Stop, Collaborate and Listen.

Let me preface by apologizing for the title– I can’t steer clear of a tasteless reference to Vanilla Ice for really anything. 🙂

I’m first going to discuss what I felt were some of the more interesting definitions or ideas about collaboration, in thinking about the nature of collaboration itself, before turning to some of the issues that I’ve experienced in collaborative situations– especially when it comes to creating a concrete outcome for any given project. In the third section of this post, I’ll raise questions about collaboration and its place in the academy, working off of one of the main prompts for this week’s reading.

The Nature of Collaboration

The nature of collaboration, especially in several of these pieces, seems to focus upon the digital and upon digital tools to help foster collaborative relationships. In Unsworth’s piece “Creating Digital Resources: The Work of Many Hands” there is a suggestion that the collaborative is unmistakably intertwined with the digital. He writes, “Computers make it possible to pose questions, to frame research problems, that would otherwise be impossible to imagine. The computer provides us with the ability to keep track of enormous amounts of information, to sort and select that information rapidly and in many different ways, and to uncover in reams of mute data the aesthetically and intellectually apprehensible patterns on which understanding depends.” He goes on to talk about some sort of utopian space of the future, where computers will understand us, but says that for now, we must rely upon those who understand computers to get those messages across for us (presumably for those academics, like me, who might be a bit technologically challenged). Now, this idea doesn’t seem collaborative in the slightest to me. It seems like a frustrated thank-you to someone Unsworth *needed* to complete a digital project, without having the know-how himself. Does this seem like a vision of collaboration to be upheld and praised? Or is complicating the idea of collaboration (which is such a positive, upbeat sounding word) what we need?

In Collaborative Futures, the authors suggest that we can view collaboration as a sort of open relationship– we set guidelines and a different sort of ‘social pact’ in order to help us in our partnerships, rather than adhering to the monogamous relationships imagined here, which are deemed potentially ‘too fragile a social fabric’. They write that “Under a contract, the terms of collaboration are clear and legally binding. When collaboration is open and there is no explicit contract, the binding terms can be a shared passion, a common goal, a sense of community (or the lack thereof), but nevertheless, the need for implicit and explicit structure remains” (40). This definition of collaboration (and the overall theme, throughout the course of the piece, that the collaborative endeavor upon which the authors were embarking might be an exercise in futility and needless work) seems to me lovely but perhaps impractical. Perhaps I’ve ever only heard of drama involving “open relationships” and the metaphor confused the message they attempted to get across, but it seems that an acknowledgement of the need for structure, coupled with the idea that sheer passion is needed to propel the collaborators through the project, is a bit idealistic and does not address the very real potential concerns in an open collaboration.

Collaboration and Frustration

Perhaps this is my own challenge– perhaps everyone else has had extremely fruitful and successful collaborative exchanges that leave them feeling like all partners were honest and equal contributors to a labor of love. The idea of collaboration speaks to me and I think those who write about it (including, but not limited to the authors we’ve encountered this week) generally do so in a way that leaves me thinking, “Yes! This is what I’m missing! Sign me up!”

And then I engage in a project of a collaborative nature and run into the same frustrating challenges. One of us has misunderstood the intentions of the other, despite hours of communication. One of us has the governing idea for a project, which goes unrealized by the other team members– or perhaps is unyielding when asked about it. One person isn’t good about deadlines, another has an issue checking his or her email, and a third has run into a major personal crisis at the eleventh hour, leaving the rest of the team members to fill in the gaps. Each collaborative project I’ve participated in that resulted in some concrete outcome– that is, some kind of paper or proposal– there have been complications that have left me feeling more frustrated by the experience than able to enjoy those wonderful ‘Ah ha!’ moments that only come in working with groups.

Here, I guess, my question is: what are some of the things that collaboration can give us that other modes of work cannot? If you’ve found collaboration frustrating or perhaps ‘not worth it’ in the past, why? What can we do or how can we think about collaboration to diminish those attitudes and increase the positive outcomes of collaboration?

Collaborating in the Academy

One of the questions steering this week’s reading was: ‘digital scholarship and pedagogy rewards and often times requires collaboration at a level not previously expected of academics. How does this change the labor we do, our approaches to imagining and designing projects?’ I thought about this in connection with a story I recently heard from an adviser of mine, who admitted that she was reprimanded during her annual review for doing “too much collaborative work” and not enough on her own. Now, she works in a much more ‘traditional’ academic field, but the comment made me think twice about the role of collaboration, especially in tandem with the digital humanities or digital scholarship in general.

I think, like alternative forms of publishing, digital scholarship pushes the envelope in academy. So I’d like to add to this question– not only how does the collaborative expectation change the work that we and how it is imagined, designed, and implemented, but also, how is that work viewed by the academy and by society in general? Does collaboration change the way we view the work that has been done– and if so, how?

2 thoughts on “Stop, Collaborate and Listen.

  1. Erin Glass

    great post, mikalya. i was so intrigued by your thoughts of collaboration in theory (sign me up!) to collaboration in practice (head for the hills!) that i ended up posting what otherwise would have seemed a ridiculously long comment. at the moment my feeling is that it’s very difficult to cultivate a “authentic” (ahem) sense of collaboration within bureaucratic or institutional framework because it all too soon becomes a mission statement, series of emails, meetings, deadlines, schedule catastrophes and official displays of enthusiasm that kill real, project-nourishing enthusiasm all too quickly. but please, somebody set me straight.

  2. Michelle A. McSweeney (Johnson)

    I’m a fan of the Vanilla Ice reference, thanks! 🙂
    It’s interesting that we talk about collaboration as different from this larger cultural shift in perspective. Like you, I take issue with Unsworth’s utopian vision that computers allow us to collaborate and ask different questions. It’s the same questions we’ve been asking, we just now have very large calculators to ask it… As far as collaboration, sure – digital technology has greatly increased access to communicative devices, but without the dynamics of a good group already in place, collaboration breaks down into all the problems you have listed. I’m glad that projects like the Bracero project can happen, or the 9/11 archive, etc, etc, but I’m skeptical of the role of digital technology in making that happen…
    Late one night, I was procrastinating on JITP and found Kimon Keramidas’s JITP Teaching Fail about students in the ITP class being reluctant to edit each others’ work, he concludes that even being progressive isn’t enough for some institutional culture changes. I think collaboration is like this… New formats and possibilities don’t lead to changes in the way we do work, and computers don’t allow successful collaboration – a cooperative culture, good leadership and communication skills do.

Comments are closed.