The Anatomy of a Success

The first thing you need to know is that democracy makes me sweat. Rather, the process of working with a group of people to make some decision or produce some collective work makes me sweat. There’s just something about talking constantly with people for hours to figure out what their ideas are, what ideas they like, what ideas they don’t like, and how all of this information can be balanced out in a finished product that gets my glands going. As best as I can figure, I think it’s at least partly because I’m just not a person that derives any pleasure from prolonged social contact. I’ve moved beyond the solution I came up with in seventh grade (which was to read books constantly so that nobody could talk to me) but I still often find myself tired after time in public, and the collaborative democratic process is a whole different level of social exposure.

The second thing you need to know is that I find myself in the middle of that process quite often. I’ve completed my fair share of group projects over the past four years. They seem to be a favorite of professors in the School of Business for some reason. I’ve also been a member of the Geneseo Model UN team for the past three years; for anyone who doesn’t know, Model UN is basically a club dedicated to the simulation of global political scenarios. Sometimes those scenarios are of various UN meetings, but they can be any situation with any semblance of diplomacy (like the cabinet of a post-apocalyptic America, for example). In all of these scenarios, the goal is to debate as a group and ultimately produce a resolution or directive that represents an action the group will be taking as a whole. In other words, it’s what we’ve been doing for the past three weeks—except someone is trying to win. Model UN competitions are scored on who most effectively gets their personal or national interests into the group documents. In Model UN and group projects—all the group work I’ve done to date, really—the goal has been to get as much of my original content into the final project for the sake of a grade or an award. This has, on the whole, been a pretty terrible experience. It’s useful, of course, but learning how to deal with people who want to screw over a project group or a voting bloc for their own benefit has cost me more sweat than I’d like to picture.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that our project has fundamentally changed the way I conceptualize group work. I do still sweat a little during our classes (TMI?) but the experience I’ve had working with everyone on our final has in many ways been the polar opposite of those previous group projects. Where previous democratic processes had people forcing their own interests over others’, I’ve found our deliberation to be respectful and dominated by compromise. Where previous group projects often involved some people who had no interest in participating and had to be asked over and over again to contribute, most everyone I’ve talked to in composing our final assignment has offered ideas and tried to do what they can to help the group. I definitely have to echo Jen’s and Devin’s comments about finding parts of this project hard and stressful, but it’s honestly been a breath of fresh air compared to what I’m used to—and I know from conversations I’ve had with people in the class that this is some high-octane group work for others as well. Sorry if it sounds like I’m gushing, but I really want to thank everyone in our class for such a great group experience.

I also really want to figure out how it ended up being so great. I’d like to discover the specific determinants that made this project, for me and for others, such a success. We’ve spent so much of our course discussing different societal and cultural frameworks—from contracts to stigmergy to liberalism to Yoruba spiritualism—and I find myself itching now to dissect the exact frameworks that have led us to such a productive collaborative process. A few lines from the syllabus, from our readings, and from Butler’s fiction strike me as especially important, and I’d like to focus on them now.

The first lines are the ones from the syllabus that detail the incentive structure for this assignment. Dr. McCoy makes it clear that “all class members receive the same grade,” running in direct opposition to the group work I mentioned in Model UN and many of my classes where the “grade” has been determined by individual input or even by how much more individual input one person contributes over everyone else. I think this line effectively disincentivized (to borrow a term from my other major) most people in our class from trying to force their own personal visions through to the final product. Anyone who did try could always be reminded that we received the same grade and should therefore focus on making decisions that benefited us as a group rather than as individuals.

But what, I hear my straw man crying right on cue, is to stop anyone from just being a free rider? Why would anyone be motivated to do anything if they could allow a select few highly motivated individuals to do the work and coast to an A? This was, funnily enough, a problem that I ended up encountering in another group project I completed this semester for an economics course. My professor ultimately remedied it by changing the grading rubric to emphasize individual contributions, thus discouraging freeriding but also encouraging the aforementioned problem of some group members ramming their ideas through to get credit. How has our class, then, managed to largely avoid any obvious problems of freeriding in the first place? Why, when I scooted around from group to group several weeks ago, were so many people so enthusiastically sharing ideas and taking action to concretely move us forward? I think the answer is several other lines of text that have bounced around our classroom for some time now—lines that originate from our course readings and Butler’s fiction. Things that we’ve sometimes repeated to each other, like “there is risk in dealing with a partner,” and general paradigms we’ve borrowed to deal with the situation we’re in, like Oankali governance or Heather Marsh’s own model for society, have guided our group toward a system of collaboration that emphasizes the welfare of the whole and encourages open contribution from all on whatever they may be interested in.

I don’t think I could possibly discuss these solutions we found without mentioning their larger significance that’s been pinging around in my head for the past month or so. These problems—in-group competition and free riders—are ones that extend far, far beyond academic group projects. Model UN, for example, is more than just an academic club; it’s a breeding ground for the future leaders of American policy and diplomacy. Little ol’ Geneseo travels to Yale, UPenn, and West Point every year to compete with the Ivy League students who will quite literally be running our government someday, and, to reiterate, those people are being trained by this club to ram their own interests through everyone else’s—although, in their defense, they’re being trained this way because it’s actually how diplomacy functions. Freeriding, too, is one of the fundamental issues facing American policy; private actors and market forces consistently under-produce vital resources like sanitation and communication infrastructure, because it’s too easy for individuals to benefit from those resources without having to work toward them. It then seems significant, to say the least, that our classroom managed to circumvent these issues, and I’ve been thinking for some time on exactly how we did it.

I’ve been encouraged to discover/refine two basic conclusions through this line of thinking; the first is one that I’ve found people trained in the humanities tend to ignore, and the second is one that I’ve found people in the social sciences are hardly even aware of. The first conclusion, which I think professors and students of the humanities may ignore, is that material incentives matter. That is, the specific mechanisms by which people are encouraged to pursue their goals matter an enormous amount to what they ultimately end up doing. I don’t mean to call out everyone in the humanities, but I find that much of the theory coming from students of English and philosophy tends to develop intricate systems of thought at the expense of how that thought is acted upon. As our class has shown, the precise incentives we’re given to pursue our ultimate goal (getting an A, in our case) can change the fundamental nature of a group—even if that group’s goal remains constant. As I mentioned previously, our governing system—and, I would argue, our larger society—currently stresses awards on the individual level through resource accumulation or social prestige. Most everyone whose life is fundamentally shaped by the forces of capital and hierarchy is pushed to put their own interests over the interests of others, causing many of the same problems that we see in group work throughout the world.

The second conclusion, which most social scientists live in blissful ignorance of, is that culture matters. The texts and models that I think are constantly running through all of our heads come to profoundly impact our behavior as well. The solution that most economists have employed when coming in contact with this problem, so far as I can tell, is to run screaming into the night—although I think they’re worse than most, many other branches of social science haven’t really figured out how to incorporate all the different determinants that inform our values on a broader level into their theory either; at a time when popular art and societal conversations play an ever-more-important role in our lives, many professional scholars of people are just beginning to acknowledge the existence of that role. As our class has shown, the different culture and discourse we collectively experience can indeed shape our actions in a pretty profound way. (Side note: it’s been incredibly affirming, as I send out graduate school applications in which my most basic research questions rely on the assumption that art and culture affect behavior, to see this assumption play out in our class.) Unfortunately I don’t think our broader society is operating on discourse that’s even nearly as conducive to collaboration as our group’s discourse was. It is, after all, Locke rather than Butler that most of us have to learn about in HUMN. Is it any wonder that we’re constantly facing the free rider problem in a society so heavily influenced by the idea that civilization exists as a tool for the accumulation of private property?

To close… I lied. I actually drew a third conclusion from thinking about the significance of our group work, and it’s this: the process we used to complete our final project provides a viable alternative to our dominant systems of collaboration and all the aforementioned problems inherent to them. I think that, with the proper attention paid to incentive structures and discourse, we could feasibly live in a world that’s brought and bound together (to use our course language) far more equitably than the one we were born into. Now, I don’t mean to exaggerate the significance of what we did in class this semester. I’m not saying that we’ve changed the world forever or even that we’ve done something entirely original. What we did do, though, was successfully apply the existing theory that Dr. McCoy introduced us to over the course of the semester. We proved—on however small a scale—that the way things are is not the way things must always be. What’s more, we captured specific examples of incentives and culture that produced this fascinating alternative, and that goes far beyond what I feel I’ve done in any English class to date. Dr. McCoy wasn’t the only person to whom this project gave hope; the feeling of successfully operating outside our society’s established norms of organization—of working toward a common goal with a group that I felt I could trust to be fair and diligent—has been inebriant. I won’t soon forget it.

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