Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Collaboration can’t be rushed

· June 15th, 2018 · No Comments

Today’s post comes courtesy of authors from the William and Mary Quarterly April 2018 Forum “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies: Completing the Turn.”

by Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup

The forum is the result of a multi-year collaboration between three editors, not all of whom had worked together before or even met in person. Our collaborative writing and editing took significantly more time and effort than a single-editor forum would have, but, we think, resulted in a bolder and more expansive forum, while also proving to be an intellectually transformative experience for each of us. The introduction is emblematic of our process and its results. When we began, we delineated separate sections and high level points for each of us to write. We then combined those separately composed sections and sent the introduction off to the journal editors. Unsurprisingly (and appropriately, in retrospect), Josh Piker and Sandra Gustafson were underwhelmed by the disjointed draft.  We started over by building collaboration more intimately into every part of our process: we still drafted sections separately, but we then combined the sections in a Google Doc that we revised sequentially and collectively. We now authorized and encouraged each other to change another’s words, to move paragraphs, and to cut repetitive or off topic sections. Our margin filled with long conversations in which we debated audience, tone, citations, and the ethics and implications of particular word choices. We met periodically via video conference to resolve open issues and reiterate or clarify how we were addressing the forum’s multiple audiences and aims. It is now impossible to say that one of us authored a particular section of the introduction—every sentence is the result of collaborative writing and editing. The same process characterized our essay editing, as we each read the essays multiple times and during our video conferences agreed on our editorial feedback. Here, however, we assigned editors to essayists, so that communication could remain consistent. Editorial collaboration, then, was sometimes like synchronized swimming and sometimes like a relay race. At first, we were uncoordinated and fumbling, as we didn’t know each other’s strengths and personalities and we had to learn to trust one another. With much practice, we learned to be a team.  Collaboration, it turns out, can’t be rushed.

As we experimented with what it meant to write and edit together, we found that our collaboration led us to modes of knowledge production aligned with NAIS methodologies, the subject of our forum. We learned that thinking and writing collaboratively are radically different processes that produce different results than emerge from working individually on the same topics. Rather than seeking to present or proclaim our mastery of a field, literary history, or historical period, or to imagine that we had intellectual ownership over NAIS “materials and methods,” our collaboration led us to conceptualize knowledge production as an act of sharing. This realization was perhaps most poignant in our research on institutional collaborations within the context of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, Society of Early Americanists, and Omohundro Institute, all of which strategically laid institutional and intellectual foundations without which our forum would not have been possible. We likewise recognized the importance of sharing as we discussed our own, differing relations to NAIS—as Native and non-Native scholars, with varying degrees of graduate training in NAIS, our own positions within the field are indebted to senior scholars who, through their own acts of sharing, made space for us by committing to sharing knowledge and training as well as access to archival and institutional resources.  Sharing as a mode of knowledge production accompanies a refusal of mastery as a goal of research. This refusal is central to NAIS scholarship, which recognizes many sites of knowledge, both inside and outside the university and emphasizes the need for scholarship that is responsive to the expertise and needs of Indigenous communities. Such attention to the multiple, university and non-university, audiences for and contributors to our research meant that we remained aware of the limits of our own knowledges, and our reliance on multiple contributors and collaborators to complete the forum.

Individually and collectively, the time spent working on the forum as co-editors and co-authors was substantial and incredibly generative. Our work together prompted us to consider the range of audiences and stakes for the forum in ways that may not have occurred to any one of us while working individually, and the collaborative processes we developed continually reinforced our shared focus on the goals, tone, and audiences for the forum. We were able to pursue this work together because we cultivated relationships grounded in trust that allowed us to think together as we shared writing in progress, edited and altered each other’s phrases and sentences, and crafted a project where authorship was truly shared. In our experience, the work of collaboration relied on intentional, thoughtful commitment to relationship-building, and it often required both humility and generosity. Developing these relationships and scholarly collaborations is a time-consuming process that is intellectually rigorous. We hope that humanities departments and tenure committees will privilege the intellectual and processual benefits of collaboration, by valuing collaborative work equally with single-authored work and by viewing the longer duration of collaborative projects as necessary to producing transformative scholarship.

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