Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Group Development Theory, Romance, and Ursula Rucker

Over half-way into the semester, and I find myself obsessed with poet/singer Ursula Rucker’s song “7,” a duet she sings with M.A.D. The song features a dialog between two lovers remembering the flush of falling in love and recognizing that their love has soured. The refrain depicts their shaky status: “When love is fading away too fast. What are we gonna do?” The pair needs to decide to call it quits or to revive their relationship. Should they passively stand by as their devotion evaporates, or should they make an intentional choice to do something, anything? 

The song ends on an optimistic note: “Trust me, it's us, in a circle . . . The nucleus, the beginning . Take it back to the beginning.” This optimism is less about the lovers actually repairing their relationship, living happily ever after. What is apparent is that the lovers have made a conscious decision to take action, to go back to the root, back to what brought them together in the first place.

Sounds familiar, right? The honeymoon high. The settling into a routine. Those inevitable nicks, cuts, and bumps that threaten to tear a couple apart. The lyrics track the years of their relationship: “The kid's six when we start to fight. The seventh year, tears took it to the limit We maintain full polarity positions. Time explodes with you and me hidden.” All leading to their current predicament: to sh*t or get off the pot.

The image of a circle and the number seven point to a pattern, a predictable cycle. Being “in a circle” suggests an inherent, human condition. The problems leading to a face-off in the seventh year of their relationship refers to the idiom “seven year itch,” a time when conjugal happiness declines. And the lovers’ conversation represents “make or break” time. The song, then, outlines the sequence or stages that couples can experience over the course of a relationship. 

This chronology of the relationship's  evolving path mirrors a sequence of phases I notice in several of my classes. In 1965, psychologist Bruce Tuckman came up the “form, storm, norm, and perform” model to describe how relationships develop over time. But where Rucker’s song expresses the journey of an intimate couple, the “form, storm, norm, and perform” theory seeks to explain the phases we might expect in work teams, small groups, and I would add, classrooms, too. 

“Form” refers to that honeymoon period. Tuckman’s “form stage” describes what I typically experience and observe the first days (in some cases, weeks) of most of my classes. Folks initially enjoy each others’ company (me included!). We do our best to make a good impression, and are prone to overlook minor conflicts and irritations. We experience an initial if superficial sense of “safety” as we believe and act as if we know what to expect from each other. We high hopes of meeting our (supposedly) unified goals. We are flushed with the excitement of our new relationship.

But as the weeks progressed, we (again, myself included), start getting comfortable, being a little less concerned about making a good impression (think of a blind date or the the first day on the job). At the same time, our tolerance for those slight irritations begin to decline. Students start to chafe under the weight of the assignments. I begin to get annoyed with side-talk I overlooked at the beginning of the semester. The initial safety students manifested with each other began to fray at the edges, in many cases, unraveling completely. Cliques formed. Arguments erupted. And we all, it seems, slowly began to realize that we all had different ideas what it means to be a productive team, to be in a learning environment.

We are storming - in varying degrees, but definitely storming.

It make sense. The “high” of beginning college is beginning to fade. Reality is setting in. First time college students are experiencing the difference between high school and college. Midterm results, progress notes, and the seemingly never ending grind of reading, writing, and studying have made it abundantly clear that the struggle is real, that their “narrative” of college life doesn’t match what they’re actually facing. This includes their expectations about their relationships with and expectations of us their professors. They see professors play by a different set of rules than high school teachers do, roles that are predicated on different sets of expectations and roles.

To complicate matters, students’ initial feelings towards each other are evolving, too. As students work in groups, participate in field trips and co-curricular activities together, they start rub up against each other in ways they hadn’t when we were in the honeymoon phase. Students increasingly see and experience other sides of each other, recognizing that being friends isn’t quite the same thing as being collegial. Sure, it was fun bonding when students first met each other, but now they are realizing that actually thinking, studying, and learning together requires sustained effort, more work than it took to make well intentioned pronouncements about feeling part of a community or sharing the same goals.

So like the characters in the song, we find ourselves at a point in the evolution of our group. We have to decide what we want to do next. Do we let the high hopes we had in September fade away? Do we ignore the inevitable problems that all groups face? Or do we, with intentionality, reassess the hopes, goals and wishes we had earlier this semester; that is, do we “take it back to the beginning” as Rucker’s song suggests?

This type of assessment, course adjustment, and reorientation signals the beginning of the “norming” phase of Tuckman's theory of development. Here, a group (our group!) can revisit our original hopes for our individual and group purpose. At this point, we greater experiential knowledge of what our goals and roles actually are, a stronger sense of what each of us actually want - and what we are willing to do (and tolerate).

And if we choose to norm, we’ll move into a newer, more genuine safety that facilitates greater “performing.” In our case, that performance is the actual purpose of our relationship, i.e., being active members of a community of learners. And like the cycle suggested by the song’s circle, we can expect that the new safety gained after norming will inevitably give way to a new, different storm. At that point, we’ll have to make another set of choices about what we really want. We’ll have to reassess how committed we are to our purpose. 

It’s no wonder that Rucker’s song piqued my interest - at first, because her and M.A.D.’s flow is so dope; now, because after obsessively listening to the song, I recognize that the lyrics echo what I saw going on in my classes (and in me!). The song compels me to actively reassess my goals and roles - and to make appropriate course adjustments. Basically, the song pushes me to exercise my agency instead of passively watching our energies and initial commitment to learning fade away. Time to take it back to the beginning, not to start over, but to thoughtfully revise our plan of action.