My husband is an aerospace engineer, and I’ve been interviewing him about his school days. This was spurred by his recent intervention in the educational trajectory of one of our young baristas. He started tutoring her in calculus, and she brought her grade up from a D to an A. Never having made it to calculus myself, I had a lot of questions. Is he just smarter than the average bear, or does he know something that the rest of us don’t know?
I hated study groups in school. I hated them because I was always the one who wound up doing all the work while everyone else got credit for it. This might have been awesome and lovely if anyone had thanked me for it, but, well, I was a nerd. I made the Dean’s List in college all on my own.
What would have been different about my academic career if I hadn’t had this distaste for group work?
Heck, what would have been different about my work career??
I knew about my hubby’s study group because he had briefly mentioned it back when we were still getting to know each other. Suddenly, after fourteen years, it struck me that this was no average study group. I needed to know more.
How did this group form?
What were the rules?
Who was in it, and how did they meet?
Where are they now?
The first thing to know is that aerospace engineering is not like most fields. Over 80% of the students wash out. It takes five years of hard work to get through the requirements, and there’s no time for electives. This is not a career that people stumble into by accident.
Compare and contrast: History degree
I knew that my husband moved to the opposite end of the state to go to school. Therefore, he had no classmates, friends, family, or colleagues nearby for social support. How did he meet people?
Crucial to the formation of the high-powered study group was a natural social hub, M. M was a member of several clubs and an active student group. He was bilingual, which is intriguing and seems relevant. (I grew up in a neighborhood composed of about 1/3 immigrant families representing at least five languages, and my classmates were generally top students). M went around getting to know people and introducing them to each other, and that’s how the members of the high-powered study group met.
The group originally consisted of four Upholders and one Questioner. The Questioner lost interest in engineering over the summer and never came back.
One member was second in the class and top in the group. The other three, including my husband, competed for second in the group. A certain amount of smack talk and teasing arose from this, driving competition.
(This would not have worked on me)
Other students tried to get into the group. While the group would help them if they showed up, they would not be invited back. The group changed locations between study sessions, essentially to protect their small size and remain exclusive. The rationale here was: if you want to sit at our table, you’d better add value.
There was another high-powered study group. Its membership and size fluctuated. Then there was another study group that consisted of C students. Studying together did nothing to improve their grades, and this is why the nature of the high-powered study group is so interesting.
Most of the C students did graduate and become engineers. Studying together probably helped them quite a bit. They weren’t accepted in the high-powered group because they couldn’t keep up. What they really wanted was the opportunity for tutoring. That’s a big ask. It’s really asking for free labor from other busy people without offering anything in exchange.
I think that’s fair. I’ve helped other students in school, just as I’ve helped people with their resumes in the working world. There’s only so much you can do for them, for one thing. I helped another student in my dorm by editing her papers, and I did it gladly because she helped me quite a bit in non-academic ways. Did I have time to edit papers for any and all comers? Nope, I did not.
Most people don’t ask. Most people don’t ask for help because they know it’s their responsibility to do it on their own. Most people also understand the concepts of win-win and fair exchange, that you give and then you receive and then you give again.
What happened with the high-powered study group? What were its impressive powers?
The faculty became aware of the high-powered study group, because they always worked together on group assignments. They took on more complicated projects than the other groups. They stood out for their test scores. They could also be found using various empty classrooms for studying. This is how they built their reputation.
The school decided to close their aerospace program when this particular high-powered study group was one year from graduating.
The members of the high-powered study group marched into the dean’s office. They advocated for themselves and insisted that the program remain open until they graduated. The dean agreed and the program continued for an additional year.
Note that this was a win for all the students in their program that year, about fifty people.
The tradition continues. My hubby just did something similar, thirty years later. A group of interns who all went to school together were going to be relocated to various desks around the facility. My hubby thought they worked much better when the five of them sat together. He went up the chain of command - unbeknownst to the interns - and pushed back. The five interns continue to sit together and work together. Maybe they’ll go on to get patents together, maybe they’ll publish academic papers together, maybe they’ll leave and start their own company. Maybe they’ll just continue to turn out above-average work, because their group makes them more powerful than they were alone.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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