In the grupetto

No-one sat on and everyone drove as hard as they could.

Matt Stephens, Life in the Grupetto

Here’s the thing about professional cycling. It’s not the lycra, it’s not the drugs, and it’s not the spectacle of Lance talking about himself in the third person as that flawed guy who did the bad things.

It’s the grupetto: the paradoxical collaboration that breaks out among rivals who are struggling at the back of the race, once the whole thing starts climbing uphill. The riders who end up in the grupetto are mostly specialist sprinters. Sprinters are the ones who burst from the pack and ride crazily fast for about ten seconds at the end, but to do this they have to hang on over the whole day with everyone else. Once the bloated caravan of the Tour starts to climb a mountain, the formidably weird biomechanics of the specialist climbers kick in, the peleton swings after them—and the sprinters fall off the back. Watch these super athletes closely and they look as though they’re riding backwards.

The loneliness and stress of their predicament is extraordinary. If each tries to get over the mountain on their own, they’ll struggle to avoid time-based elimination, because the physics of road racing decisively favours a pack riding together over an individual struggling alone into a headwind. But it’s as individuals that they stand to lose.

Why don’t professional cyclists panic when they fall behind on these savage gradients? Why don’t they quit? It’s because they have a plan. They’re waiting. They know that in the tradition of their discipline, a grupetto will form and pick them up, and an experienced leader will emerge and take charge of the group. The grupetto will form afresh every time, taking in those who show up on the day, and sharing out the work of riding as they have to, so that they can all stay in touch with the action at the front. They have to trust each other, and work together.

Here’s a bit more from Matt Stephens’ reflection on the meaning of the grupetto:

In the Grupetto team tactics and rivalries are put to one side and a unique camaraderie flourishes with the theme of one common aim; to arrive at the finish safely and inside the time limit.

This cameraderie is a model of contingent solidarity, also called “l’autobus” for obvious reasons: when you can’t keep up by yourself, you ride the bus. All you have in common is a willingness to respect the skills and struggles of the person you find beside you, and to recognise that if they’re not having the best day, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be there at all. The essence of the grupetto is that it’s a form of hospitality, a relief from the nagging squabble in your head between where you are and where you’d like to be. The grupetto works because it creates a logic in which you can recognise yourself in the other person’s situation, and you can accept that their strength and stamina is your own.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I’ve been advising students who’ve fallen behind in an online class. Why do students panic or quit when they fall behind in online classes? Why do I? I think it happens like this: learners working online rule themselves out of succeeding because they’re staring at a syllabus crafted around milestones and deadlines, in which we have written the time-based elimination rules in bold as though these are the most important framing conditions for their learning: it’s all got to be done in time.

This has been my experience in every MOOC so far: before I’ve got my feet in the stirrups, a deadline has hit me like a headwind, and I’m down. I’ve missed the quiz, or the catch-up quiz, or the discussion of the poem, or the live chat. All I’ve got left to me is that last refuge of the time-challenged: the forums. And with thousands enrolled, these are the Grand Pacific Garbage Patch of messages in bottles, so there’s nothing to do there except add to the problem, while waiting not to get my certificate because I’ve failed to keep up.

So even if friendly constructivist MOOCs encourage me to hang around and chat anyway, the plain fact is that I’m missing their deadlines. (And in my most recent experience of this, I found that I was missing the daily deadline simply by sleeping through the North American working day. Go figure.)

When I look at the policy-crafted syllabus I gave the students in this class, I’m ashamed of how much of it is written in the same chastising language of failure and penalty. Failure to do this, that and the other thing, but especially failure to keep up, will result in … failure. Moreover, all sorts of collaboration and sharing except the group work we assign is treated as some kind of collusion among the work-shy, even a form of cheating, and this will result in failure.  All your own work, we chant, because the entire structure of our system is that grades are won—or lost—by individuals. Degrees are earned, and paid for, by individuals, not by teams.

How could students guess from this penalty-driven document that I will help them if they fall behind? More importantly, how do they know that I would recommend that they work together to rescue each other—that those who fall behind catch up by riding on the tailwind work that the leaders have done, and that the leaders have nothing to lose if this happens.

The cultural and institutional pressures against students working together in this way are really formidable. To overcome this, we need to review the assumptions embedded in our policies and documents about the individualist heroics of student success. Instead of focusing on training students how to succeed on their own, we need to introduce them to both the practice and the philosophy of the grupetto—how to feel no shame at all at needing help, and no embarrassment at being in a position to give it.

If we could get this right, we’d really be making an important contribution to their being able to flourish in their professional futures, perhaps as useful as anything else we ever teach.

20 thoughts on “In the grupetto

    1. Hi, PV
      It’s strange how something this simple can feel quite radical. I’ve just been reading the online syllabus for a nine week MOOC I was thinking of joining, that’s right on the topic of my current work. Even reading the outline, I felt slightly faint. I’m really not sure this outcomes-driven, legislative-style language encourages learners to engage. It’s hamster-wheel pedagogy.
      Confidence in the grupetto does seem to be a way of handling panic, and I think we don’t know nearly enough about how panic disables learners. It certainly disables me. So I’m very anti-panic at the moment, and trying to think about ways to create a more welcoming approach to the event of learning, which is really such a joy, when it works.

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      1. I immediately thought of my years teaching riding. Think what panic does to riders and How much – and dangerously – it disables their ability to react effectively. Turns on all the wrong and least useful instincts. With panicked riders, a steady mount and total trust in the instructor, which can’t happen in a shame pig environment.

        Thinking on it more…. sports psychology research might help with some answers.

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      2. The one this made me think of, Vanessa, is blue orb syndrome. It’s a disorientation experienced by divers and astronauts when they don’t know which way is up. When I read about it last year I was really struck by how it felt like situations we often find ourselves in, panicking because we can’t locate ourselves. Lovely to see you here, by the way.

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      1. Yes — I commented on that post but am still finding myself coming with reasons why such an approach is such a very bad idea. I was thinking about your earlier post “The Time We Give We Other” too, as a way of thinking about collaboration and presence in the classroom — so much about the “shaming” model seems to work against collaboration. The schadenfreude thing seemed especially appalling. How could you ever foster collaborative work if you’re encouraging–however subtly– students to enjoy another person’s shame?

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      2. I saw your comment, and cheered. For me, all this really connects to the question of hospitable pedagogy: we don’t shame guests who come into our home, so why do we think it’s our role or our right to shame students who commit their time to site down and learn with us? What makes us think this is something that would be good for them? Just awful.

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    1. This is such an important question, thank you so much. I read the OLDS MOOC course description in a state of teeth-chattering anxiety that quickly deteriorated into irk for exactly this reason. Now I’ve just read an #oldsmooc comment that describes the falling-behind process in terms of “the strong” and “the weak”. But the point is that those who appear momentarily weakened aren’t essentially weak in any meaningful way — we all spend time in the grupetto, whether we admit it or not. So to encourage students to form a temporary, pragmatic grupetto if they fall behind, I think we have to completely detach it from any idea of shame or weakness. This means setting it up in advance as a characteristic of successful collaborative learners, that we would value and perhaps even figure out how to credit, or at least openly appreciate.

      In my own MOOC experience, I’m starting to move from “It’s not you, it’s me” to “OK, it’s you”. That is, I think we’re seeing many of worst aspects of traditional syllabus and course design boosted thoughtlessly into online environments, and this is the latest: the mania for learner synchronisation achieved by the language of failure. MOOCs seem to me to be heavily leaning on the M of LMS, and I think this is partly because they’re co-ventures with LMS designers, who are naturally inclined towards time management as a proxy for learning management.

      This is what we need to disrupt, while we’re unbundling things. Why are we designing MOOCs that immediately throw learners into the experience of coping, rather than flourishing?

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  1. This is one of your best posts ever Kate. You have provided me with lots of food for thought. It would be great if one’s workplace, as well as one’s studies, were ‘in the grupetto’. This will be one of my aims. Thanks for articulating this idea so well.

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    1. Indeed! One thing I’m wondering is exactly whether we impose these values on students because we haven’t sorted out the problem amongst ourselves: how many of our processes of recognition and professional respect openly value collaboration? How much collaborative support of others can even be measured or counted? When it can’t, we’re sent the strongest possible message that collaboration is wasted and unproductive career time. And so it’s completely unthinkable that we could allow a whole team to work together for career promotion, because the employment contract on which the entire system is built is individualistic, and it generates myths of individual performance that mask the complete infrastructure of collegial support on which the most successful individuals depend.

      Even pro cycling has better ways of respecting and supporting all the roles in a team than we do. So that’s pretty embarrassing, as ethical role models go …

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  2. I’m not doing a MOOC — but I have just enrolled in a coursework masters with online delivery, and this post has me very, very worried. One of the attractions of this mode of learning was not having to take part in group-based assessment!

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    1. Hi Daniel
      I think I’m really looking for alternatives to group-based assessment — that is, we already have a tendency only to think about group work in those formal terms where we compel people to do things together. Educators have a tendency to treat formally organised group work as some kind of virtuously difficult thing, like eating vegetables. But I’m thinking more about provisional practices of helping each other out when help is needed.
      Does that make sense?
      Kate

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      1. I was thinking of the time a group of students (nontraditional) approached me asking if it would be OK if they met as a group to talk about a difficult book I’d assigned, as long as they promised to write their papers individually. Which was fine, of course, but a little sad that they felt the need to ask permission. I thought of my own experience my first semester in grad school, when I bonded with another classmate out of fear of an insanely hard professor … we spent the semester (and beyond) tutoring each other, sharing notes, etc. and became fast friends. Think “The Paper Chase” (TV version) — spontaneously forming study groups.

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  3. This reminds me of an early MOOC experience ~ Stephen Downes’ reaction to use of collaborative instead of cooperative describing cMOOCs. I think he posted on it somewhere. In short, collaboration usually prescriptive involves a specific task, assigned from above, in contrast to naturally emerging voluntary cooperation.

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  4. I could not be more excited that you just retweeted this, Kate. Not sure how I missed it, I must have fallen off the pack. Not your first bike analogy ?? I do sense a bit of anti-lycra bias (not without some merit😉

    The dynamic of a grupetto is one I can see using, but maybe picking apart at the edges of the metaphor– In a race like this, the cooperation is among racers at a relatively similar skill level. There are not people who just got a bicycle, or have not ridden one for years, or people who are riding their bike just because their friends are.

    What I do like is that its a behavior, if I follow right, is not strictly organized, at some point, people know to form one (or know they should be in one). But again, this happens I bet because they have done so before; unlike in an online class where a lot are just trying to figure out how to stay on their bike.

    But these are just curiosity questions, the larger concept of informal cooperation versus climb the mountain alone is just beautiful. Thanks for the ride.

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  5. Some days I think this whole blog could be subtitled “Does The Peleton Shit in the Woods?” Because of course, that’s exactly what happens. And so the obviousness of pro-cycling is often helpful to me in thinking when the mechanics of what I actually do for a living seems so hard to figure out.

    I reposted this just now because yesterday I discussed with a group of students the whole concept of grupetto thinking as a counter to the normal heroics of competitive practices, including those we impose on students themselves through our routines, our ways of valuing success/excess. So I was really glad to see that it came at a good time for you in your conversations — as it has for me in the context of thinking and rethinking the story of Stefan Grimm.

    I really appreciate the questions you’re asking in this comment, they’re at the pragmatic centre of the practice: how do people learn to sustain each other in this way? How do they know that they could? As educators, what can we do to help and openly value these practices of care?

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