Monday, March 11, 2013

The Hidden Trap


By Ross Bronfenbrenner ’14
Within every syllabus lies a hidden trap. It is rarely mentioned and infrequently expounded upon, but every college student is always exceedingly aware of its presence. Subtly woven in among the discussions, papers, and exams, the final challenge of every course rears its ugly head when you least expect it.  Clearly, I'm speaking of the dreaded "group project."

Last week, for whatever reason, was the week that my various syllabi decided to conspire against me and impose a schedule consisting almost entirely of group projects. Through the various projects I've worked on this week, however, I've come to learn what makes Macalester, and its students, stand out. Mac students make group projects an experience not to be missed.

My first task of the week was to present the findings of a group research project through the exclusive use of Google Hangouts. Essentially, each group was to present its findings to the class using Skype-like technology without the members ever being in the same room. Despite my lack of technological skill, by the end of our presentation I could lead a full discussion, complete with PowerPoint and "screenshare" (in which I could project my own screen across the broadcast). Through working with my peers I discovered pedagogical methods I never would have otherwise found.

My second task was to co-lead a history class discussion for two hour-long class periods on Monday and Wednesday. Charged with synthesizing readings from across time, my teammate and I set about crafting a discussion on the notions of race, nation, and civilization with regard to the post-war treaties of World War I. On Tuesday night we played a baseball game in the Metrodome that lasted until 12:45 a.m. Wedneday. On the field afterwards, we sketched out an outline of our discussion. Nine hours later, we stood next to each other at the front of a classroom, leading our peers through the complexities inherent in reconciling early concepts of nation and class. Needless to say, the phrase "student-athlete" now has a very personal application for me.

In my third class, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, a group of five students wrote a fictional script in which we cast ourselves as various Supreme Court justices. With the goal of translating the often-esoteric legalese of Supreme Court decisions into conversational English, we brought into a modern restaurant the voices of some of our time’s most influential legal minds. Through a series of hilarious meetings in which we painted wild caricatures of the personalities on the Court today, we developed a complex metaphor linking the notion of substantive due process to the "constitutionality" of ordering off-menu. In so doing, we coined the phrase "substantive due pancakes." Our in-class skit ended with us serving a meal of fresh cooked pancakes, cooked live on stage, to our classmates.

It takes a special kind of commitment, patience, and dedication to make any group project a success. Furthermore, it takes a special kind of student—the kind I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by here at Macalester—to turn a 35,000-seat baseball stadium into a meeting room and a Supreme Court doctrine into a chance to serve pancakes in class.