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“Groupiness” in Scholarship

The cultures of scholarship are highly variable across the disciplines. Some fields are filled with single scholars doing their work in isolation. Others consist of large teams, with separate roles for each member or for different universities in cross-university consortia. Recent reading, talking to employers, and watching events in the science research sector, have made me think about whether we’re preparing our graduate students for both kinds of scholarship.

Some years ago the National Academies of Engineering issued a grand challenges report. The purpose of the report was to focus attention of the field on complicated unsolved problems like making solar energy economical, restoring and improving urban infrastructure, and providing universal access to clean water. Most all of those activities are taking place within teams that are focusing on different problems. As I mentioned in an earlier post the social science community was recently asked to develop a team-oriented research culture in order to increase its impact on society. The National Endowment for the Humanities has a collaborative grant program. The National Endowment of the Arts seeks to fund groups working across different arts fields. The National Institutes of Health have programs in translational research; the National Science Foundation is using the notion of convergence research. In short, most funding agencies for scholarship are attempting to promote group work.

Even in disciplines where individual work remains the basic building block of disciplines, after completion of our graduate programs, our students may find themselves working in teams. Outside of academia, the world of work is often organized in groups of colleagues pursuing a common goal. Increasingly, both our Masters’ and PhD graduates will work in organizations that are organized about teams fulfilling a goal of the organization.

With this in mind, I began to wonder how often our graduate programs expose our students to group work, where collaboration, listening, and adjudicating divisions of labor are experienced. One great benefit of working in groups is at the idea generation phase where the evidence is clear that different life experiences and talents produce better outcomes in diverse groups. Another benefit can occur in producing a written or visual product, when multiple people, all seeking to make the product better, can teach each other the value of multiple minds.

I’ve seen joint seminars that collaborate in writing proposals, simulating research grant proposals. Some programs offer “consulting” experiences, where clients outside the university present unsolved problems for their organizations and the class proposes solutions.

As I look at how the world of science and the humanities is evolving, it seems likely that our graduates need preparation for team-oriented work in their areas of expertise.

What more can we do to help them prepare for that world?

3 thoughts on ““Groupiness” in Scholarship

  1. I would offer the classroom is not the only educational experience available to our students. There are many opportunities to work in laboratories on campus, quite a few which are setup in a similar fashion to industrial R&D facilities. A handful of laboratories, such as the S2ERC, by their nature have projects that involve multiple researchers from diverse disciplines working collaboratively. Let us not forget that one of the values of a /research/ university is the opportunity to involve students in more than just reading and talk – they can learn by doing, applying their book learning and discussions, whereby they can truly understand the material and its relevance.

  2. A difficulty with team work in an academic setting involves the “grading” of the individual’s contribution to the team work. Of course, that’s also the case in the work world when it comes to recognizing contributions through promotions, pay raises, etc.

    When you solve the grading problem for team work, teach the solution to the students so that they can apply that lesson when they are assessing individuals’ contributions to team work in the work world.

  3. Knowing many people who have gotten Georgetown MBA’s they constantly talk about the key element of their program being working in groups and learning how to network. Other disciplines might look to the MBA programs for some ideas on collaborative learning and research. Just a thought.

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