Note: this blog post was published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) is an author, minister, and Bible and pop culture educator. She serves as assistant professor of theological field education and New Testament and as director of the ACTS Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program at Chicago Theological Seminary.
“Why do we always have group work?” lamented one of my students.
Of course, the response that immediately came to mind was “Because I am the teacher.” However, trying to be a little more diplomatic and wanting to encourage participation and understanding, I responded, “Group projects really help prepare you for the future. Most professions require some degree of collaboration.”
I said that to my students and have actually found it to be true. What I did not say was that professors have as much angst, anxiety and — let’s be honest — dislike for group projects as students.
The nature of the academy is individuality. Yes, professors teach students in various class sizes. However, so much of what we do is solo. We spend ample time researching and writing books, articles and essays for publication. Some of us have the luxury of a research or teaching assistant. However, they, at a distance, help us attain needed information so that we can get back to our respective silos. After all, it is called a monograph for a reason.
Independent research is the modus operandi throughout the hallowed halls of the academy. Professors must prove their worth by the ability to craft articles for “respected” journals. Getting a publishing contract from a “reputable” company is supposed to put one on the road to intellectual success. It is the unspoken paradigm of erudition. The ultimate prize for such labor is tenure. In some instances, professors dare not ignore the mandate to work, write and publish alone. That is what the gatekeepers train us to do — stay in our discipline’s lane and follow the rules of the road without wavering. Otherwise, one is prone to get a citation or ticket toward tenure denial.
The irony of what we do in the academy is telling. While we spend exorbitant human capital in classes, committee meetings and advising sessions, so many of us, me included, are introverts. We would much rather be … alone. Not that we are lonely, but teaching, speaking and the other public stuff is emotionally and socially demanding. We prefer time with a book behind closed doors or moments in our office writing a single-authored work. Differences in work styles, creative idiosyncrasies, uncertainty about tenure and even family obligations can add to group tension. Whereas class group exercises are fairly common, the truth is, any number of professors relish not having to do them. Grading is one thing. Participation is quite another.
Nonetheless, lest we are found to be hypocritical, allow me to posit why professors must dare to take the group plunge. The clarion call to collaborate beckons us. I will participate over the next year in a Wabash Center group project examining the taxation of the academy on African-American mothers. I am excited yet nervous. I know the fine scholars in this group, and I honestly believe this experience will be life altering. Still, the lone voice of individualism wants to scream, shout and throw a temper tantrum: “I just want to stay in my office and finish this book, presentation or article — by myself!”
So why am I going forward? Why must those of us in the academy come out and play? Here are my ruminations on the benefits of group work for professors.
It is important to exchange with voices in field. This is not rocket science. However, we need the reminder: iron sharpens iron. The problem is that the academy often pits us against each other. We fear sharing lest our idea becomes another scholar’s next bestseller. Yes, it happens, but this should not preclude us from collaborating with people we trust. It is helpful to tease out our ideas with a colleague who speaks our language.
We must get the transdisciplinary train rolling. Talking with other people in your field is vital. Seeing whether the tentacles of your research touch other disciplines is just as integral. Coming out of the academic comfort zone opens the door for more consorting and can provide feedback to strengthen your own work.
Furthermore, as departments are restructuring and forcing newly minted Ph.D.s to teach both/and, here and there, branching out is paramount. Yet it depends on the institution. In some settings treading into interdisciplinary waters can be detrimental. A tenure committee can deem it watering down your scholarship.
Learn the tenor of your context and govern yourself accordingly. I am in a context where research diversity is a plus. Although I am a Bible scholar, I try to be conversant with literature, pop culture, gender studies and sociology, to name a few. Those interdisciplinary efforts have led to the development of a new transdisciplinary umbrella, what I call womanist maternal thought.
Future projects await. The mere mention of an idea or word can trigger the next book, volume, center or institute. However, unless academics dare to push the isolation envelope, such projects may never come to fruition. A post on Facebook or a Twitter direct message has the potential to open the door to communication with people outside your academic circle. Those actions can lead to conversations about similar research interests and intersections. Social media can pave the way for a wide intellectual road. But first we must dare to be sociable.
There is power in the human touch. Participating in group work should put you in the room with, well, people. True, our classrooms and committees are inundated with colleagues, students and administrators. Yet with the ubiquitous nature of online teaching, we do not have to be in the same location or same space as another human being, and the technological wall can preclude us from dwelling with flesh and blood.
I am routinely amazed when we do not recognize in person the very people on our Facebook page — it is as if their actual being is foreign to us. Getting accustomed to such human distance should be foreign. There is nothing like being with the author whose book we engage for class, standing a few feet from the professor who first inspired us or chatting over dinner with colleagues in our newly formed cohort. The emotional connection and camaraderie that occur when people are able to discuss ideas face-to-face are almost inexplicable. Who knows? We may laugh and feel a little mushy. It takes head and heart to do this work.
Honestly speaking, group projects give professors a reprieve in teaching. But perchance we must first teach ourselves the lessons we want our students to glean from those projects. How life affirming it is to exchange with others inside and beyond our fields. Risking openness to what may come breathes new life into dead academic spaces. In the end, a computer can only give so much love.