Note to group 6

Always, in my Intro to Shakespeare class, some of the performance projects go real well, and some, a lot less well. Today we had, side by side, what will probably turn out to be the best performance (Othello 5.2) and the least best (MSND 3.2).

Everything lined up for the Othello group – a skilled director, lots of acting talent, a harmonious group, all members able to give the project their full care. Things didn’t line up so well for the Midsummer Night’s Dream group. Their performance was postponed because Oberon – also their director – caught pneumonia; and it turned out she’d only attended rehearsals fitfully. The student who took over directing also had, as Puck, the most lines to memorize, and didn’t fully. And the group as a whole just didn’t cohere.

Group projects are great, and suck, for about the same reasons. Here’s the e-mail to the Midsummer group I’ve spent this evening writing and rewriting – maybe I try too hard to get these things right. But I hope they’ll find in the dross of their experience today something shining, worth more, Rumi says, than money or power.

Hello Group 6,

I wanted to follow up about today’s performance, and your portfolio. It wasn’t hard to see you were disappointed by how the performance turned out. Our conversation afterward may also have been discouraging. But I hope this project can still be meaningful for you – worth having done, maybe even rewarding.

Group projects are great in a lot of ways, but they can be unfair. Some people might end up doing a lot more work than others. And if one person in the group withdraws, the rest can be left scrambling to fill the hole the one who’s departed has left.

Life after college is going to deal you similar situations: unexpected, unfair, undoable. And in life after college, if you don’t respond skillfully, you might lose a job, a house, a relationship. Right now, in a class, you’re quite protected. The most you can lose here is the good grade your own individual work might have earned you.

So I hope you’ll approach the rest of this project – preparing your portfolio – as practice. Practice, specifically, in what to do when you’re dealt a crappy hand.

I’ve already suggested that in preparing your individual statements, you explain how the withdrawal of one member required you to redistribute responsibilities. Please don’t cast blame – we don’t know that one member’s circumstances, and aren’t in a position to judge. Instead, give a realistic appraisal of a difficult situation, and measures you took to cope with it, and which measures worked, and which didn’t.

If it helps, imagine you’re a team in a corporation. You were given a project. Because of problems with planning and execution – some thanks to circumstances beyond your control, and some to mistakes your team made – things didn’t go the way you, or your bosses, wanted. Now you’re writing the report that explains how and why.

You don’t want to be defensive, or make excuses, or blame everything on external factors – you need to take responsibility. But also, you had difficult circumstances to work with, and you should identify and describe them clearly. No special pleading; no falling on swords. Help your reader see you as fully human beings, earnest, fallible.

A point of comparison. Sometimes a class goes south on me. I try this, I try that, and it fails anyway. My first impulse is to make excuses: I’m blameless, there was something wrong with the students, or my department was stupid to give me the course in the first place. But even if there’s some truth to that, I can’t write it that way. I need, rather, to take responsibility for my misjudgements; also, to describe conditions outside my control, without making excuses; and to highlight what I’ve learned, so you can see I’m committed to learning and growing as a teacher. Nowhere do I falsify – nor would I suggest you falsify. I just describe, as honestly as I can, the conditions I was working with, as I highlight my openness to learning from the experience.

You will, I promise you, face like situations in your life: unkind, unfair, unwanted. If this class can help prepare you for that, well damn, that would be a fine thing. Then we could say, of all the groups in this class, yours had gotten the most out of this project. The rest learned how to read, act, direct. You learned how to live in difficulty.

I do wish that for you. If you want to talk about how to shape your portfolio, just let me know. You have my admiration.


The image atop is a detail from

Paton - Quarrel
Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, 1849