Writing collaboration

a ‘work in progress’

3. ‘My’/’our’ writing…

with 9 comments

I’ve rarely been a sole author. Early on (in the late 1990s), co-authorship was with academic colleagues and followed a standard(?) procedure. One would act as a lead author, to whom the other(s) would pass a) notes and b) edited and amended versions of the paper that the lead author came up with. Authorship was shared with everyone working on a project – even if they weren’t involved in writing a particular paper [absent co-authors usually called these papers “the best thing I’ve never written”] – and authors were invariably listed alphabetically by surname.

This process took some getting used to. It takes time to work out how others think, work, plan and write differently, and how elements of that difference need to be worked with and against. For instance, Phil Crang and I quickly realised how crap I, and how good he, was at working to plans: i.e. setting out what you want to say in a paper, section by section, and then coming up with a paper that looks like that. We found we could easily sit and plan a paper together, but only he would be able write it. The only way I could write was to make things up as I went along, usually starting with an opening scene and weaving academic and empirical detail into an unfolding narrative which took and changed shape in the process of (re)writing (see Richardson 2000). Along with our RA Mark Thorpe, we joked that together we had the makings of a half-decent academic. But it also meant that ‘our’ writing read differently depending on who had been the lead author. To some, for example, Cook, Crang and Thorpe (1999 & 2000) may seem like two separate papers. But to us they are the same, one written by Phil and one by me.

Other forms of collaboration with other kinds of collaborators have since taken off. These have emerged more organically, out of practice, conversations, working relationships; form and content shaped by methodological, pedagogic, film and art theory picked up along the way. Core aims, emerging out of these circumstances, have been to flatten hierarchies of expertise, create new spaces for imagination and conversation, and produce less-didactic and more engaging forms of research and writing. I/we have been keen to ‘walk the talk’ and to keep experimenting.

This section briefly outlines the forms and results of seven experiments in writing collaboration.

3a. a ‘right to reply’…
Including comments on the autobiographical section of my PhD.

3b. publishing student work
Including coursework in the body of academic publications, attributing co-authorship.

3c. writing conversation…
Recording, transcribing, coding, cutting & pasting, editing, circulating & amending a conversation.

3d. a mashup…
Taking short, individual pieces of writing and making one joint-authored, single voice text.

3e. word by word…
Hand-writing something one person / one word at a time, and seeing what you end up with.

3f. blog paper…
Creating a blog for people to bounce off your writing, & creating a new co-authored paper from the process.

3g. social sculpture…
Asking actors involved in a project from inspiration to publication and beyond to reflect on their part in the process.


Written by Ian Cook et al

September 2, 2008 at 9:56 am

9 Responses

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  1. It seems like such a very long time ago now….and a very different world. Much of the work I do now is colaborative – with researchers in my team and, importantlly, often with clients. Being the person often leading these ‘collaborations’ has given me a new perspective. although collaborative, there is still a power relationship and issues about authority and voice, perhaps credibility too. I think there are also inevitably questions about the extent to which people feel fully involved and a ‘real’ collaborator, as opposed to being invited into the crcle to imply inclusion. My memory about our collaborative work centres more on expediency than design – we needed to get stuff done quickly and ‘getting together’ was a relatively effective route. Again, from my perspective, collaboration was epsiodic – closer to a progress update and steer than full collaboration. Also important is the balance of collaboration. Phil and Ian knew each other very well and often had an intuitive relationship. To this extent, it was difficult for me to engage on this level. Looking back twelve years (or more) on our work, I think that I contributed to the written output but I can’t, hand on heart, say that I felt it to be ‘collaborative’.

    Mark Thorpe

    September 11, 2008 at 8:49 am

  2. (Great to hear from you Mark! I think your memory is spot on, and thanks for the tact about less than perfect managerial styles! Generally, I think the distinction between contribution and collaboration is an important one). Anyhow, I think I’m pretty poor at collaboration. Because I need to know, or rather need to convince myself that I know, what I want to say before I can even begin to say it, I find writing per se quite private. I also find it painful, mostly. Of course, those feelings are closely related, and collaboration is one answer to finding writing hard, or at least sharing writing is. But, in terms of fuller collaboration, I always struggled with getting my head round materials at the same time as getting my head round someone else’s sense of those materials. I shall be tuning into this discussion, and chatting more to Ian, to learn methodologies for how to get better at that!

    Philip Crang

    September 11, 2008 at 12:28 pm

  3. Hi I always felt very surprised and a little perturbed when Ian sent me papers on which I had been positioned as a co-author. These related to the fieldwork that we had undertaken together in the Caribbean, where we had initially hooked up as PhD students. By the time we got the grant for a return trip, I had actually left academia. In the years that followed, Ian went on to write a series of great academic papers. They would appear in my mail box, and he would ask me for comments. I would think – well, it is extremely generous of him to put my name on this when I haven’t written a word (i.e done any of the ‘work’); and whilst we had done the field research together, did that really entitle me to the ‘esteem’ of co-author? So I would feel a little unworthy of the title. I would comment as best I could and hope I was being useful, but often felt I was undeserving!

    Michelle Harrison

    September 26, 2008 at 2:36 pm

  4. Thanks Michelle. Sorry to perturb you! I was happy to send you stuff with our names on because I figured it was our work, and these were our ideas: what we’d discussed and done together over a number of years. Writing those papers was just a part of the research process that I was happy to take a lead on, under the circumstances. You did return the compliment, though, sending me something to comment on that had my name on. So, it does even out! As far as this paper is concerned, I guess, there’s a difference between co-authorship and collaborative writing…

    Ian Cook et al

    September 29, 2008 at 8:00 am

  5. I think Mark and Michelle’s comments both raise really important issues about the power dynamics in collaborative work, which are often related to issues of professional seniority, but may also involve other elements. Does a collaboration between a group of women involve different power dynamics than cross-gender collaborations? Do collaborations amongst academics involve different power dynamics than when others are involved, such as visual artists, who may be less used to expressing themselves in writing? How does a two-way collaboration differ than a larger group? How do different media affect these power dynamics, i.e., how is the balance of power shifted by using non-verbal media, or multiple media in which different collaborators have more or less expertise?

    Mimi Sheller

    February 7, 2009 at 6:45 pm

  6. Building on Mimi’s comment, the importance of recognizing the power dynamics of collaborative work cannot be over-emphasized. I can think of a few more issues within and beyond the element of professional seniority. The following are some examples, perhaps not always the most pressing, but nonetheless relevant (and clearly none of these are mutually exclusive): 1. language used (How frequently do collaborators throw around terminology and/or allusions to references that ‘should’ be known?) 2. experience with the medium of collaboration (In this case, it is blogging; Hence, how do people interpret and make sense of the webpage layout? How might various levels of experience with blogging influence the way in which the writing/collaboration is seen?) 3. the relative “personalness” or non-personalness of collaboration (Clearly in this collaboration some of us have met face to face while others remain online semi-persona of whom we read and to whom we respond. How does this shape collaboration?) 4.the affect/feeling of participation (How do levels of comfortability relating to all of the above issues impact collaboration? What about the ‘guilt’ of not participating, if it exists?)

    Allison Hayes-Conroy

    February 10, 2009 at 3:40 pm

  7. My feelings are that one of the key features of finding new ways of collaborating should be how it can democratise and deliver knowledge to excluded groups. So many intelligent, creative and hardworking people are denied access to higher education because of discrimination, financial barriers and the combined complex effects of societal structures. Many universities have become businesses which sell knowledge in a capitalist society, and academics might talk about social ethics and egalitarianism, but in reality are a vital part of the capitalist system and all its modes of oppression and exploitation. Indeed, the end of this cosy set-up has been predicted by many who see mainstream universities going the way of further education colleges in terms of managerialism and post-Fordist industrialisation of teaching. So perhaps a new model of academic collaboration will become a necessity in the face of greater surveillance and controls on employees. Collectivist academic groups which seek to develop knowledge might also consider the pedagogical benefits their knowledge production might have on communities, for example giving free courses to small groups that will give them a masters or a PhD (after all even lawyers do pro bono work now and again!). I have been criticised previously by those who reply “What about standards?”, what these people are really saying is “What about our status and lucrative careers.” Standards can be calibrated and work published for comparison with other groups nationally. A different way of collaborating surely should emancipate knowledge and learning from the elitism of mainstream academia and redistribute its life-affirming and empowering qualities to everyone who wishes to engage with it? : )

    Réshad Suffee

    March 5, 2009 at 11:44 am

  8. In response to Reshad, I want to add something about community scholars. I just heard a talk last night by Gayle Rubin at the Re-thinking Sex Conference at University of Pennsylvania. It marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of Rubin’s ground-breaking essay “Thinking Sex”, eliciting a reflection on the state of the field in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Rubin gave a very interesting history of the context for the production of that essay in 1982 in which she talked about the importance of “Study Groups” in San Francsico in the 1970s which involved not only academics, but also community activists and scholars who had been excluded from formal institutional employment, but who were very much part of a wider paradigm shift that was happening collaboratively. Their work on gay and lesbian history was really important to the founding of the field of sexuality studies, but much of it was published in periodicals rather than academic journals, and it now sometimes gets forgotten about. At the same time, graduate students were often warned not to do work in this field, because they would be marginalized and would never get tenure; it was like academic suicide. Yet some continued with it and eventually it has become a recognized field, even if still sometimes institutionally fragile.

    Mimi Sheller

    March 5, 2009 at 5:13 pm

  9. Also in response to Reshad. ” A different way of collaborating surely should emancipate knowledge and learning from the elitism of mainstream academia”. It is an interesting issue that really has multiple tendrils of problematic issues. One that I am constantly thinking about these days involves the families that I work with in Nicaragua. Many of them are functionally illiterate and the possibility of them “collaborating” in my (future) academic publications is what makes me pause and ponder. They cannot read what I write about them, although they are indeed what makes my writing possible. How, then, can I collaborate with them?
    I think collaboration, in this sense, must be about listening, creating spaces for listening, for making useful products that don’t build our CV’s. Not a new idea, but a hard one to put into practice when we have limited time and money to work with the communities we work with.

    Heather Putnam

    March 6, 2009 at 6:55 pm

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