Thursday, January 05, 2012

All scholarship is collaborative scholarship

Tenured Radical's latest post on the value of collaborative work--which is also an exhortation to teach collaboration to graduate students and to find more ways to recognize such work within the profession--resonates with some of what I've been mulling over as I work through yet another round of book revisions.

The older I get, the more convinced I become that all our scholarship, and maybe all our work, period, is collaborative in a deep but also deeply unexamined way. However many pages our acknowledgments sections may stretch to--with thanks given to our peers, our friends, our dogs and our gods--we still prefer to think of the work that we and others do as the product of our own brains and our own brilliance: those other readers and interlocutors were just helping us to say, better, whatever we were always intending to say.

And that's true, to a degree. All the mentors in the world won't make a mediocre project a great one, and much of the best scholarship seems rooted in a radically individual intelligence: a mind that may have been trained in the same way as hundreds of others, but that has a fierce peculiar temper all its own.

But the thing is, we have all been trained in the norms of our disciplines, in more or less the same way, and we've all read thousands of works of scholarship; everything we do involves applying or building on the work of a multitude of forebears. We're none of us, really, advancing a radically new perspective or inventing a wholly new field--and none of us truly works in isolation even if she writes in hermetic solitude and never shows her prose to anyone until the day it hits the desk of an editor at one or another journal or academic press.

I haven't been much of a scholarly collaborator or sharer myself in the past; I didn't have peers who read my work in grad school, and I didn't get a lot of guidance from my dissertation advisor then or afterward. In the past few years, I've started sending bits and pieces of my work to friends, and I've been grateful for their feedback, but until recently I never felt that they were really shaping my work--just giving me things to think about, new sources to read, and that sort of thing.

But for whatever reason, in the throes of what I hope will be my last round of substantive revisions and after getting two thorough-going readers' reports from senior scholars, both of whom seem to be in subfields a bit aslant or adjacent to my own, it's hit me how absolutely impossible this book would have been to write without all the feedback I've gotten--major and minor--on my work over the years and all the panels I've attended and all the conversations I've had about the state of the field. The exact focus of my book is peculiar, and if I hadn't written it I doubt anyone else would have done so any time soon (which, uh, isn't a boast; it's weird enough that I'm not sure who will want to read the thing). But it is certainly not the case that I had a clear and lucid argument from the beginning, or probably even two years ago, and if I have one now it's only thanks to the pushing and prodding and sometimes enthusiasm and sometimes baffled irritation of my readers and interlocutors. I love that I've had them, and I love that I can drop three emails in three days to friends with different areas of expertise, just saying, "hey, I think this thing might be true--is it? or if not, can you save me from sounding like a jackass?"

I'm smarter now than I was when I started this project ten years ago. But if I'm ever to publish a second book, I know it will depend at least as heavily on the advice and expertise of others.


J. Otto Pohl said...

What you describe is not really collaboration. Of course 'no man is an island' even scholars, but there is a huge difference from what you are describing and actually co-writing a journal article or conference paper with somebody else. I have co-written one published journal article and one conference paper which should become a book chapter soon. In such cases you have to agree on a common thesis and then divide up how you will support it. This means planning out the structure of the argument together. This is considerably different than one person giving comments, advise, or criticism on a project devised and executed by a single person.

I think there needs to be more of the deep collaboration I described above by historians. But, for a whole host of reasons I do not see this happening. American scholars in particular are too attached to the idea of a zero sum game in research and publication. They game peer review merely to prevent other people from being published. They refuse to share sources with other scholars. They deliberately provide graduate students with bad advice. There is no creature on earth more self centered, selfish, and less interested in cooperation than the American based academic.

Historiann said...

This is a really nice response. I'm still trying to get my brain around TR's last post, so I appreciate reading your thoughtful contribution to the conversation.

Your post suggests that the line between single-authored articles or books and solo-taught courses and joint endeavors is more complicated than we might think. But given that ambiguity (and if you accept TR's contention that collaborative work isn't evaluated appropriately in faculty advancement), why is it so difficult for some disciplines to evaluate collaborative teaching and research?

squadratomagico said...

While I see your point, ultimately I have to agree with Otto. I also have both taught and published collaboratively, and in both cases it was a totally different kind of experience from doing the same tasks on my own. I think there is a valid distinction to be made between those activities, and the more general observation that we all live in densely networked webs of relationships, which inevitably are the basic ground of possibility for what we produce under our own name. I've always assumed that the latter was a stipulated understanding amongst us all.

But I've learned very different things, and had to work in very different ways, publishing or teaching with someone who had a right to be involved in every decision, versus making all decisions on my own, but with ratified to various interlocutors and inspirations.

squadratomagico said...

Oops! Working on an iPad, which autocorrected. The word in the last sentence should be "gratitude," not "ratified."

Flavia said...

Otto & Squadrato:

I'm not trying to erase all distinctions between collaborative--jointly-researched and jointly-authored--work and the kind of work I'm describing. Obviously, I know the difference between the two! I'm just saying that, in a larger sense, everything we do is collaborative, and it behooves us to think more modestly about our single-author contributions, seeing them as dialogic and as impossible without the work and advice of others.

J. Otto Pohl said...

I think historians do see themselves in dialogue or argument with each other. That is they usually explicitly position themselves against and with others in the field. But, this conversation is not one of working together to increase knowledge. It is rather more like a rather extended and on the surface slightly more polite debate in blog posts. Maybe in literature scholars focus a lot more on the texts themselves rather than the criticisms of other scholars than historians do?

moria said...

No time now, but {1} re: comments, of course this is a spectrum, but the analogy still stands, and {2} re: the main post, YES YES YES YES YES. Must remember to write out my own thoughts on this. For now, YES.

i said...

It seems all I'm doing on the internets these days is playing the cranky old fuddy duddy, but since this is my fate, I might as well be resigned to it.

I actually really cherish the solitude of scholarly work. Yes, I also love the conference, the exchange of writing, the sparks that come from teaching, and so on. But to do my best work I find I have to struggle to get away from the voices of others (including, often, from the voices of already-published authors) and see things for myself, or as close to it as I can get. I'm a pretty social creature these days, so achieving that solitude is much harder for me, but it is also more precious.

I've done a tiny bit of collaborative creative writing, and have tried and failed at collaborative academic writing. The creative experience was magical, electric -- but I also recognize it as the chemistry of a particular relationship in a particular moment, and would hate for that to be required of me.

Finally, here's an article from the NYT on group work and creativity that sheds, I think, somewhat more nuanced light on the problem:

The Rise of the new Groupthink

tony grafton said...

Dear Flavia, dear all,

Can't we have it all? Thick webs of support from mentors and colleagues; spells of solitude in the beloved melancholy cell? and collaboration? I've done them all, and each has its rich rewards (and I agree with Flavia and Moria that the relationship between support networks and full collaboration is harder to pin down than it may seem).

Two points. First: in history, we're all being called upon to cross borders. Collaboration is a powerful way to extend your reach to new languages, skills and archives, while working from your own position of strength--rather than trying to work in multiple languages and scholarly traditions, which most of us can't. In digital history and humanities, collaboration is pretty much required.

Second: collaboration is already the norm in many fields of academic work--including the vast majority of the sciences and a lot of hard social science. We humanists are actually outliers in this respect. Those are big money fields in which credit matters a lot for practical reasons that don't play a big role in our part of the intellectual world. If they can negotiate the question of which collaborator gets the spoils more or less successfully, we little humanists can do it too.

None of this is to say that we shouldn't also be able to work on our own, to the extent we ever have. Let's extend the possibilities, not narrow them.

Flavia said...

Thanks, I. and Tony, for your later thoughts on this.

I., I wasn't especially impressed with that article, for a lot of reasons--one being that it's about the fifth article the NYT has run in a month about the value of "stillness" and "disconnection," and it seemed merely a reprise of those themes; another being that every statement made about the virtues of solitary work was qualified to such an extent that the author seemed to undercut her every claim.

Basically, the takeaway seems to be a version of what Tony's saying (which I agree with wholeheartedly): let's recognize the way that both collaborative and independent work fuel each other and are necessary, and think about how and where to value both (and how to combine them, when we can).