Since the inception of my team, we have really struggled with pair programming. We all agree that it is very beneficial, yet at every retrospective we ask why we aren’t pairing more. To be fair, the logistics of having three full-time developers works against us pairing well. I’m also sure we’re all pretty far on the introversion end of the personality spectrum, so pairing is exhausting for us. After a recent conversation with some of our interns at Mentor, I believe I have realized the greatest factor that is killing our collaboration through pairing. It’s the indirect result of an old fear of plagiarism.
Of course we aren’t concerned with plagiarizing one another. That’s not my point. The entire time we were in school (and all three of us have Master’s degrees, so that’s a lot of schoolin’), we got pounded with fear of plagiarism. Every discipline is plagued with an acute fear of the potential for plagiarism, and it manifests in instructors threatening extreme measures given to anyone who collaborates. My interns have told me that there are several courses where if there is any evidence of collaboration in their source code, that they will receive no credit for the assignment and be reported for academic misconduct. It strikes me as even more severe today than when I was in college, and it was bad enough then.
Fast-forward to our current positions at Mentor Graphics, and you see the indoctrination of individualism is alive and well. I’m convinced this deep-seated culture is what is killing our team pairing and collaboration. It’s not that we lack a belief that our work will be better when pairing. It’s quite the opposite. it’s that our natural tendency is to take an assignment-I mean story-from the board and work on it on our own. It was our primary mode of operation for years, so why would it change now?
I know that the role of the university isn’t to train people to do a job, but I don’t see how this benefits academia either. Graduate work always requires collaboration. Students work with their professors to get advice on their thesis and dissertations. Universities routinely churn out papers written by several collaborators. Yet in our course work, we operate in a vacuum where we must work alone. Occasionally there was a course where we had a project which we had to pick a partner or form a team. I always dreaded those because I simply didn’t know what to do or how to work with other people. Out of distrust, I feared being the one who was pinned with most of the work. While these team assignments were rare, at least most undergraduate programs feature a collaborative senior project for a semester or two. Unfortunately, these opportunities are not the norm. The culture instead fosters individualism and students like me need more chances and instruction to become comfortable, effective, and trustworthy in team environments.
As an undergrad, I always enjoyed working in study groups even if I was excelling in the course because the opportunity to guide others helped me master the material (take note that this differs greatly from team projects. In a study group, the outcome of my score was not dependent upon the performance of others). The few semesters I instructed discrete mathematics, I found ways I could encourage students to work together on assignments in hopes they likewise learn better. My key policy for this was the way I graded homework. I never graded for correctness. I merely took note if the student completed the assignment. Then I let the students know they were encouraged to collaborate on the homework because I wouldn’t be grading it such that original work was required. While this did leave open an opportunity for free-loading students to do no work and get credit for completing the assignment, I believe my exams were sufficiently challenging to eliminate any students who haven’t grappled with the homework material. I’m very pleased to report that I often found my students working together on the homework, discovering the solutions together, and teaching one another. Not only do I believe they had a better understanding of the material, I believe I did a better job preparing them for their future careers in software development.
I would love to see a re-examination of how universities are handling plagiarism. I haven’t the faintest clue what the solution to this problem is. I understand the need to protect intellectual rights and ownership. Somehow we need to balance the integrity of the degrees awarded to the individual, while encouraging these individuals to hone their teamwork skills. Again I don’t know what to do about it. I just know that today’s approach to policing plagiarism is creating a very costly negative side effect. It is harmful for both the industry and it can’t be good for academia either.
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