Leadership & Technology: Resurrecting a dead project

I am not a natural leader, at least not in the traditional sense. I don't take charge in groups, and I hang back to see what other people's thoughts and comments are. I tend to prefer creating consensus and collaboration over taking the reins and driving. I do not actively seek leadership roles, and I actually avoid them in situations where I am not completely confident in my own knowledge. So I guess it serves me right that I was forced into a leadership role after an academic catastrophe, working on material I did not fully understand, since I had been actively, if subconsciously, avoiding it.

When I signed up for LIS 538: Metadata in autumn 2008, I was pleased to see that a classmate whom I had worked with several times before was also in the class. He and I had a good working relationship for several semesters previously, so it was a no-brainer for me to ask him to work with me on a metadata project. I thought that the class would be difficult, but I was unprepared for how difficult it actually was. I immediately felt like I was out of my depth with the material and that I was only barely understanding what was going on. In hindsight, I suppose I should have assumed that my partner was feeling the same way, but I didn't. The assignments for the class were mostly bunched together at the end of the semester and we had been dividing the work fairly evenly. Then, several days before our second assignment was due, my partner sent me the section he said he would complete, and it was riddled with mistakes and less than half complete. I wrote him back and pointed out the discrepancies, and he said he would fix it. The next day, he sent me a document that was even more wrong than the initial draft. I once again responded with some corrections and some explanations and asked him if he thought he'd be able to finish his section or if he would rather I just take it on. He responded that he could finish it and to not worry about it. However, when he sent me his final draft, it was still wrong.

I flipped out. I was already feeling unsure of myself and the material and to have to work twice as hard to fix his mistakes made me angrier than I have been in quite a while. I cursed, I punched pillows, I stomped around and generally scared my cat. I did not, however, e-mail him back until I had calmed down. I told him that I wished he had told me he was not following what was going on in the class with at least enough time to try and help him out and to fix the assignment. We both decided that we were going to have to e-mail our professor and tell him that we would not be able to complete the assignment by the due date and why.

After I had written the letter to the professor, my partner wrote his own e-mail basically resigning from the project. This further frustrated me, because that was not the message I was trying to send to him at all. I did not want him to resign; I wanted him to be honest with me about what he understood and what he did not so we could work through our project together. Luckily, our professor was very understanding and allowed us the time we needed to put out the fire that was our current assignment. He also suggested that, instead of resigning from the project, my partner should allow me to be the project lead and that we try to work through our difficulties. While I was not particularly pleased with the entire situation, I was not about to throw my partner under the bus. I told my partner as much and he acquiesced.

So, even though I was not totally solid on the material myself, I took the lead. I assigned work, made timelines, and reviewed all his work. When he got something wrong, I explained things as best I could. The track changes feature in Word became my best friend, and the project slowly started to rise from the grave. I worked on it every spare moment I had.

It was only after I put together the documents that comprised final metadata standard descriptionthat the dots actually connected, and I really understood what I was doing. I have never taken a class before where I felt I only barely understood the material and had to help someone else limp along as well.

We got a 4.0 on the final assignment, and the professor gave us this feedback:

I am pleased with your final application profile. [...] Your total point award for the class is 93 points for a 3.7 grade (A-). I know that it was a bit of a bumpy ride for the two of you, but you weathered the storm gracefully ending up with a substantial product about which you can be proud. I hope the class was otherwise rewarding for you. [...] These are my only comments. Again, well done.

I have never worked so hard for an A- in whole my life. But I've never had a grade that was as gratifying.

© 2009 Elizabeth Bair