Friday, January 10, 2014

Cliches explained: Study Groups Bring People Together

Teacher stands up, and says: "For your final uber important assignment that is also tangentially tied to the overall plot of his book, you'll be working in groups."

A ripple of excitement spreads over the students. Unlikely Heroine feigns indifference, but her heart leaps in her throat when she's paired up with the Biggest Jerk in class. Oh my! 

And we, the readers, clutch at our hearts, because we all know where this is leading. 

Namely, Biggest Jerk grows a second set of legs to run away from the Unlikely Heroine before she goes after him with the textbook.

If that doesn't seem logical to you, you've clearly not been to Uni. Or my Uni at least.

Contemporary YA will have us believe that group work is like a dating service. You go to school, minding your own business, then BAM! You're paired up with someone outside of your group (waaaaaay outside of your group, when talking about "Hush, Hush") and your whole life changes. Boyfriends are aplenty. Stuff gets solved. And you ace the assignment!


The thing about this particular cliche is... it doesn't have to be that way. Yes, being forced together by school assignments is usually a good way to meet new people, and sometimes, that even leads to making some fantastic new friendships (or more.)

But there is a good reason why we, given the choice, try to get in study groups with our friends. And that reason, my lovelies, is because your friends won't get mad at you when you go: "Guys, this idea isn't working, we need to start from scratch." 

Regardless of whatever warm and fuzzy feelings one might get while interacting with your brand new study group, the fact is, we live in a largely meritocratic society (so meritocratic the USA has a whole "dream" that tells you that if you're poor and oppressed, it's your fault because you're lazy.)  We learn this at school and from TV programs, that winners start early and nice people finish last and  that good grades are a ticket to success, (which isn't always true because nowadays lots of people get good grades and you don't know how to shuffle us around.) 

Some wiser people break away from it early, but I've noticed that even those who seem "laid-back" and "cool" tend to get nervous when there's a grade on the line. And things get a lot more tense when that grade depends on other people than  you. 

Here's the thing - I don't really think YA has portrayed just how stressful it is for someone to depend on other people to get the job done. Books like "Nevermore" and "The DUFF", which pair off the hapless protagonist with her polar opposite tend to start off promisingly but the grade tension is quickly gone as soon as the romance starts kicking in.

Which could be realistic, but given that Average McNormal-Person is our usual POV character, I can't help but think that the "working together" trope is missing a huge chance of talking to us about our meritocracy system. ESPECIALLY since Average is also the kind of good girl who doesn't so much as breathe the wrong way until her scary partner comes and ruins her.

(I believe "Nevermore" had a whole huge subplot about the heroine's friends concern-trolling her about her English partner, which... would have been fine, if they were concern-trolling her for the right reason.)

And what's especially frustrating is, this trope can be developed and inserted like... so easily, guys! And it adds tension! And character development!

Picture this:

What if, rather than bask in how hot her new study partner is, the heroine gets frustrated when their working sessions devolve into flirting or making out?

What if she gets annoyed when he (or she, if the author is feeling particularly brave) isn't doing his/ her bit of the work? 

What if their laid-back attitude ("It's just a grade,") ticks the protagonist off, and they go on a tangent?

What if the protagonist goes as far as to request a new partner?

What if this whole  thing devolves into an argument and going to college and getting a good job vs. the benefits of a life that is not plagued by student loans? How would your protagonist, who has always believed in the good grades-good job-good life triumvirate, react when someone they have a crush on tells them that, hey, there's more important things to life than that?

And that's just one way you can take it.

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