Tembusu spoilt the market for me on Group Work

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with their creator with certain unalienable rights, that amongst these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The writing of the American Declaration of Independence is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but it was in full written by a committee of five people which also included John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. But as with all group projects, the voice of the resulting essay was clearly Jefferson’s; he had, evidently, managed to convince the group his experience from writing a similar essay for another project at home in Virginia could apply here as well. When the other four started editing the draft, however, Jefferson became pretty annoyed. He subsequently went through the roof when the rest of the Continental Congress, instead of signing the draft as presented by Jefferson, debated and amended the draft line by line in a process which took multiple days, at times from 10 in the morning to the wee hours of the next day. The above sentence was originally this, preserved and published later by Jefferson to prove a point that the rest of his group mangled his original genius:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles & organising it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness. (sic)

You could see why Jefferson was annoyed.

Essays are, in large part, an expression of a person’s ego. Unlike equations or theories which can be reduced into a system of symbolic equations, essays are – to me, at any rate – not merely the reduction of real-world relations into a format which can be understood and operated on by others. (ie. not a science) They also can’t be reduced to a mode of creating affect and percept between the writer and the reader. (ie. not an art) Essays are those things, but more; they are what Deleuze would call philosophical concepts. Thus, the exact wording, phrasing, phonology, semantics, and semiology of an essay are important for it to connote a specific set of meanings. It is certainly not impossible for an essay to be co-written well, but it is incredibly hard for multiple minds to meld completely – much less sufficiently – to create an essay which both persons can be fully satisfied with.

Everyone has experienced the horrors of group work before. But few forms of group work are as mind-numbingly painful as essay writing. At least in scientific (or social scientific) research projects, there is a fixed goalpost in which all group members can work towards. Taste in methodology and design may vary, but everyone is forced to work on the same wavelength, with a certain set of precepts delineated by the course materials. Debugging code may be a pain in the ass when done as a group due to the whack-a-mole nature of the activity, but this can be worked through systematically. For the liberal arts, everyone tends to end up writing in their own plane of imminence no matter how much planning goes into it.

Last semester, when I was looking through my syllabuses, I noted that one of my professors explicitly wrote down that group work was mandated because “an integral part of the university learning experience is to acquire the ability (and temperament) to work with other people to perform specific tasks (after all, many of you will be working with colleagues at some point in your future careers).”

I don’t exactly disagree with that sentiment. Working in teams is an important skill to have. But not all activities are suited to working in groups, especially when the project is designed to engage the creativity of students. For that module (on Urban Geography), the project was to profile a shopping centre. Each of us in the group didn’t know exactly what we were supposed to do; when we did our research, we each went in different directions and covered different readings. By the time we started synthesising our different galaxy of ideas, we had struggled to develop a coherent framework which could accommodate everyone’s sense of what the project is supposed to be about. Beyond that, we found out that instant messaging is the absolute worst way in which to hold a meeting; it is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile ideas when the screen only shows the last five messages. The Frankenstein-esque essay managed to get an A-, to our surprise. The WhatsApp chat read: “it was hell but good job guys.”


I noticed, over the last two years, that part of why I felt my experiences in group work at my faculty was so negative was because my expectations for group work had been set by my experience in Tembusu modules. I am not entirely sure this is a universally held view, but there seems to be something qualitatively different in working with fellows and fellow Tembusu students. Everyone seems so much more chill and willing to partake in the give-and-take that comes with working in a group. The conversation tends to fly off into far away tangents, but it somehow manages to avoid the two most prevalent traits of Group Work in Singapore – that of no one speaking, and that of the Hobbesian free-for-all over control of the direction of the project. Both, I learnt the hard way, were not mutually exclusive; the most painful Group Work tends to be when the majority of the group choose to remain silent and not take sides while the more talkative ones talk themselves into an impasse.

Also, Tembusu groups should not work. Without a common major, our fields of study can’t be any more different; I, a Liberal Arts major, should not be able to operate on the same academic wavelength as a pharmacy major or a Mechanical Engineering major. We understand and work through things differently, but somehow my Tembusu class groups always get the job done, be it through the division of duties into who does what best, or the integration of cross-disciplinary feedback.

My experience with faculty-level group works has been the need to meet upwards of 10 times. Here, the number rarely goes beyond two.

Returning to where the essay began, I quote Alexis de Tocqueville in his analysis of the America Jefferson created:

Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations… In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others… Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association. I have come across several types of associations in America of which, I confess, I had not previously the slightest conception, and I have often admired the extreme skill they show in proposing a common object for the exertions of very many and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.

My five cents on why everything seems so much more chill in this college is the social capital we have accumulated over all these years, and associate with one another the same way de Tocqueville characterised America.

Whenever we want to do something, we don’t do it alone but go out looking for people to do it with – even if we are introverts. We all have the liberty to bowl alone or invite down politicians and political prisoners alone, but we choose not to. If we want to enjoy tea, or coffee, or board games, or squash, or exercise, or KFC deliveries, we go out looking for people to do it with. Even across interest groups which fight for the same ecological niche (i.e. they fulfil the same function in the Interest Group ecosystem), we choose to forgo the Darwinian impulse to fight but attend each other’s activities and work together to make the pie larger. Political Science majors in Shan can start a McNuggets fan club, and the people in the group chat for telegram delivery for KFC delivery won’t see it as a mockery of their interest and group. We can have a student newspaper (Treehouse), and a student magazine (Curios), and a creative writing group (tWord), and a current affairs group (Polity), and an actual news publication (Millegram).

These overlapping social networks, created by the floors and houses allocated to us by (what seems to be) a random number generator, create robust and dense networks of social capital which socialises us to act in certain ways – even to people we don’t know personally, before associating into a group in the classroom. In Duncan Watts’ Six Degrees, he talks about social networks and the strength of weak ties where effective social coordination does not arise from densely interlocking “strong” ties but rather derives from the presence of occasional weak ties between individuals who frequently didn’t know each other that well or have much in common. Our diversity makes our network so much bigger.

Being in the network, of course, also means that we can’t be dicks to one another without risking a backlash by the communal whole. But I personally don’t feel the suffocating grip of communalism, as John Stuart Mill would have described it. There isn’t the pressure to conform; we live and let live and generally intervene in other’s affairs when we are sure 1) they want to or 2) feel someone is being hurt or harmed.

Each one of us may have a different formulation of what the college means and is, and each of them may be mutually exclusive from the other, with its own assumptions, presuppositions, and prescriptions. But none of that matters, – in the end, each of our worldviews assembles with those of others’ organically at whatever point of contact seems viable, so that the end of one is indistinguishable from the start of the other.

Although a Tembusu project group may contain five people from different faculties and our lines of analysis may be different, our propensity to make connections seem to allow us to construct whatever bridge is needed to allow the melding of mutually contradictory propositions or arguments into one cohesive whole. And I am not entirely sure why that’s the case. I’d say our fellows – being in that weird Frankensteinian field of Science, Technology, and Society.

Tembusians are some of the most stressed out people I know. Too many of us, I included, voluntarily choose to do just that bit more than our mental health should allow us to tolerate. But for a bunch of goal orientated over-achievers, we don’t find it particularly hard when working together. We just need to find our different fields of imminence line up and connect them into a greater whole.


Pictures by Ryan Quek

About the Author

While not buried under books, you will find Reuben digging the depths of Wikipedia and Reddit for the most obscure of trivia facts. He would like for you to know that his major, Geography, is not only about rocks.