You’re in class and your professor has just announced that a large part of your grade is based on a group project. You just had one of two reactions: you either let out a groan of despair, your mind wandering back to past disasters of group projects, wondering how to keep a decent grade with THAT on your record. On the other hand, you could have felt a jolt of excitement. OMG, you think, LESS WORK FOR ME. Clearly you’ve never done a group project before.

To be clear, a group project doesn’t HAVE to be a deadening, horrifying experience. In fact, it can be a fun, collaborative work bringing out the best in all the group members. This is just so rare its barely worth mentioning. Generally, the people you meet during a group project will fall into a series of categories. These are the people you will have to get through (with extreme difficulty) to get a good grade in this class:

THE “BIG IDEAS” GUY

This guy (or girl, but generally guy) is all about the graphics. Before you’ve even totally understood the topic you’re going to cover, he’s excitedly listing off the awesome fonts you can download from this website, or the cool clip art you can add to add a little spice (don’t get me started on clip art; don’t do it. That’s all I have to say). He might also have unrealistic expectations for the project. While you’re wondering if the background of your slide show should be blue or grey, he’s wondering if you can somehow make the words look like diamonds that pour out of the screen in waves of rainbow glory. Or he could start explaining how it would be totally awesome if you could not only cover your area of study, but link it to the larger literature and maybe write a several year study on the subject with individual research. There’s only one, major problem with “big ideas” guy: he’s all about the planning. When it comes time to actually do anything content-wise, he turns into a useless block of putty. The best way to deal with him is to gently (or not so gently, depending on how often you have to say it) tell him that no, you will not spend half an hour making each individual letter disappear or float away on the Powerpoint. Be very clear. And do not get caught up in his ideas, because it might look really nice, but I guarantee your professor won’t see it that way when she realizes that that’s all it is: a really nice presentation.

THE LAZY BLOB

There’s always one. They may be the most enthusiastic at the get-go, but when time for work comes around, they’ll disappear into nothingness. Sorry freshmen, but if you’re working with upperclassmen you might have your work cut out for you. I’m not saying they are bad people, or that they start the project thinking that you are their little work horse, but it will feel that way by the end. The upperclassmen has all sorts of excuses: “Well, I’m taking higher-lever classes with more work, and the freshman is not.” or “I’ll help with the project tomorrow but today I have six essays and a panic-inducing exam and I just can’t get around to it.” Or, they just don’t feel like it. It doesn’t matter, because at the end of the day they won’t do any work. It might be the other way around. The freshman doesn’t understand that a group project in college is not the same as in high school. The stakes are higher and the work is certainly harder and more in-depth. And if you get angry and accuse them of not doing enough work, they won’t understand what you mean. They may not understand how you’ve had to pick up the slack. So how do you deal with this? You can get angry and upset. You can try to explain that this needs to be done faster than they seem to believe. And hey, sometimes that works. But you may also have to come to this conclusion: they will not help you. This is a horrifying conclusion to come to, but there you go. If you start seeing the signs, begin arranging work accordingly.

THE SICK “PARTNER”

Your project might be running smoothly, everyone doing what they should be doing, when tragedy strikes: specifically, illness. And the minute this tragedy strikes, you will NEVER SEE YOUR PARTNER AGAIN. I know you’re thinking: that never happens. It does. It’s happened to me. More than once. She may miss a few classes, start doing a little less research. And by the end, you are on your own. She quickly becomes “the lazy blob” simply because she’s unavailable to do work since she’s busily sleeping and coughing up blood. And you can’t be angry because what are you supposed to say? “You totally invited those bacteria/virus/debilitating alien DNA into your life, and I’m left holding the bag.” Maybe they still do work, but really bad, half-done work. Unfortunately, you have to deal with them the same way as the blob: gently explain the situation, and if they continue, it’s all on you.

YOUR BEST FRIEND

I don’t know if this applies to guys, but I’ve rarely seen best female friends work on a group project that didn’t end with their relationship slightly soured. I suppose it could happen. But when it comes to projects, and it has to be all about the work. Me and my good friend worked on a project that ended disastrously because, when with your best friends, working isn’t really what you want to be doing. Studying quietly near each other isn’t the same as spending weeks researching, compiling, and animating. Maybe you are like the same person and the project goes smoothly, but quickly it all falls apart. The process will happen something like this: When your professor announces the project, you give each other a knowing look; you already know who you’re working with. You’ll be excited at first, outlining what you want to do. But inevitably, you might have different ideas of where you want the project to go. It could be a research or design problem. One of you will assert dominance (and don’t pretend it doesn’t happen, it absolutely does), pushing your idea over your partner’s. And it might be all good on the surface, but you know there’s a little resentment there. It will only disintegrate from there. By the end neither is happy. Worse, if one turns into a lazy blob, you may not like this new side of the personality, and that might just be the end of that friendship. or at least it will clear away a lot of illusions.

THE PROCRASTINATOR

Nothing will make you want to kill someone faster than watching them writing slides for a project you are supposed to present in five minutes. The only thing you will think about is how they could have done it sooner, how anything could go wrong (if it’s an essay, the printer could break, if a project, the USB port could explode. By that point, rationality doesn’t really enter the picture), how there’s no checking for mistakes. Try and eliminate this problem early by setting deadlines, but this person might not meet them. You may just have to watch and grit your teeth, or fall on the last resort: do their work for them.

THE WORK HORSE

This is you. They may have the least say over the overall project design and research, you may get basically no say in anything whatsoever, but you do all the work. You do the research and you find the resources and any last-minute problems that arise are on you. Congratulations, you will never look forward to a group project again.

THE CONCLUSION

“But I’ve done group projects before and I didn’t meet these people!”

You might exclaim now. You are either the luckiest person on the face of the planet, or you just blocked it out. Either way, here’s a few quick things to remember walking into your group project:

  1. You may need to be in charge. If you care a lot about your grade, you have to take control, set the deadlines, do all the little things that might fall through the cracks. Even if you’re not that assertive (God knows I’m not), you can choose the things that are most important to you and focus on making sure those make it into the project. It may be a certain peripheral point, or the overall look, or even the positioning of the names on the slide or page, but if it really bothers you, it’s important that you make sure it happens.
  2. Don’t let the project slip away from you. Don’t forget that you are not just responsible for your own grade, but those of other people. And they will never speak to you again if you mess up the project because you “forgot” it was due.
  3. The only person you can rely on is you. Let me repeat that: THE ONLY PERSON YOU CAN RELY ON IS YOU. This might appear pessimistic, but this is experience with multiple group projects speaking. Ask anyone with a job, and they’ll tell you exactly the same thing. Ultimately, you have to look out for yourself. If you think that once you graduate you’ll never have to worry about these pesky projects, you are in for an ugly surprise: a lot of jobs are like a collection of group projects, all the time, forever. And now we’re not talking about a bad grade; we’re talking about losing your livelihood. And when it comes to your livelihood, are you going to trust yourself, or the lazy blob?
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