group projects

“Who read the article for today?”

One student shyly raised his hand before putting it back down.

Dang! My anthropology teacher almost never asks the class if we had actually read the assigned chapters, we usually just stutter through a discussion, peeking at the reading and picking up bits and pieces along the way. But he caught us this time; nobody was prepared to discuss community participation in development projects.

Then he uttered the two most dangerous words in a university setting: group project

Three volunteers will act as planners for a development project. The rest of the class is a community. The community will decide who they are and what their problem is; the developers will come and organize a project to fix it.

It was supposed to be preparation for the students’ future careers as successful development anthropologists. It turned into a game of who could come up with the most ridiculous story for their character.

Being the American in class, I refused to volunteer as one of the planners. No matter what I end up doing in life, I’ll never be on the side of the underdeveloped community, and isn’t this supposed to be role-playing anyway?

We decided that we were orphans. I tried to prod the group into settling on one specific, coherent problem, that we didn’t have a proper orphanage in our village, but the others kids got a spark in their imagination and the purpose of the exercise was lost.

The three developers attempted to wrangle us orphans under control to ask about our stories and our problems so that we could all participate as one community in solving our problem. Oh, but these things never work out as planned.

“I live in a willage, I am the oldest. I am 15 years old and have 8 brothers and 9 sisters. I work all the time and I want you to give me 17 scholarships for my family. My mother is sick.”

“I am an orphan and I live in the streets. I steal things everyday but I really like it and I don’t want to change.”

(student holds one arm behind his back) “As you can see, I have no arm. I work in Osh Bazaar. I wish to be chef. Please give me a big flat, that will solve my problems.”

“I work in farm. Can you give tractor?”

I was hysterical. The other students were talking and participating in class more than they have during any previous point in the semester, and it was completely irrelevant. The development planners, who included the other foreigner in the class (ze German) and the self-proclaimed ‘best anthropologist in the world’ (Turkmen), had no chance of coming to a meaningful conclusion with the rowdy orphans.

One girl interrupted the planners’ speech on cooperation and integrated solutions to let them know that she wanted a car or she wanted to go back to living on the streets. The teacher proclaimed that the developers had failed to solve the problem and dismissed class.

Future leaders of the world… a little rough around the edges.