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Professional integrity and the dreaded group project

By Amy Nielsen

I had the opportunity to be part of yet another dreaded group project in my Master’s of Nutrition program this past week. It was the culmination of a 15-week class and it was a live, in-class presentation.

Everyone dreads group work. I kind of like it. I’m that sick, twisted one who likes logistics, planning, gathering, and sorting. I adore working with other dedicated, passionate, professionals with drive and creativity. What I don’t do is the tech side. I cannot make a pretty presentation– that’s why I work with a team – I can hand all of my research over to the member who is good at that part.

What I do not put up with in a group project, is someone who decides they hate group projects and their solution is going to be to ignore everything to do with it. And then, get combative when confronted with their lack of involvement.

Group projects are part of school, any school. Suck it up, put on your big girl panties and do it. If the team is good, and ours was, the team will find a way for each member to participate to the best of their abilities and work within their strong suit. This is how you grow a successful team.

My school is a small specialized school hosting both online and on campus portions of our program. The students mostly travel in for weekend-long intensive classes. This class in no different, with five weekends spent on campus and a month between each meeting. Between classes students communicate through our school email or informally on Facebook.

Our project was an hour-long presentation on a topic of great debate. We were teamed up in groups of about eight by the professor.  Within that structure, we decided to break into smaller teams of two to tackle each section of the topic thoroughly as there was a plethora of information to sift through.

It became obvious from our first team meeting where our weakest link was going to fall. Even at that very first meeting she was argumentative and refused to offer suggestion or solutions when asked. Several days later, our first online meeting was no better. She was an hour late to a two hour call, unprepared, and unwilling to catch up.

That was a month ago.

Since then the team created a cohesive, well-planned, organized presentation. We worked hard through serious technical difficulties, having to switch platforms completely half way through. We culled more data than we collected. We could have easily presented for two hours with the amount of material we gathered. Together we cherry picked exactly the right phrasing to support our case with graphics and case studies.

Last week, at our call two days before we were to turn in our supporting documents and slide deck – before we all had to spend the following day traveling to campus from our far flung homes - our weak link decided to rear her head and join the program. Joining the call late, as always, she was downright combative with the rest of us. That was when she was actually intelligible, as most of the time we couldn’t even understand what she was saying, she was that drunk.

After another difficult call the night before our presentation, she decided to go into the presentation online at midnight, after we had turned it in, and change around not only her section - changing wording and even removing graphs and pictures – but also her partner’s section.

Her partner happened to be up, working on another exam, when, thankfully, weak link gal called to have her look at the new material that had been added. The partner messaged the rest of us at one in the morning in tears. So away we went to fix it and resubmit in the wee hours of the morning we were to present, when the deadline for submissions had long passed. We hoped we would still pass as a team as this professor is adamant about deadlines.

During that late night/early morning kerfluffle, we made the decision to stand up as a team and call her out to our professor.

This was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make academically. To call out a teammate on a project the morning of the presentation – to potentially cause her to fail the class – is a huge deal. Here we were, as a team, as a cohort, and as early professionals, doing work in a style we will encounter for the rest of our professional lives and she was going to take credit for work she didn’t do. Worse yet, she was going to take credit for something she actively worked against.

This became about not only her personal integrity, but also my personal and professional integrity. I am moving into a field that is emerging in the health care world. To say I have to have more professional integrity than the entire rest of the field put together is an understatement. I know that we are fighting against big pharma and the entrenched biomedical world. Without my professional integrity, my research means nothing. My professional integrity starts now, in school, with these colleagues.

Moving forward, these fellow students will become fellow practitioners. Do I really want someone with that work ethic and moral compass to be viewed with the same professionalism I am? No way. Her actions diminish my professional integrity. My personal integrity and ethical compass say I need to stand up and call her out.

As it happened, we emailed the professor our concerns. Before calling class to order, he met with our team, minus the offender as she hadn’t yet arrived. Weak link gal was almost an hour late for class, not to even mention we had agreed to come in an hour early to make sure we were good after the night’s debacle, so really two hours late. The professor listened, asked several questions of us to clarify our disagreement, and then told us she wasn’t passing the class already and that this just clinched it for him. He would be bringing this up with her academic advisor and follow the school’s route for discipline.

Personal and professional integrity comes from within, but sometimes one has to stand up to make sure the underlying tenants of that integrity don’t get undercut by a current of easy complicity. It would have been easier, less stressful, and certainly less emotional, if we had just let her slide. But I can’t swallow that she, in her current state, will be a representative of my profession. So, I stood up.

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