Eat the Monkey

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Squirrel monkey eats your tofu.

I’m teaching a section of the publishing class this semester. This class of a dozen students will break up into four groups of three to work on client projects for Champlain Publishing. They’ll have to assign tasks and make plans and keep deadlines and wow their clients and stretch their minds and do stuff they’ve never done before.

Why do we do this? Because all of the jobs in the emerging fields of publishing require several different types of skills and the ability to collaborate with multiple colleagues. The publishing class makes Champlain students think about that collaboration, both with the client and with their peers, even encouraging a little competition among friends. It makes them much more ready to take on that complex matrix of responsibilities – and much more responsible for their own education.

So for the first class meeting last week, I gave them an exercise. I split them into three randomly appointed groups, making a point to move them away from the friends they might be sitting next to and throwing those from different majors into groups together. You’re going on a ziplining/camping trip, I told them, whether you want to or not. You’ve got to get together to plan your trip.

I thought since we’re in New England, they’d probably know all about camping and ziplining up here, so I set their imaginary trips in Costa Rica, where I could reasonably assume most of them had never been. I thought that might make it just a smidge more difficult.

It did not. Turns out the exercise was way too easy for everybody in the room. They had appointed leaders in the areas of travel arrangements, food, finances, transportation and zipline training within about three minutes. (Hat tip to Group 2 — they made up an imaginary Costa Rican-based guide named Ted, whom they planned to hire as soon as they got down there and who would be their go-to guy for everything from carting their stuff around to making dinner reservations while taking care of any unforeseen disasters along the way.)

Within about five minutes, it seemed like if they were to take the whole trip out of the realm of the classroom and actually head for Costa Rica, all three groups would probably end up having a pretty good time. So I crept up on each group and threw little bombs at them, hoping to trip them up a bit and make them think.

For Group 1 I said, ok suppose Lara gets sick and can’t go. Who takes over her duties? Turns out they’d already developed a contingency plan for that – a second for Lara so her job would get done if she couldn’t do it. (For Group 2 I honestly don’t remember what I said, because I was trying to quickly think of some task they couldn’t just add to Ted’s list.)

As I snuck up on Group 3, I heard somebody say they were planning to store their food tied up in the trees while they slept. Okay then, I said, let’s say a monkey comes during the night and steals your food. Group 3 took the next few minutes, mostly to humor me, and developed a nice plan to keep their food away from thieving monkeys.

At the end of class, as everybody packed up to leave, somebody from Group 3 said casually, “We could always just eat the monkey.” I waited a beat for the other members of the group to recoil, but they didn’t. They just quietly got the point: The best way to stop a problem you know is going to recur is to cut it off at the source.

This was all very abstract, of course. It’s not like they appointed a monkey killer, and then an assistant to the monkey killer, in case the first appointee fell down on the job. But killing the monkey takes Group 3 from reacting to seeing a problem and working out a solution before it happens again.

It’s a small thing, definitely, and the analogy – even in the pretend world of the classroom – is gross. But you get what I’m going for here. Working in groups for outside publishing clients forces talented college students to think outside the boxes. Soon they’ll face real-world, business-based problems that, at least the short term, they’re not going to know how to solve. And very often, it’s the thoughts they’ll have getting up from a meeting that’s supposed to be about solving the problem that give them the insight that actually helps their group solve the problem.

If not, there’s always Ted.

This post originally appeared on the SETI Blog: The Search for Intelligent Life in Publishing, http://champlaincollegepublishing.com/blog.php