This post is about collaboration: what we think of it, how we do it, what its value seems to be in our fields and in academia. We have been working on a version of this post for nearly a year and a half, and over the course of that percolation time we have created a document that, rather than being a single, coherent text written by the group, has ended up as a collection of individual observations. Although perhaps not necessarily what we had originally intended, we liked the result. So here it is!
Collaboration is a natural topic for a blog created by a group named the Material Collective, but it is perhaps unnatural too, in the sense that it is not the norm in many fields, including art history. It is too bad that many institutions and academic organizations do not value collaboration, but we ARE finding value in it. And the MC is the obvious place to start as an example of successful collaboration. I could go on and on about how fabulous this group is, how rewarding the collaborations have been, and how fun it is to work with those who share your enthusiasm.
That said, one of the reasons that the MC has worked so well, is that in many ways it is a collaboration that isn’t really all that interdisciplinary. Most of us are medieval art historians, and thus share so much already that makes the coming together work. In fact, nearly all of the collaborations I’ve been a part of were disciplinary, with medievalists, or art historians, or both, rather than interdisciplinary. This by no means diminishes this productive work. But it is a different kind of collaboration than one that stretches across disciplines, don’t you think?
Perhaps the most salient difference in collaborating across greater divides is in vocabulary. Each discipline carries its own, and each new term, phrase, trope and meme not only bears assumptions and affiliations, but also opens up new venues for thought. Readings in film theory, for example opened my (our) eyes to a vocabulary of active and embodied spectatorship I hadn’t encountered in art history or medieval studies, but which has proven very helpful. Insights on the technical aspects of Old English grammar (garnered from a collaborator) have helped me see elements of illumination more clearly.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I resist collaboration, which I think is part of the reason I became an academic. For the most part, I work for and by myself. No one tells me what to teach, or how, and the autonomy that this provides me suits my personality. I shun team-teaching. And yet, a couple of recent experiences with collaboration have been so thought-provoking, so fruitful, and so satisfying, that I’m wondering if I have a collaborative nature after all. In the most extreme example, I worked with Jen, Rachel, and two other authors on a book chapter, and it was one of the easiest, most organically produced pieces of writing I’ve done. As stated above, we were all medieval art historians — we spoke the same language, and wanted to highlight the same topics and objects, almost without needing to check with each other. Maybe I need to start small, with like-minded folk.
But for me, collaboration is appealing for two reasons. On the one hand, it underscores the validity of the work I’m doing. That is gratifying, but not necessarily challenging. On the other hand, the person/people I’m collaborating with might have ideas that would never have occurred to me on my own, and I am a better scholar, thinker, and person for having a shared experience with them. Just when I was getting bored with myself, with the thoughts and ideas that seemed begin and end up in the same old places, the Material Collective has sparked a new excitement about the possibilities of collaboration, and new ways of thinking about most everything.
I had to learn to collaborate when I worked at the Walters Art Museum: the vision of the lonely scholar toiling away in a library has very little to do with how museum curators put exhibitions together. Conservators, educators, fellow curators, designers, donors, and, not least of all, the objects themselves all need to work together to create a great show. I found the process pretty frustrating until I was at a meeting with the very talented Peter Bruun, who was collaborating with the museum through his organization Art on Purpose. As the meeting progressed, different staff members of the museum chimed in to explain to Peter how his vision for the project wasn’t going to work, or how it conflicted with usual museum procedures. Peter took this all in stride, and at some point I realized that, for him, these kind of frustrations were part of the process, they were an element of his art. It wasn’t about getting to a preconceived end product, but about working with others and seeing what arose.
I think (I hope) I managed to bring that sensibility to the subsequent projects I worked on at the museum, but when I moved back to teaching, I fell quickly back into a default mode working alone. When I co-wrote a paper for the first time–an experimental piece with Nancy Thompson for the 2012 BABEL Biennial in Boston–I tried to rekindle that appreciation for the process. I prodded myself to think of the finished piece as just one moment in the life of the project, and to value the process by which we got there just as much as the final draft. The magic of the internet helped: Nancy and I would often work on the document simultaneously through Google Drive. It’s one thing to get back comments and revisions from an editor, but it’s another thing to watch your darlings be murdered in front of you by your collaborator. As we worked, the sense that this was “my and Nancy’s paper” mutated into being “our paper” and, ultimately, transformed again to become “the paper,” something outside of me and us. It became easier to see what it needed, uncomplicated by what I had wanted it to be. The collaboration expanded to include the paper itself, and now, as I return to solo projects, I’m trying to carry that sensibility with me.
I think I have team-taught at least one course every semester for the past ten years. I mostly love it. The best part for me is when my co-teacher and I talk about the material to each other in front of students. My colleague Karil Kucera and I, when we first started teaching our introductory Art History survey together (ancient and medieval, east and west), would spontaneously discuss issues and ideas that came up when she was lecturing on medieval Buddhist art and I was lecturing on medieval Christianity. This kind of collaborative teaching is invigorating! We’re right now in the process of reinventing our introductory courses again because it’s gotten a little stale (we seem to keep ourselves entertained by telling jokes). But I will always treasure those first years of collaborative teaching, and hopefully the students in those courses remember it fondly.
And ditto on what Ben says above about our collaboration! I feel like I got to know Ben through the collaborative process because I could see his thought process as he typed his ideas onto a page. And then, as he says himself, I “murdered his darling” sentences! And he re-wrote mine, too, of course. When we had a first finished draft, I was a disappointed because I felt like the paper was all his voice (he IS the Anglo-Saxonist, after all). But, when I read it aloud, I realized that it was a truly collaborative piece: our voices blended to make one voice for the Hoard. I loved the process, and I would definitely do it again.
For me, collaboration offers both stimulation and a hiding place. On the one hand, almost every collaboration I have experienced, most especially the book chapter I co-wrote with Jen, Martha and two others, has been successful and rewarding. I have learned much and found myself working in directions that had not previously occurred to me. This has been true whether the collaboration has been with another medievalist, another art historian, or in one case, an archaeologist. On the other hand, I have sometimes used the collaborative approach as a way of camouflaging my own perceived inadequacies as a scholar while leaning on the insights of others, but perhaps this is not such a bad thing. I do know that in the academy, collaboration is not valued in the humanities as it is in the sciences. My social science and natural science colleagues are flabbergasted at my descriptions of the art historians’ scholarly isolation. I think it is time for this to change.
I’ll echo what several of you have said already: collaboration changes the way I think and write and teach. My first collaborative projects were in grad school, and they were interdisciplinary. My friend Lahney Preston-Matto and I—she’s a lit historian—were planning a co-taught course on medieval Ireland, in which we’d do literature, history, and material culture. So as a kind of exercise in co-thinking, we wrote an essay together for a book on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Researching and writing it was a blast. We each wrote some parts separately, and then (mercilessly) edited each other; for the introduction, we sat together as if we were playing a piano duet, both with hands on the keyboard. Maybe because there wasn’t so much at stake (ahem) in that writing, we were free to experiment and play with “voice” and challenge each other—but I’ve felt a similar sense of freedom and risk in all the collaborations I’ve shared in since then.
I have co-taught (though not as much as Nancy has!), co-presented, and co-written with a number of people, including Jen, Ben, Maggie, and Anne, and each time I am invigorated by the process. I know I become a better writer and a more capacious thinker through collaboration, but there is a pretty daunting challenge in being so naked and honest with someone else. You have to be willing to let down your guard, and your ego, and listen to others. That’s really difficult. It is not something that many art historians are trained or even encouraged to do as students or as young scholars: there is still so much guarding of individual ideas, so much proprietary thinking… which of course is valued in the tenure/promotion system and in the current model of humanities publishing. I was lucky in having mentors in grad school who either were engaged in collaboration (Pam Sheingorn, for instance) or who encouraged me to seek interdisciplinary and non-traditional ways of working (Jonathan Alexander was truly nurturing in this!). And teaching at Seattle University in a Fine Arts department, with artists and musicians and actors and directors, showed me a lot about ensemble work. I believe in teaching and demonstrating the value of collaboration, and so I incorporate collaborative work in all my courses now, graduate and undergrad.
I tried teaching collaborative writing recently because I’d so loved my experience with Karen and I’ve felt the power of being swept up in a collaborative conversation. It was hard teaching experience, not entirely successful, though students liked thinking about it once it was over. Not what I was going for. I had treasured the process and wanted that for them as well. I’ll probably try again (imagine a world of collaborative writers and thinkers – yes, do it!), but in the meantime, there’s a lesson I’m savoring and that is the importance of friendship, ease, and trust. Academic writing, the kind you do by yourself, shoring up ideas with footnotes and argumentation, is some of the least trusting writing there is. That’s not to criticize it (I’m glad and proud of all my forays), but to try to understand its character. You are collaborating when you write in classic academic style, but it’s a virtual collaboration with those who wrote before you (and whose ideas you’re testing, using or critiquing) and an equally virtual collaboration with those who will read you (and whose minds you’re trying to convince, be their your editors or your readership). It takes a lot to put yourself out there, and it’s hard to be vulnerable (lyrical, tentative, funny) in academic writing.
Live collaborative writing (whether in person or on GoogleDrive) has an intimacy to it, a real-time value, even if it means seeing your darling (sentences) getting murdered, especially if it means finding just the right word together) that gains trust. You falter, search, hit obstacles, break through (sometimes you first, sometimes me), and arrive together. If I’m to teach collaborative writing again, I won’t do it at the beginning of the semester before the students have had a chance to know each other. I’ll do it after they’ve become friends, or at least friendly. I’ll do it when they’ve had the opportunity to trust each other to fumble.
I do think quite a bit about collaborative writing in the Middle Ages, about the reality of singular authorship, but the less sung-about reality of scribes and translators as well. These are more virtual collaborations once again, but when I have the chance to read a bit of Rupert of Deutz or Bernard of Clairvaux or Thomas Aquinas, I always wonder about their writing process. Was there discussion? Suggested phrasing from friends? Inked quill marks murdering darlings? Bernard who so loved a good pun—did he rush out of his study to exclaim happily when “deformis formositas, ac formosa deformitas” came to him? I tend to think of medieval writers as so isolated (all those gospel portraits!), but then again, Aristotle was distracted by Phyllis, and Bernard eventually went back out to the cloister.