November 14, 2017

KANKANHALLI | The ‘I’ in ‘Team’

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Recently, I’ve been grappling with my group identity. My courses this semester have placed an emphasis on collaborative group projects, and as such, I’ve been viewing myself through the lens of my teammates, as a part of a whole, rather than as a completely individual entity. In academic settings, the concept of group work is interesting in that it anchors a set of strangers, without much consistency in background or passion, to a common goal – likely a desirable grade. Usually, then, after teams are selected, the professor gradually decreases the level of imposed structure, and the madness begins.

Four of my six classes have currently assigned ongoing group projects: one of my teams is designing a website, one of them is building an application, one of them is filming a video and the last is dedicated to studying the role of technology in group work. As relatively long-term assignments, these projects demand heavy communication, both in-person and virtual, both in content and frequency. Routinely, during the week and weekend, I meet with my teammates to assess progress, schedule milestones, and divide up the workload, and of course, in these meetings, there is always room for small talk – we’re humans, not robots, right? We scatter peripheral questions, noncontroversial rants, and light hearted jokes throughout our sessions. Ironically, individual errors, instead of being shamed, are treated with excess tenderness in an effort to maintain harmony and assure good will of all participants. Yet, after all of these measures are taken to introduce warmth into a group, it still wears out so quickly. Somehow, meeting after meeting, the group dynamic never evolves into intimacy — only familiarity.

Like everything, familiarity has its pros and cons. Among its values, it’s comfortable, it’s safe and it’s perfect for teams looking to create A-grade deliverables that blend together the widely diverse perspectives of multiple students. In familiar settings, idea generation is uninhibited and creativity is welcome. In some ways, being placed on a team forces me to be better (outwardly, at least). It eases the workload and teaches me to delegate. In other ways, I am unsettled by the inconsistency and the unpredictability — who I am in a group depends so greatly on its members that I struggle to relate my performance back to my own personality.

Even though these meetings are purely academic by nature, they still don’t elicit a feeling of productivity in the end. Personally, there’s so little utility associated with group meetings, and these interactions simply feel empty — void of substance and excitement. Academically, I feel that progress is slow and fragmented, with no larger exchange of perspective. Socially, I feel that conversations with teammates always revert back to the assigned task — which is understandable, but still saddening.

I’m rattled by this feeling partially because of its implications to post-collegiate professional life. If intellectual collaboration doesn’t breed closeness, then how do colleagues become friends? Or, if it does, is friendship just a product of circumstance and necessity? What is it about academic teamwork that proves to be a dead halt for social synthesis? Why, when I walk away from a group meeting, do I feel like I’ve left nothing behind?

My frustration stems from a place of respect. I know there is so much I could learn from other students here pursuing a range of majors and interests, and the convergence of various backgrounds and experiences is a beautiful thing. Knowing this, it is more disappointing that direct, uncensored collaboration does not always allow for shared insight.

In defense of team settings, perhaps I’m expecting too much. Maybe it’s different outside the college bubble, and collaborators feel that their interactions are both intellectually stimulating and socially rewarding. In my penultimate year at Cornell, I haven’t stopped hoping that the people I meet and work with through classes might transition from “peer” or “teammate” — cold, formal and stiff — to friend.


Priya Kankanhalli ’19 is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Matters of Fact appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.