Monthly Archives: September 2007

Why do students hate groupwork?

One of my favorite teaching blogs, In Socrates’ Wake, has Philosophy prof Adam Potthast asking this question of his colleagues:

(1) What is the place of group work in the philosophy classroom? (2) In encouraging modern pedagogical values of teamwork and collaboration are we holding back or harming our brightest students to some degree? (3) If group work works well in your courses, what kinds of activities do you use (other than ice-breakers at the beginning of the course)? And finally (4) if there are undergraduate or graduate students reading this blog, what are your thoughts?

Potthast was inspired to do this by his students’ (very negative) reactions to the groupwork they had been assigned in other courses, a reaction that seemed persistent enough for him to wonder what situations it worked best in, and whether it was being overused.  

There are some really good exchanges here, from undergrads and grad students as well as faculty, but my favorite was Seth Marbin’s citation of “social loafing,” which came from a Wikimedia open-content book, Managing Groups and Teams.

Though I was looking for answers about getting the best work from my groups in my Swift and Literary Studies course, I was immediately reminded of all the most toxic aspects of committee work.  Here are some of the explanations offered in the article for individuals underperforming when put together into groups:

Equitable contribution: Team members believe that others are not putting forth as much effort as themselves. Since they feel that the others in the group are slacking, they lessen their efforts too. This causes a downward cycle that ends at the point where only the minimum amount of work is performed.

Submaximal goal setting: Team members may perceive that with a well-defined goal and with several people working towards it, they can work less for it. The task then becomes optimizing rather than maximizing.

Lessened contingency between input and outcome: Team members may feel they can hide in the crowd and avoid the consequences of not contributing. Or, a team member may feel lost in the crowd and unable to gain recognition for their contributions (Latane, 1998). This description is characteristic of people driven by their uniqueness and individuality. In a group, they lose this individuality and the recognition that comes with their contributions. Therefore, these group members lose motivation to offer their full ability since it will not be acknowledged (Charbonnier et al., 1998). Additionally, large group sizes can cause individuals to feel lost in the crowd. With so many individuals contributing, some may feel that their efforts are not needed or will not be recognized (Kerr, 1989).

Lack of evaluation: Loafing begins or is strengthened in the absence of an individual evaluation structure imposed by the environment (Price & Harrison, 2006). This occurs because working in the group environment results in less self-awareness (Mullen, 1983). For example, a member of a sales team will loaf when sales of the group are measured rather than individual sales efforts.

Unequal distribution of compensation: In the workplace, compensation comes in monetary forms and promotions and in academics it is in the form of grades or positive feedback. If an individual believes compensation has not been allotted equally amongst group members, he will withdraw his individual efforts (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).

Non-cohesive group: A group functions effectively when members have bonded and created high-quality relationships. If the group is not cohesive, members are more prone to social loafing since they are not concerned about letting down their teammates (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).

When we think about dysfunctional academic units, whether departments or committees, it’s usually because dynamics like this have built up historically and become self-reinforcing within the unit.  For that matter, when I recall my least functional student groups, it’s usually because one or more members are so socially clueless that they alienate the others and make it difficult for everyone else to complete their tasks.  It’s that kind of stress, the stress of having a colleague who cannot be trusted to accomplish what he or she has been assigned to do, that makes groupwork unpleasant for students and faculty alike.  Of course, in the academy, we call our groupwork “service.”

So what to do? 

In relation to university and departmental service, I’d second the Tenured Radical’s suggestion not to act like an utter and complete asshole.   If you’re unlucky enough to be chairing a committee, or several committees, like I’m doing this semester, try to learn how to avoid wasting other people’s time, which would be my definition of bad leadership.  I’m still struggling with that one myself.

When it comes to teaching people in groups more effectively, the most important lesson I took away from the Wikimedia articles was about the active role it demanded from the instructor: the instructor needs to establish ground rules, and to make the schedule, tasks, and assignments as clear as possible; to monitor group interactions for any bullying or loafing behavior; to keep up regular evaluations of both individual and group efforts and productions in a timely way; and to be ready to highlight positive contributions or to intervene in negative situations whenever appropriate. 

Looking at this daunting list of tasks for instructors, I suspect that the negative reactions to groupwork in undergraduate classes come from students who are looking for instructors, rightly or wrongly, to intervene in situations that they themselves feel powerless to fix.  If they cannot get the instructor’s attention, or cannot get the situation resolved to their satisfaction, then students may very well feel that their instructor has abandoned them.  Only establishment of clear ground rules at the start, and then continual communication throughout the semester, will prevent those kinds of reactions.



Teaching Ignatius Sancho, UPDATED


We had an interesting seminar the other day on Ignatius Sancho, and I realized afterwards just how hard it is to teach a writer whose work is in a non-narrative genre like the letter.  Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion turned on Sancho’s heavy debts to Sterne and sensibility generally, mostly because we’d read the Sentimental Journey the previous week.  It always interests me that Sancho’s writing can inspire debates like these, when Sterne’s own writings endured so much 19th century scorn for his supposed plagiarisms.  So what does that make Sancho?  A copy of a copy?

Of course, we can always take these hierarchical metaphors of copying and mimicry and turn them around by redescribing them as translations or displacements.   In this case, one of the interests of Sancho’s writing is seeing how Sterne’s style functions when it doesn’t receive any of the narrative elaboration of fiction, so that Sterne’s novelistic sentiment gets displaced into something more static in the “letters” genre.  As it turns out, this kind of translation ethically simplifies the sentimental situations that both writers enjoy describing, and removes at least one level of the irony usually deployed by Sterne. 

But then other kinds of materials are admitted into this writing that otherwise never make it into more literary writing, whether that of Sterne or of anyone else.  In my view, it’s Sancho’s alternately sententious and gossipy, backstairs tones that I find so interesting, especially when we have so few first-hand documents or former slaves’–or even servants’–lives at all.  It’s also interesting to me that Sancho did not attempt, so far as we know, to offer an autobiographical narrative of the kind provided by Jekyll’s prefatory Life.  So what we have instead is something that we could call, “the sentiments of Sancho.”  But how much do ever learn about Sterne’s “gentleman” or his reactions to his surroundings?

Similarly, Sancho’s posthumous reputation as a rather polite and conventional sentimentalist (implicitly contrasted with the more heroic Equiano, for example, who does provide that all-important first person narrative) brings up all sorts of uncomfortable associations of Sancho with unconscious mimicry, parody, even minstrelsy.  Yet these associations, too, of inauthenticity might be better understood using Bhabha’s notions of “mimicry.”  After all, when considering Sancho’s uses of sentiment, why should we assume the perpetual subordination of periphery to center, or Sancho to Sterne?

This is one reason why I stressed Sterne’s not-so-easy-access to the public sphere late in life from remote Yorkshire, as well as the literary logrolling that took place when Sterne asked Sancho to prod the Montagus, Sancho’s former patrons, for his subscription money.  It’s easy to overstate the insecurity of Sterne, compared to that of Sancho, but I think we should still remember how precarious Sterne’s hold was on gentlemanly status during this time.

While I was reflecting about some of these issues afterwards on my class blog (yes, I run one of those, too, though it’s closed), I couldn’t help returning to Sancho’s Gainsborough portrait.  This version of Sancho smiles, though he is not a particularly comic figure in this painting (see above). 

But Gainsborough’s image of a plump, smiling, prosperous-looking Sancho seemed to me an interesting emblem of transculturation, which I think is decidedly anti-heroic, plebeian, and ubiquitous in the Atlantic world of the 18th century.  And Sancho’s writings document the extensive social networks that sustained him and his family for many years.  

That night, I wrote the following post to my students:


[Here is the] source I’ve had in mind while we discussed the relation of subordination to sensibility: Michael Braddick’s essay on “Civility” in David Armitage/Michael Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (Palgrave, 2002) [which I’ve discussed before on the Long 18th].  My decision to portray the degraded, parodic, or  “minstrel” relation of Sancho to Sterne as a matter of translation is really indebted to Braddick’s discussion of the difficulties of local elites throughout the Atlantic world whenever they wished to project cultural authority.

Braddick says, for example,

Everywhere, social distinction in the British colonies drew on standards of behavior, dress, and building current in the metropolitan core . . . . The social realities of life in Ireland and the American colonies forced the reinvention of European ideals: local elites could not simply reproduce conditions envisaged in conduct books in England but had to actively create a local form of Englishness . . . .

This quality of reinvented Englishness, gentility, and taste is what both Sterne and Sancho share, and Sterne is no less provincial or parodic in his impersonation of a gentleman than Sancho himself, I’d argue.  After all, why honor the claims of the “mushroom” or the “nabob” (18c terms for recently enriched “gentlemen” whose fortunes were made overnight, particularly in the colonies), over those of Sancho? 

Braddick reminds us,

Provincial figures who laid an unconvincing claim to metropolitan refinement were stock comic figures in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drama, and it is easy to document anxiety in the colonies about movements of taste and fashion  in the metropolis (107).

So to what extent does Sancho represent a universalizing language of metropolitan taste and fashion that suspends much of the effect of his blackness, at least in print?


UPDATE: after I posted this, I saw in Crooked Timber that Michael Medved has offered us something he calls “Six inconvenient truths about the U.S. and slavery.”  Unfortunately, Medved uses what little he knows to distort the academic discussion of this history, in the interests of what he curiously calls “historical context,” but which I’d call “flattering the self-regard of his right-wing audience.”  Tim Burke has an interesting response to the whole debate, which anyone teaching Equiano or Sancho would do well to look at, as a way to respond to the kinds of questions that undergrads (who, god forbid, may have read Medved at some point in their lives) may be forgiven for asking.


Marketing Shakespeare


Well, I’m back in Shady Side, MD again, looking in on my parents, and this morning I found a pretty interesting piece on the new Folger exhibit featuring the Boydell gallery illustrations (viewing this may require registration with the Washington Post).

I’ve been familiar with the Boydell paintings, some of which are hung up around the Folger, for some time, but here’s one interesting observation that the Post critic, Philip Kennicott, makes about the nature of these beautiful, sometimes kitschy tableaux:

Boydell’s painters frequently turned to the tradition of theatrical painting, recording intimately the faces and gestures — painfully histrionic by today’s standards — that one might conceivably see in an actual performance of Shakespeare.

William Hamilton’s “The Duke of York Discovering His Son Aumerle’s Treachery” is typical. The scene is from “Richard II”; the subject, a father’s uncovering of his son’s participation in a plot to the kill the king. He tears from the young man’s neck a seal that proves his complicity; he berates him; and he ignores his wife’s plea not to denounce and destroy their child.

The painting feels decidedly stagy. The action is contained within a small space, a window drapery looks suspiciously like a theatrical curtain, and the young man’s gesture — right hand thrust to his forehead, his torso inclined backward as if buffeted by a gusty wind of melodrama — is something one might find on the cover of an old penny dreadful.

As Kennicott notes, “part of the pleasure of this show, an unnerving pleasure at times, is the world of weirdness in another era’s conception of literature that we feel we intimately possess and understand.” 

In this case, these vivid, sometimes embarassing images give us access to a Shakespeare whose high-cultural status was still in the making at the end of the 18th century, partly through the well-known Romantic criticism of his texts, but also through the more vulgar and workmanlike efforts of entrepeneurs in spectacle like Boydell or Garrick. 

I suppose that one of this era’s “weird” preoccupations is its insistence that these two impulses are somehow mutually reinforcing.

One of the other themes in this little piece is about the extreme historicity of performance, and the difficulties of representing it:

Of course, static images of live performance are almost always painful to look at. Just examine any season brochure for a theater or opera company. Just as human beings are not meant to be seen immediately upon waking up, they are not meant to be seen fixed in frozen form while cavorting on stages. What is grand and powerful and shocking behind the footlights is just ridiculous and silly in the glare of the flashbulb.

The Boydell paintings raise this issue of the representability of performance in all sorts of ways, because they stand at one remove from actual performances, yet are still visibly constrained by contemporary norms and expectations of staging. 

For example, the intimate domestic scene of Titania, Puck, and the changeling (see above) seems more cinematic than staged, but the action still seems to be going on for our benefit, not theirs.  We are supposed to register that come-hither look on Titania’s face, for example, but would it be visible in the back rows?

I suspect that this phenomenon, which I’d call the inevitable translation of performance into visual kitsch, is responsible for a lot of the intellectual embarassment that surrounds performance.  It’s too hard to explain in words, and pictures, as they say, “just don’t do it justice.”


Swift’s “true critic” and the blogosphere.

(I’m crossposting the following entry from my own site because it occurred to me, as I was writing, that this was probably the best place to interest people in a conversation about the relevance of Augustan satire to Our Own Modern Learning, particularly blog culture. I was a little surprised recently to find my students respond so well to A Tale of a Tub, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes to me that they would “get it.”)

I had such a delightful time teaching A Tale of a Tub (1710) last week that I thought I’d share a bit of it here. No writer of the eighteenth century reminds me more than Swift does of how similar early print culture and early blog culture are, particularly in how they both give readers the sense of an indefatigable proliferation of letters that feed on themselves—criticism that is always already metacriticism—and writers the notion that they must distinguish themselves in a sea of words in which everything has already been said, but more often than not, not very well or sufficiently, requiring incisive rehashing, dissection, name-calling, and extensive accounts of how This Contribution tops the cumulative effect of All Other Contributions to the discussion. We talked about how such cultures of constant commentary necessitate innovative ways of breaking free of the tides of critical discourse—and thus are new forms of satire born. I’m pretty sure Swift has always been funny, but perhaps moreso now than at any other time since he first appeared on the scene. This time around, he had me in stitches from the “advertisement” on page one:


Treatises writ by the same Author, most of them mentioned in the following Discourses; which will be speedily published.

A Character of the present Set of Wits in this Island.
A Panegyrical Essay upon the Number THREE.
A Dissertation upon the principal productions of Grub-street.
Lectures upon the Dissection of Human Nature.
A Panegyrick upon the World.
An Analytical Discourse upon Zeal, Histori-theo-physi-logically considered.
A general History of Ears.
A modest Defence of the Proceedings of the Rabble in all Ages.
A Description of the Kingdom of Absurdities.
A Voyage into England, by a Person of Quality in Terra Australis incognita, translated from the Original.
A Critical Essay upon the Art of Canting, Philosophically, Physically, and Musically considered.

Beyond the mere mention of the forthcoming “general History of Ears,” perhaps my favorite part was his explication, in “Section III: A Digression Concerning Critics,” of that creature perennially slicing like a ninja, cutting like a razorblade through the world of popular culture and criticism, the “true critic”:

And these are the critics from whom the commonwealth of learning has in all ages received such immense benefits, that the gratitude of their admirers placed their origin in heaven, among those of Hercules, Theseus, Perseus, and other great deservers of mankind. But heroic virtue itself hath not been exempt from the obloquy of evil tongues. For it hath been objected that those ancient heroes, famous for their combating so many giants, and dragons, and robbers, were in their own persons a greater nuisance to mankind than any of those monsters they subdued; and therefore, to render their obligations more complete, when all other vermin were destroyed, should in conscience have concluded with the same justice upon themselves, as Hercules most generously did, and hath upon that score procured for himself more temples and votaries than the best of his fellows. For these reasons I suppose it is why some have conceived it would be very expedient for the public good of learning that every true critic, as soon as he had finished his task assigned, should immediately deliver himself up to ratsbane or hemp, or from some convenient altitude, and that no man’s pretensions to so illustrious a character should by any means be received before that operation was performed.

Now, from this heavenly descent of criticism, and the close analogy it bears to heroic virtue, it is easy to assign the proper employment of a true, ancient, genuine critic: which is, to travel through this vast world of writings; to peruse and hunt those monstrous faults bred within them; to drag out the lurking errors, like Cacus from his den; to multiply them like Hydra’s heads; and rake them together like Augeas’s dung; or else to drive away a sort of dangerous fowl who have a perverse inclination to plunder the best branches of the tree of knowledge, like those Stymphalian birds that ate up the fruit.

These reasonings will furnish us with an adequate definition of a true critic: that he is a discoverer and collector of writers’ faults; which may be further put beyond dispute by the following demonstration:— That whoever will examine the writings in all kinds wherewith this ancient sect hath honoured the world, shall immediately find from the whole thread and tenor of them that the ideas of the authors have been altogether conversant and taken up with the faults, and blemishes, and oversights, and mistakes of other writers, and let the subject treated on be whatever it will, their imaginations are so entirely possessed and replete with the defects of other pens, that the very quintessence of what is bad does of necessity distil into their own, by which means the whole appears to be nothing else but an abstract of the criticisms themselves have made.

I love this passage because it reminds us that Swift, as often as he is himself accused of misanthropy and peevishness, understands the stakes of sucking the pleasure out of literary culture. The frenzy into which certain purveyors of popular criticism work themselves in the hunt for filth, stupidity, and sundry evidence of Other People’s General Inferiority is absurd, yes, and amusingly so in the right light, but it is also quite sad, like watching an obsessive-compulsive scrub his own hands raw. Good satire in the age of such incessant vigilance is not just about making another point, or exposing another fault—it’s about getting a laugh that is not simply mean-spirited, conjuring the spontaneous joy that the written word is still capable of producing.

NYT on the culture wars and traditional literary study

Someone on my student listserv brought our attention to this article, which looks back at Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and its offspring. It’s started an interesting conversation among students about how we feel about “multi-culturalism” and the study of historical literatures. Why are the approaches to historical lit so apparently hostile to the politics of race, gender, and class?

Our conversation reminded me of several times when students in various Ph.D. programs have said they often feel uncomfortable bringing up, e.g., race or gender in the context of Shakespeare or Milton. While some professors actively encourage “political” conversations about literature, there is no shortage of those who assume that to politicize a text is to demean (or at least ignore) its formal/aesthetic value.

This is something I’m obviously interested in keeping an eye on. Beginning graduate students who have studied postcolonial theory or queer theory in undergrad often go on to take graduate courses in historical literature, and sometimes find that their usual methods of analysis are taken as immature or knee-jerking, and instead of being encouraged to apply them in a more historically conscious way, they often feel that the application is seen as inappropriate altogether.

My more generous side wants to reply that historical-lit professors are particularly wary of students fitting late-20th-century terminology to periods in which those categories have not been fully formed. When a student calls attention to a “racist” passage in a 17th-century poem, the professor will usually respond by trying to tease out the history of the construction of “race,” which may, unfortunately, come across as invalidating what could be a very fruitful conversation about colonialism and early modern cross-cultural confrontations.

But my less generous interpretation fears that the unwillingness to talk about global contexts and non-heteronormative sexuality in historical lit is an effect of politics not being within a professor’s particular interests, and that they may feel like these conversations are best saved for contemporary lit classes. Semesters can feel very crowded, and since so much of class time in historical lit must be taken up with hermeneutic and rhetorical analysis, a conversation about politics may feel like a derailing.

The effect, then, is that young scholars who may want to learn how to apply their interests to historical lit feel marginalized to the point that they eventually return to studying late 20th-century texts. (I have an acquaintance who had hoped to do an MA thesis on Defoe and enslavement who got so discouraged by the apparent resistance of his professors that he “retreated”—his word—to African-American Studies.) And I think the early modern period, especially the eighteenth century, suffers from the loss.

We have all seen clumsy applications of gender and race theory to texts in our period, but I’d argue that it’s a problem of failing to sufficiently historicize gender or race, not a problem with the desire itself, and the encouragement to historicize these approaches has to come from somewhere. The white masculinist academy has often sidestepped these issues in historical literature, even when the authors themselves explicitly address them. To politicize a reading of Defoe, in my opinion, is not to ignore what Defoe is doing, but to do justice to it.

The good news is that this is changing. Many young scholars of my acquaintance are starting to see this battle between “identity politics” on the one hand and “traditional literary scholarship” on the other as a false binary. Surely this is because people like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have been troubling it all along by working on queer theory that isn’t just robust enough to analyze Jeannette Winterson, but also robust enough to analyze John Donne. (Post)colonial theory, too, is becoming incredibly useful, not just for Nigerian lit, but also for Milton. This year, Queens College welcomed a new Asst. Professor, Eric Song, whose work analyzes English nativism in the context of early globalization in seventeenth-century poetry.

When I think about the scholarly possibilities that arise not from breaking down traditional approaches to historical lit, but supplementing them with long-overdue political awareness, I get very excited for our field and the scholarship that can come out of graduate students and young scholars over the next twenty years.

No matter how much I miss living in New York . . .

I don’t miss this.


Oh, or conversations like this one. 

Your liberal academy

After all, it’s about who’s paying the bills.