On academic collaboration

August 15, 2011
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A couple of years ago an engineering company asked me to write a short article on one of their projects. For an English Ph.D. that should have been an easy exercise—after all, I write and edit for a living. And yet, it was harder than I expected, not because of the content (though I do know now what Offshore Supply Vessels are and do), but because of the very different way intellectual property gets used. I took over another person’s writing, used his words, and played fast and loose with quoted material. To an academic, this more journalistic approach was strange and, after a while, oddly freeing—the ultimate purpose was the best article we could write, and it didn’t matter who’d contributed a phrase or a quote. Moreover, my name wasn’t attached to it when it finally came out (though I did get paid).

The humanities put a lot of emphasis on individual (and, thereby, especially in school, gradable) work. We spend a lot of time teaching (and evaluating) single-authored essays, even as the “real world” very rarely demands these forms of researched writing academia trains, and in its stead, a lot of commercial writing is collaborative. Likewise, plagiarism is not a clearly defined field, neither theoretically nor practically: what constitutes general knowledge shifts with audiences, and one person’s obvious allusion is another’s unreferenced citation. Meanwhile, I spend most of my career foregrounding thematic and generic references and repetitions in story telling, rejecting the Romantic Originalgenie, yet in my discipline the originality of theoretical ideas are still the prime, the only measurement of worthwhile academic writing.

Collaborations are frowned upon in the humanities in a way that’s inconceivable in the sciences: monographs are still the prime currency in tenure and promotion, and our training doesn’t prepare or encourage us for the give and take that collaborative writing demands. For me that’s a shame, because I love writing with others. I learned early in grad school that I think best out loud and with and against others, and where I once had my fellow grad students, I later had fellow fan friends who’d think along and poke holes and challenge me to think deeper and further. But none of that compares to thinking with someone who has the same stakes in the project, who contributes not just ideas but also words to a shared whole.

As a result, I’ve started collaborating quite a bit. As an independent scholar I don’t have to worry about the types of writing I do, and I’ve realized that collaborative thinking and writing suits me: being responsible toward another person keeps me on track, and being able to run ideas by someone moves me over my thinking and writing blocks. I’ve collaborated on conference papers, essays, book collections, and one book project with more than half a dozen different people, and I’ve been co-editing a journal for the past four years. Not all of these projects have been successful, and the failures have taught me as much about the process as have the successes. There are a few rules that I’ve learned along the way.

  • Be Balanced — One of the biggest dangers, I think, is that one person puts more time, energy, and ideas into a project than the other. Being balanced doesn’t mean both people have to do exactly the same amount of work or the same type of work, but it does mean that neither one feels exploited or silenced. I’ve worked on projects where I wrote larger parts of the essay but my partner did all the stylistic fine tuning and much of the theoretical heavy lifting. I’ve worked on projects where we both wrote sections and then simply edited the other’s writing. And I’ve worked on projects where we sent the essay back and forth so many times that neither one of us could separate out in the end what we’d written. The important thing is that no one feels they’re working too much or that their ideas are being overlooked.
  • Be Clear — My biggest collaboration project failed not because we didn’t get along or because we didn’t want to do it, but because on some level we weren’t writing the same book. We had written the book proposal together (which turned into a great essay after we’d aborted the larger project), but when working on the chapters, we kept on moving in different directions, pulling at odd angles. I feel that we may ultimately have been imbalanced (the idea wasn’t mine, and I may never have been as fully committed) and we may not have talked enough up front about our expectations of the project and one another. Sometimes it’s really useful to state up front and revisit the various goals one has in a project, practically and intellectually.
  • Be Honest — Being up front about how much time one has, what other commitments may have to take precedent, and what one hopes to ultimately accomplish is key. If one partner feels they work more and harder than the other, they need to speak up or it’ll create frustration and anger. Likewise, it’s important to retain one’s own ideas if necessary. In one project, I’d been working together with my partner so closely that at one point I wrote her previously articulated ideas as ours. She felt comfortable enough to mention it, and we solved her concerns easily with a simple attribution. Collaborating doesn’t mean all ideas are up for grabs, nor does it mean one gives up all sense of style and diction. It does mean, however, that adjustments may have to be made on all sides.
  • Be Timely — That’s the biggest one for me, and my one major requirement at this point in any collaboration. I have to work with academic time and many academics’ lackadaisical relationship to deadlines on too many fronts to want to put up with it in personal projects. For me, quick response time and reasonable turnaround are key to any working collaboration. What constitutes timely can differ from person to person and project to project, but it needs to be clear to everyone participating what is expected and what they need to do.

I’ve been extremely lucky to have had amazing collaborators, with work ethics similar to mine and the ability to share ideas and words. A good collaboration makes you forget who came up with what idea and who wrote (and revised) what sentence and paragraph. A good collaboration allows you both to look back proudly on your essay and know that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. A good collaboration, in the end, is one where you’re still friends after the essay is published.


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16 Responses to “ On academic collaboration ”

  1. Kelli Marshall on August 15, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    What perfect timing, Kristina! Thanks for posting.

    I’m currently editing a Shakespeare-related anthology with a colleague from the UK. So far, the process has run smoothly: we work well together and constantly keep in touch via Twitter, email, and Facebook; we respect each other’s time and abilities; etc. And we knew going into the process that this would be the case. As you point out above, that’s key.

    Fast-forward to this weekend, when I stumbled across this piece on collaborative writing, which argues that PhDs (particularly those seeking tenure) should never, EVER, ever take on edited volumes: http://theprofessorisin.com/2011/08/02/should-i-do-an-edited-collection/ While I understand this professor’s/counselor’s perspective, I think, like you, that there are many things we can learn about ourselves, our colleagues, and the field itself through collaboration. Working with others in this manner is something I would never advise anyone against, at least not so strongly as the author above.

    Thanks again for posting!

    • Kristina Busse on August 15, 2011 at 1:24 PM

      Thanks so much Kelli 🙂 There is indeed something really excited about working with colleagues when things go well.

      As for the blog entry you cite: I remember being young and naive in grad school and thinking academia’s all about great thoughts and good teaching. Then I learned my lesson about marketing yourself and becoming more mercenary. Now I’ve become old and naive. I research what I’m interested in and write about what I want to write. But I’m also not employed, so all of Karen’s advice may very well be all too true…if the one and only reason we’re doing is is to get tenure at the best-rated school possible.

      That being said, I think her comments on gender in collaborations are interesting. All but one of my collaborations (the inestimable Jonathan Gray! 🙂 have been with other women, and both my edited collections and the journal are with another woman. I think the question shouldn’t be why more men are not doing the support&nurturing that editing requires, but why it’s valued so little. I love helping someone else’s essay become the best it can be, challenging them, thinking with and against them. That should be valued not only on the teaching level but also among peers…

      • Kelli Marshall on August 16, 2011 at 9:32 AM

        I wonder if this working-alone-is-better mindset will change once those currently “in charge” retire; after all, many professors my age have no problem with collaboration and do not see it as a detriment to their academic status…

        • Kristina Busse on August 16, 2011 at 10:01 AM

          I think our entire culture is pushing at collaborative work, so the humanities may be the last holdout but probably eventually find ways to at least allow more diverse ways of knowledge creation? [Theoretically, of course, that’s always all the rage, but little of the oh so cool cutting edge stuff holds up with traditional hiring committees!]

    • Jonathan Gray on August 16, 2011 at 10:28 AM

      I got pissed off with that link, and instead of hijacking this post, I wrote a new one: http://www.extratextual.tv/2011/08/edited-collections-why-bother/#more-895

      • Kelli Marshall on August 16, 2011 at 10:33 AM

        Bless you. Off to read it now…

      • Sean Duncan on August 17, 2011 at 8:46 AM

        Fantastic post, Jonathan — should be read by all. And makes me feel much better than the original blog post did, considering we just submitted an edited volume to the publisher a few weeks ago. 🙂

  2. Gabrielle Malcolm on August 15, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    HI – what an excellent post – I couldn’t agree more!
    I am the said colleague of Kelli’s from the UK. Not only does the opportunity to collaborate raise interesting questions about one’s own work it also offers double the perspective from a disciplinary and specialist point of view. Kelli’s field is film, mine is theatre. The interface that offers us is really remarkable and always interesting!

    thanks for the post.

    • Kristina Busse on August 15, 2011 at 1:27 PM

      Hey Gabrielle 🙂

      Thank you! I wholly agree with you on the real advantages of working with someone outside your field. The things I’ve read and learned in film and genre theory, queer and trans theory , because my co-writers sent essays my way and showed me my gaps… Coming from two disciplines (or even just emphases within a field), I always feel that we end up complementing or rather, at its best the whole becomes more than its parts!

      • Gabrielle Malcolm on August 15, 2011 at 2:57 PM

        And re: the blog that Kelli cites, where the author mentions the dilution of one’s work/name ?? Well, I don’t know how other people go about editing and collaborating but in my experience it is very far from a dilution – what a strange and negative description! And it might be naive (!) of me to say this – coming from someone who also does not have tenure and is an independent scholar — but I would seriously think twice about working within a faculty that saw such work as diluting my name and reputation!

        • Kristina Busse on August 15, 2011 at 4:55 PM

          That blog gives me all kinds of creepy vibes of preying on the fears of grad students, but then if I were her I’d just say that I’m only jealous and all 🙂

          All that being said, I think it’s interesting where the focus of both those blog posts was: I was all about the creating together and learning from one another, whereas hers is all about the eyes on the prize…

          And in reality it’s a bit of both, I guess. It’s work, definitely, but to me it’s as fannish an activity as betaing a vid or a story. It’s not a chore as much as it is enjoyable for me. I certainly wouldn’t be doing it otherwise!

  3. Jonathan Gray on August 15, 2011 at 12:01 PM

    I’ve really enjoyed my collaborative experiences (one of them with the inestimable Kristina Busse!), and I especially appreciate how it really challenges one’s own positions and expands one’s mind. It’s one thing to cite another author and work with their ideas, but it’s another thing to have to make one’s own ideas and words accountable to and commensurate with those ideas. It’s like the rationale behind eating someone’s brain to gain their intelligence, yet not so messy and socially unacceptable.

    • Kristina Busse on August 15, 2011 at 2:09 PM

      Yes, working with you indeed was a pleasure! Work fell nicely into place, and we both are turnaround kinda people, which made it really nice!

      I love your metaphor! *yum, yum*

      But yes, thinking together is really brilliant!!!

      • Robert on August 16, 2011 at 7:10 AM

        Collaborative collaboration, especially in academic projects need not only a thorough approach, but also a skeptical eye for everything. For one needs to understand that at the receiving end are mostly docile minds looking for more info to gobble up and not decipher like seasoned analysts. Good post mate! 🙂

        • Kristina Busse on August 16, 2011 at 9:58 AM

          And still with the eating metaphors. LOL.

          Yes, I do think that having another mind challenging every thought, every sentence makes for better writing. I just had a two hour conversation with my co-editor that made me dig deeper and think farther about something I’d written, and while we do that when we beta one another’s essays, it’s different when both your names are on the essay 🙂