Writing collaboration

a ‘work in progress’

3f. blog paper…

with 4 comments

In the summer of 2006, I taught myself powerpoint. Two years later, I was learning to design websites and started using blogs. Kerry and Heather suggested we set up a blog for a reading/writing group we had set up (see). It could be used to keep discussions going between meetings, enable people who had missed meetings to see what had happened and to contribute to the discussions. This worked quite well. Which was just as well, as I was beginning to think about the third in a series of ‘Geographies of food’ review papers I’d been invited to write for a journal called Progress in human geography. I had initially been uncomfortable about accepting this invitation. I’m not comfortable with writing overviews, sorting ‘wheat from chaff’, whatever you’re supposed to do… I also couldn’t think of three separate topics. So, I asked the editor if I could write them in a more personal way, and if I could set up a blog for the third to invite reactions to the first two from the people whose work had been discussed in them as well as others whom I knew had read and used them. This would therefore be another experiment in collaborative writing: part right to reply, part conversation and part social sculpture (see next)

He said fine, so I set it up blog (here) in the early summer of 2008, invited 100+ people to contribute, and promised everyone who posted full co-authorship credit in the paper. 25 got involved: a mix of academics, postgraduates and artists. Discussion was lively. The personal, engaging style of the first two ‘reviews’ seemed to invite conversation in a shared endeavor. Many said this was their first blogging experience, and that they’d enjoyed taking part. One posting – by artist Lisa Tucker – summed up the value of this kind of collaborative work in a way I could only ever have dreamed of:

The hurdle now seems to be getting everyone together, which I think this blog addresses. As I’ve read the many posts made by social scientists, it is intimidating at first, because the way I do research is so different than yours, but the ideas generated are worth the risk. There is a forum here to share information and hopefully help one another with our projects– or at the very least, find source material to investigate. In a way, I feel like I’m looking through a keyhole at a completely different world, but on the other hand we all seem to be interested in similar topics. The way we communicate is just a little different. I work with an organic chemist in San Francisco on some of my projects. We started out chatting online and now do most of our work on MSN, with occasional face-to-face visits. His expertise in science has helped me to develop two major projects thus far, though sometimes it takes us awhile to explain how each other’s world works in order to make progress. In the end, it’s worth it. Art informed by social science or other fields of study is rich not only experientially, but the finished work is more complex and open to a much larger audience. On the flip-side, I can also see how art may be a useful tool for social scientists, as Ian demonstrated with Shelly’s piece [an art installation discussed in the first review paper – Cook et al 2006 – and in Cook et al 2000]. It seems that both disciplines reach a limited audience and have a tough time affecting real change. Perhaps together we can change that?

This collaborative project had gained some legs, it seemed, online more than in the 7,000 word journal paper to which it was supposed to lead. How we would work together to produce this review paper became a big part of the blog discussion.

Written by Ian Cook et al

September 2, 2008 at 12:36 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I just dipped a finger into the ‘Afters’ blog-writing project but enjoyed reading it all and just feeling part of something collaborative, even without playing a major role — which is the nice thing about this open-ended kind of conversational writing: sometimes being a listener/reader is as important as saying something. Reading about the collaborative writing here makes me think: Don’t we need to value being an engaged interlocutor, part of a group, as much as being single ‘responsible’ authors who always have something to say? And now I am looking forward to possibly catching up with Cook et al. at the AAG… to meet the et al. inter alia.

    Mimi Sheller

    February 7, 2009 at 3:54 am

  2. It is all the fault of that pesky Afters blog! It was my first experience of blogging and I enjoyed it so much that I have since set up a blog of my own. It was also very freeing to be able to dip in and out of a collaborative effort and let one’s mind be loose with the subject matter- even if this may have meant that my random cultural examples tended towards tangents of Zizekian proportion at times!

    That said, I have to second the sentiments expressed in the post from Kye re mash-ups. It is indeed very difficult, especially as an early stage academic, not to play the un-mashed up game. I too have begun writing research proposals and realised more than ever just how important that ‘owned’ publication history is. However, I do feel that perhaps we can play two games at the same time (perhaps, in the name of the mash-up one even), and that it is possible to gather the requisite personal publication history, whilst simultaneously engaging in collaborative work… well I’m giving it a good go anyway. I think this, because personally I find it easier to gather the ‘scraps’ of thought and writing when asked to collaborate, than when writing alone, and as anyone who knows me will testify, I am a big fan of scraps- both literary and theoretical.

    Being engaged in more than slightly Benjaminian research, which through content and writing-style is attempting to look at flotsam and jetsam, and use ‘leftovers’ as the all important stuff, I am constantly trying to weave a path by gathering the scraps, as opposed to a Kantian project of dispelling the ‘errors’ in order to find the ‘truth’. (Michael Thompson in Rubbish Theory is of course a great proponent of this standpoint.) However, left to my own devices, and requiring an overall argument or trail, I struggle to maintain this allegiance to the left-overs. Whereas, when collaborating, not only does the path emerge through the left-overs more easily, but also, suddenly my left-over left-overs have a place to go where they are enjoyed and found useful. (I think!) In fact, it may be that this collaborative stuff is enabling me to maintain a commitment to non-linear thinking in my non-collaborative endeavours- who knows- I have an inkling this may be the case.

    With all this in mind, I too am looking forward to meeting the et al scraperati(?), or mashup-erati(?).. or at least getting mashed up with the et al-erati… whilst attempting to maintain some form of un mashed-up language it would seem! …and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky Afters…. :0)

    Alison Hulme

    February 8, 2009 at 4:19 pm

  3. From Damian Maye:

    Hello Ian et al.,

    Like Alison, the ‘afters’ blog was my first blogging experience. This is my second, so I’m clearly progressing well! Here are a few brief thoughts:

    The afters blog to date has been most enjoyable. I viewed it from the start as a bit of a ‘writing experiment’, even if the final output is to be a Progress paper (I was even telling other colleagues about this “Ian Cook blog” I was getting involved with – notice I didn’t refer to it as Ian Cook et al!). It was novel and it was also nice to be invited to take part and share thoughts with a range of folks also interested in food, food research, food writing and public engagement. The blog generated a vast range of responses and materials. They were interesting and divergent. I’m still not utterly sure how the blog postings will translate into a ‘Progress paper’. The latter has a convention of writing that will make capturing the dynamism and diversity of the comments difficult to retain, but it will be interesting to see what comes of it.

    I can also relate very strongly to Alison and Kye’s earlier comments about developing personal (un-mashed) publications. My past writings have and still are usually co-/multi-authored, as I work on research projects involving teams of people and so write stuff up collectively. It usually works well, even though we probably adopt a more ‘traditional’ collaborative writing approach, where one person takes the lead and others comment/add/edit. I enjoy this type of writing. I also enjoy the less ‘traditional’ collaborative discussions here and in other places, but I’m increasingly conscious (and probably overly paranoid) that I need to write more single author papers if I’m to really establish my own academic voice/contribution. I realise this is me falling well and truly into the RAE (now REF) trap. My plan, for now, is to keep joining in with these kinds of things (if/when invited) and to write and lead on other papers as much as a can. Not much of an innovative collaborative writing strategy, I know, but there is an important wider point here regarding collaborative (even experimental?) writing and broader institutional pressures / constraints. With a few exceptions, it seems that most collaborative writing projects are initiated by academics that have already established themselves (their academic voice) and/or are generated alongside other single author writings. Have I got that right? Perhaps not.

    I realise that this is a slightly dreary/negative way to end my post. Sorry about that and thanks for the giving me the right to reply!

    Ian Cook et al

    March 10, 2009 at 9:29 pm

  4. In a scene in the Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997) episode entitled “Basic Alan”, Alan Partridge (“a failed chat show host turned early morning Radio Norwich presenter”, played by Steve Coogan) is seized by a bout of existential ennui in his beloved Rover car. Alan muses: “You know, these are inertia reel seatbelts. They were developed in the late‐sixties, early‐seventies basically to enable you to lean forward for things” [Alan leans forward to demonstrate]. Lynn [his assistant, copies him]. “But in a crash, they do stop you because: [Alan yanks hard on the seatbelt] Impact! Bang! Lock! [He pulls hard against the seatbelt and grunts] I mean, you get bruises, but I’d love to feel an airbag go off in my face. It would be [leans forward again, sharply, then mimes an airbag going off] Brrr, Boosh! Boosh! A really cushioned effect on the face. Ohh. I’ll be honest, Lynn, I’m at a loose end, today. That’s why I’m, er that’s why I’m, er talking, [Alan enunciates the word exaggeratedly], talking, that’s why I’m talking”. In contributing to the Blog or “Web Log”, I identify with Alan’s bitter‐sweet consciousness of the act of talking. On the one hand, I feel energized by the Blog as an expression of all the different themes and approaches to geographies of food, and, on the other hand, I feel really hemmed in by the format of the Blog (I liked Jean’s take on the genres of writing) to the extent that I’d much prefer to sit down and chat about these things with fellow Bloggers – maybe at a conference over some drinks and food! Even as I Blog about Blogging, I feel like “I’m Blogging, I’m Blogging…”: not so much out of boredom like Alan, but out of an awkward awareness of writing through and in the medium of the Blog. For me, the Blog mixes the media of writing (which for me is so often a painful yet refreshingly lonely act) and conversing (which is lovely, but would much prefer to engage via speaking and listening rather than typing). I have never really Blogged before, mainly because I feel like or fear that email “colonizes” (to paraphrase my former advisor JP Jones) enough of my time. I sure look forward to reading how the Blog is translated into the article, but I look even more forward to (re)meeting my fellow Bloggers. I guess that is a sign of the Blog’s success? What was the aim anyway? Was there one? Does it matter? It was interesting to say the least. But was it? Who knows? My above description of Blogging seems all very Jean Baudrillard in terms of how cyber communication so often takes place at the juncture of ecstasy and banality, much like Alan’s monologue. So here’s a plea to Ian and others: can we could ‘go beyond the Blog’ and find a place to talk? Why? Because I like what I read and where the research on geographies of food is going (I found Damian’s entry useful here). One obvious place would be a conference such as the AAGs. The next one in 2009 is in Las Vegas. Now there’s another place that combines ecstasy and banality! And, I hear the G ‘n’ T’s are cheap. Slainte, Paul

    [This is a copy of a post on the food-afters blog, see here for context]

    Paul Kingsbury

    September 8, 2009 at 5:58 pm

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