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.