Group Work and the "Code of Silence"

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Despite the fact that groups were encouraged to use CMC to facilitate small group negotiations and collaborations, interviews with students confirmed the fact that Group B was not unique in eschewing CMC as a means of small-group communication. Groups favored, instead, traditional formats used previously in such situations--telephone calls and face-to-face meetings in the cafeteria of a nearby building. Their reasons for this were fairly consistent and pragmatic. Few could gain access to the computer networks more than once a day, if even that, which made e-mail an inefficient means for engaging in the on-going, deadline-driven communication and negotiation needed for group assignments. And, the few students in the class who did have home access to computer networks lived outside the local calling area of the campus, and therefore worried about the on-going extra costs of accessing campus-based e-mail accounts.

So, negotiations regarding group tasks and group roles did not take place online, and this created a distinct separation between group behavior in public and private spaces, primarily because of the constraints of time and money involved in owning or accessing a networked computer. However, there was another reason for this, explained to me by Student 3 in an interview: "You never want to disagree in public with your group." In other words, inter-group negotiations and conflict are a private matter; in public one remains silent about such things-- especially when one is being evaluated by an instructor for an ability to work in groups. Additionally, in this situation, the researcher's gaze apparently was also considered to be part of that construction of these public and private spaces. For instance, I was not aware--until after the semester was over and the grades were tallied--that Student 3 in Group B had received a lower grade because of negative evaluations from the rest of the group. Although I had picked up hints of tension in my interviews with the students, for the most part Group B seemed to present themselves as being capable of pulling together, when needed, to to complete their collaborative work with satisfactory results. However, the negative evaluation of one group member by the rest indicated that something else was going on beneath these surface appearances.

I am referring to this phenomenon as a "code of silence." On the one hand, this silence seemed to represent students' attempts to say to me, the researcher--and the instructor--"as long as we get the work done, how we work this out is none of your business. It is private. It is between us." As researcher, however, it is my business to ask pertinent questions related to such silences, for instance: Why was Student 3 evaluated negatively by the rest of Group B? More broadly, my questions were: Whose role(s) did it become to act as "correspondent" for the group, to post finished assignments on-line? What were the roles played by other group members? How were these roles assigned or negotiated? Were there correlations between online and offline group roles and participation/non-participation?

Indeed, how does one address such questions when a "code of silence" dictates that they not be raised? The instructor had allowed for a formal means of communication (peer evaluations at the end of the semester) through which students could, privately, break this "code of silence." However, these documents were not available to me during the course of the research project. On the other hand, in interviewing situations students were willing to discuss their group-work experiences in more general terms. Each student had experienced group work in previous instructional situations, so their "theories" about group work, like their discussions about e-mail and other computer uses, were based at least in part on these past experiences. Inevitably, however, students would illustrate their "theories" about group work with examples from their present situations. So, in part, my reading of the relationship between offline and online group roles and participation is based on a close reading of evidence found in interview transcripts. However, such a reading is also an exercise in trying to read between the lines-- to read meaning into the gaps and silences of online and offline transcripts.

As an example, an initial scrutiny of transcripts seems to yield the following interpretation: Student 3, in the interviews, was a self-characterized leader with "natural" leadership abilities, as well as a self-described hard-working student, taking more courses (six) that semester than any other student I interviewed. Two of these were courses outside the department, taken for the purpose of "providing a balance," since business and management courses were "too narrowly focused on money and profit." Although the heavy course load may have effected Student 3's contributions to the group, in the interview the student stated that the grade in Terry's class was "very important." In fact, a "good" grade was needed to bring a grade average up to a desired level. In addition, Student 3 had had positive prior and current experiences with CMC, and indicated "enthusiasm" about using CMC in this course. However, Student 3, speaking after a collaborative co-school project was completed, made the following remarks:

We had one guy, H--, who pretty much took the reins there, M-- was kind of like a silent partner. I guess he did the work with H-- , and then H-- would get online and tell us. We couldn't work as a full group, OU and MU, to determine what it was we wanted to do. When we had to give our presentations, we found an article that we liked, and we started working on that. We sent them a message saying, 'All right. This is the article we found that we liked.' Um, [Student 1] didn't phrase it as well as I'd like... [Student 1] said, 'Well, this is the article we're doing, so you better do it,' or something like that. So, that's typical.

The assumption that "natural" abilities and experience in leadership would lead to group leadership (or dominance) seem to backfire on Student 3. Most pertinently, I think, the critique of Student 1's rhetorical style in the above excerpt seems to have been made in the tone of a disapproving "boss" to a "secretary" ( "[Student 1] didn't phrase it as well as I'd like..") . In addition, as previously mentioned, Student 3 had been the one who had referred to Student 2 as "like the secretary of the group." Student 2, the self-styled "mediator," had played the "secretarial" or correspondent role early on because of convenient home access and positive prior experiences. But Student 1 had then assumed this role later on in communications with group members at OU.

It is entirely possible that Student 3--despite leadership skills, positive prior experiences in using CMC, "enthusiasm" about using it for the course, and the "importance" of the grade in the course--saw the CMC communications responsibilities in this group situation as analogous to the lesser duties of a secretary in a business situation. Unwittingly, perhaps, in not assuming the role of correspondent for the group, Student 3 may have not only lost a bid for leadership, but--as interview fragments seem to show-- also underscored apparently false assumptions about how group leadership in face-to-face encounters translates to group work in the virtual world. Student 3's own remarks about the OU group ("H-- took the reins; M-- was the silent partner") highlight the fact that the group correspondent's role in CMC environments may be closely connected to a leadership role.

In contrast to these other group members, Student 4 --group-shy and technology-shy from past experiences-- indicated no intention or desire to assume either role, leader or correspondent, in this situation. Instead, Student 4's contribution to the group, as evidenced by what I saw in the physical classroom and at the group's last meeting before the final, was a habit of taking copious handwritten notes on assigned readings. These were kept in a spiral-bound notebook and shared in group situations. When I made a remark at this last meeting about the ever-present notebook, both Student 1 and 2 began to tease Student 4 good-naturedly about this habit of "always taking notes."

While Student 4 seemed to find a way to become a "good" group member, though not a leader or active online participant, Student 3 was in essence "shunned," to use Saville-Troike's distinction, or at the very least "marginalized" from the group. This, at least, is my initial impression in trying to read beyond the group's "code of silence" through a close reading of the interview transcripts, and of the gaps and silences embedded in them. In the epilogue, I will make some further conjectures.


I have not yet discovered a formal definition or description of what I am calling "codes of silence" here, although sociolinguistic theory would, I am sure, posit such a rhetoric as being culturally constructed. RETURN

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