Saturday, September 10, 2016

Social Loafing at Berea College

(This one was originally typed into Blogjob, but not posted there due to scheduling considerations. Other unpaid Blogjob posts are being transferred to this site on the days they originally appeared. Posts for which Blogjob paid will remain at Blogjob.)
Gather round, Nephews, here comes another memory that does not make your Auntie Pris look good...
When Laksh posted , I suddenly remembered a project we did at Berea College, which means that this took place after I was old enough to know better. Let's just say that I enjoyed my classes at Berea, but did not enjoy the social atmosphere of people competing for grades on a curve system. I'd resigned myself to the idea that most or all other students at Berea were hostile, and was wasting no friendly energy on anybody there.
Anyway, in one psychology class, the professor said that as a psychology teacher he was obligated to recognize and reward different learning styles. We'd all demonstrated the ability to learn material by reading textbooks and writing essays, so this time we were going to mix it up and be graded on the ability to dramatize the material in skits.
A lot of class projects at Berea were offered as informational entertainment to the public. This one was strictly in-house. The twenty students in the class were randomly assigned to four groups of five, and would be competing against each other, partly on ratings given by each other, to create skits about the early philosophers who'd contributed to the beginning of the scientific study of psychology. We were to bring five philosophers into the twentieth century and show them reacting to some current situation, using, if possible, words they'd actually written.
So what happened? I'm still not entirely sure. The demographics of my project group mattered. I was a "non-traditional," "older" student at twenty-five. There was a Gulf War veteran, about my age, who was into conserving his own energy; there was a Japanese exchange student, a bit older than we were, who was very shy and quiet; and there were two typical underclassmen, seventeen or eighteen--older than my sisters but, due to lack of discipline, generally impressing me as less mature than my sisters.
All of them were a few grade points behind me. They were good students (only good students got through the first term at Berea), but a letter grade and thus a person's right to stay there might hang on one grade point that, if someone else got, you didn't get. They weren't active enemies, but neither were they friends. I didn't know whether any of them wanted to sabotage me. I didn't want to sabotage them, but I didn't want to help them, either. That was what curve grading did for a grown-up Christian, so you can imagine what it did for a seventeen-year-old from a slum or a coal town, who couldn't even count on being able to choose a friendlier school if s/he flunked out at Berea. Usually the hostility was less violent than The Hunger Games.
So, the more energetic teenager flung out an idea: the philosophers could meet in a discotheque, where none of them was finding anyone to dance with, so they were arguing about philosophy instead. I think the idea was to distract people from the lameness of the skit with vintage vinyl. I don't think any of us had ever actually been in a discotheque. I was the only one who'd even learned the official disco-dance moves from Saturday Night Fever.
I flung out an idea in response: "God knows where our friend Comte is, though you, Sir, do not, and in all probability, neither does he."
The exchange student liked "you, Sir." I had read that that was a reasonable translation of something in Japanese, and was glad she liked it. Now I figured it was up to her, as the eldest, to take over.
So then I sat back and watched the skit fail to develop a script. The exchange student had the ability to recite quotes in flawless, only slightly, charmingly exotic-sounding English. Apparently she didn't have the ability to read English fast enough to pick good ones. The more energetic teenager's hormone tide peaked and ebbed, so that, when we did the skit, she was possibly the least energetic teenager who'd got out of bed that morning. The veteran did memorize one line the teenager had suggested for him; that was his only contribution. If the other teenybopper said anything at all while the more energetic teenager was using up the energy staging the disco scene, I've forgotten what it was. We never did put together a good, funny, relevant batch of quotes.
On the appointed day we did our skit. I hopped up on a table, disco-dancing and blathering, "Ah, my dear Voltaire, how the fashions have changed! Would you care to dance, Mademoiselle?" to a girl whose genuine astonishment made her refusal seem more lifelike than it probably would have seemed if she'd rehearsed it. We huddled to seek consolation in philosophical debate. I said my line. The veteran said his. The other teenager totally choked, and since we'd never rehearsed the main part of the skit, although I had memorized a few more lines, the skit fell apart.
There was no disco. There were no time-travelling philosophers. There was a classroom with four sloppily dressed, sleepy young people standing near the teacher's desk, looking stupid, waiting to see whether the fifth person could literally die of stage fright.
The teenager who'd been more energetic last week realized this, and ad-libbed. She hopped up on the table from which I'd hopped down, not gracefully but without actually falling off, and hollered, "Comte's in the bar down the street! Let's go and rescue him!" and we all returned to our seats, not looking at each other, not needing to look at the audience to know that we might easily have earned the lowest marks ever given to a student dramatic performance in the history of Berea College.
By a coincidence, in my other psychology class, which met the next morning, the other professor had planned to discuss the phenomenon of social loafing, which explains why groups seldom accomplish as much together as each member of the group could have done alone. In social loafing, each person thinks, "I'm not doing all the work," or "I'm not trying to be the boss," or both, and "Let X do something now. Let Y speak first. Let's see what Z's going to contribute." The result is that nobody actually does his or her fair share of the job.
I sat at the back of the room, taking notes, feeling my face burn. I'd just defined social loafing and given an example.
The complete opposite of social loafing, in which someone who has some amount of talent, energy, and experience takes over a group project and dominates it so completely that others feel stifled, is also to be avoided. Even though, in that particular case, if I'd bounced up saying "I'm a writer, so here are your lines, now learn'em," everyone's grades might have lost fewer points than they did...everyone would have had a valid reason to hate me more than they did.
There is a happy medium between these two extremes...and one reason why project teams so often accomplish so little is that, even when people are honestly seeking it, the happy medium can be hard to find.
Image of (a more benign form of) social loafing supplied by Eyecatch7 at Morguefile:
lazy cows 3