that's me.

Good luck--you have my sympathies!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:45 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


This really reminds me of... well, the working world. You need to be able to work with apathetic people. It's difficult, but that's life. If you want to be a leader, you should take a leadership role here. I would not approach your professor; he is not going to care.

So, yes, learn to take charge here. Don't worry about being a bitch. When they go off on a tangent, let them chat for no more than a minute or two and then say, "Hey guys, let's get back on subject. So I thought xxxx about xxxx when I read that. What did you think about that?" And just keep dragging them back to the topic at hand, over and over.

When there is a presentation or project or assignment that needs to be done, the first thing you should do is make a big effort to break out the whole thing and figure out who will do what. Write it all down and clearly label them with the names and actions and dates if possible. Then follow that up with an email to everybody so they can't pretend they didn't know. Then follow up at the next meeting. "So, let's go through our list of things and see where we are with everything."
Set up meetings later or on the weekends if you can't get enough time during class. Guess what? This is what is required of graduate-level work. I worked full time during my master's degree and had to go to weekend/late night group meetings all the time. Multiple-choice tests? No.

You should care less about whether they think you're a bitch. Who's the bitch with an A in her hand once the class is over? Yeah, you. That's right. And you could be their boss someday. Prove to your professor that you're the leader here if no one else is going to step up.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


A majority of the students currently work in student affairs, admissions or athletic departments at our university or nearby colleges and are pursuing master's degrees in order to advance their careers in these departments.

If your group members have been told by their superiors that they need a Master's degree to move up the ladder, and especially if they are receiving tuition remission, they most likely see this course (and program) as simply putting a check in that box. It will be difficult to motivate them, as they haven't yet seen the intrinsic value that you are so clearly passionate about.

I agree that you will need to step up by leading discussions and taking charge of group papers and projects, but also don't be afraid to go back to the professor. As hurdy gurdy girl suggests, have a frank discussion with your group, then go back to the prof if things don't improve. If you frame your argument as "I don't want to be penalized for the group's apathy when it comes to group assignments" rather than "they just don't care as much as I do" you may get more traction.
posted by trivia genius at 12:07 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know what they say about leading a horse to water? You can't make people care. No matter how much of A Leader! you are, the subject matter doesn't interest these people and it sounds like most of them are very occupied with their own lives otherwise. It has to be hard just to be in class at all when you have a baby or work that many jobs and are exhausted. And going to academic classes at night is kind of soul sucking even without that. You're probably not going to engender a burning love of the material in this class over the sound of their tiredness/burned-out-ness. This is pretty much the same as in high school, you're right. But just like in high school, the prof isn't going to give a shit and you'll probably end up doing all of the work yourself. That's how "group projects" work when nobody is getting paid to do

Now, I don't know exactly what you are supposed to do in these groups, but I would suggest trying to gear everything down to getting these people to at least do the bare minimum of work for the project. If you can, skip "discussion" (clearly it's not happening unless it involves gym equipment anyway) or and just focus on getting whatever work done that has to be turned in for class. I would gear it down to the bare minimum. "Look, I at least want to get a good grade in this class. Could you guys please at LEAST fill out the homework assignment while we're here?" Stuff like that. I know it's not the educational experience you want to have, but you can't make them love the work and want to engage in it by giving the St. Crispin's speech. You'll be doing really well if you can get them to do the turn-in work at all. Just get through the semester as best you can.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:13 PM on January 31, 2012


I do agree with aabbbiee on this point:
This really reminds me of... well, the working world. You need to be able to work with apathetic people. It's difficult, but that's life. If you want to be a leader, you should take a leadership role here.
and partially with the part about your professor that he may not care, but as someone that does a lot of 'group' work in the working world, I would add that while you need to be able to work with apathetic people in the real world, you also need to be able to not DO all the work for the other apathetic people such that you get no extra credit and they get no consequences.

When there is a presentation or project or assignment that needs to be done, the first thing you should do is make a big effort to break out the whole thing and figure out who will do what....

agreed, except maybe the first time only. then next time, point out what you did on the last project and volunteer a successor to do the same for this project.

keep a diary of all the things that happen at your meetings, including action items that people agreed to do, etc. send out your notes from the first meeting (the FIRST time) and volunteer someone else to be the secretary next time.

make sure your boss, i mean, your professor is aware of all the dynamics. complain if necessary, just as i would if team members under my leadership were not doing things they are responsible for, after reasonable efforts to 'make it happen.' in the real world, if you had a boss that was allowing others to be apathetic and telling you that your responsibility is to make up for all of them, eventually your boss would have a lot of apathetic employees and no more you. if you think about the possibility that your professor would allow this to continue in a situation where you are *paying* for the experience, it's a bit more galling.

i have personally been one of those crappy group members (in a class situation, not at work!), and the professor did care. He rearranged the 'good' members from my and another group together and put me and another with some other crappy students. (after giving me a chance to defend myself, if applicable). It was totally fair, was done with little fuss, and was a good lesson to me and hopefully others. I don't understand why more profs can't deal with these sorts of things.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 1:43 PM on January 31, 2012


I think some of the comments are being overly dismissive of the professor. To say he won't care or won't "give a shit" about your predicament is hopefully not true. I think it depends how you approach him. If you say: "My group members don't care, please move me". He might indeed react negatively. Because you will make him feel like he is teaching a high school class, which he will resent. But, if you approach him and say "My group members are apathetic and do not engage, do you have any advise for how to deal with this conflict"? He may really respect you for that approach and offer meaningful assistance. Moreover, this is a way of letting him know that there is an issue here without "whining".
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 1:46 PM on January 31, 2012


When I said this:
When there is a presentation or project or assignment that needs to be done, the first thing you should do is make a big effort to break out the whole thing and figure out who will do what....
I meant your whole group should sit down and break it out, right away. Not you alone. But you leading them, and bringing them back from conversational tangents, and emailing them their workload, and following up with it. It's good experience if anything.

I have never been in a class group setting where the professor gave one whit about apathetic workers. And as a former federal and current state employee, I have worked with a lot of apathetic workers too and I find that their bosses work around them because they often can't be fired. But that just makes great leadership that much more obvious.

However, I do agree that you can document your dealings. That is also good experience for the working world. Take notes on their contributions, save everything, and if your professor appears to be tying your grade to theirs and you're all going down like the Titanic, then approach him about it with documentation in hand.
posted by aabbbiee at 4:52 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Redirect, redirect, redirect. Presumably you're supposed to be working on some specific task when you're in these groups? When people start bitching about something not directly related to the task at hand, say, "OK, but let's just get through [task at hand]." If you're not satisfied with the quality of the work, say, "Guys, we need to do better than that." If people are talking about something unrelated to the task at hand, say, "Guys, I really need to get out of here, can we just get this done?" Focus on the "let's get out of here" part. You can't make them care; you might be able to make them do the work.

I've had terrible experiences in group work (on a professional masters) and some great ones. One time I yelled at a group-mate and nearly brought him to tears; I believe the exact words were "I can't believe you could possibly think this is master's level work!" I do not recommend yelling. Counterproductive and makes you feel bad.
posted by mskyle at 5:35 PM on January 31, 2012


"I mentioned that this week's reading reminded me of foo from last semester. John agreed and said he'd seen a previous article on the topic that was a little clearer. Miranda says she was busy painting her toenails and has not bought the book yet, and then Steve asked her what she thinks of the new elliptical machine at their gym. I tried to bring the conversation back around by asking Miranda if she'd ever had to deal with this or foo in her experience over at BigU where she works in the athletic department. She said she hasn't yet and finds foo boring."

If I were you, I'd write this out on paper, and then ask your professor to review the group discussion highlights (above, or similar) before you presented them in class. If he doesn't immediately ask if you're fucking with him, and then at least make noises about helping you rectify this, then you're definitely on your own.
posted by mornie_alantie at 12:05 AM on February 1, 2012


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