Writing collaboration

a ‘work in progress’

3g. social sculpture…

with one comment


Finally, since 2006, I’ve been the ludicrously-titled ‘chief exec.’ of the Birmingham Public Geographies Working Group: set up, for me at least, to create a space for collaborative public research and teaching practice in a university that seemed to be more neoliberal than most. The group’s first project was intended to cross the university-school divide using the materials and students comprising my Geographies of material culture module that year. A ‘pilot’ Geography GCSE had this module called People as consumers: the impact of our decisions. It was taught according to the principles of critical pedagogy, built upon students’ lives, experiences and concerns and – thereby – promised to draw non-traditional students into the discipline’s concerns, debates and emptying classrooms. It couldn’t be taught out of a textbook. New materials and approaches were needed. And it was being trialled in a school fitting the University’s widening participation agenda which was only 15 minutes away on the train. Helen Griffiths approached Jacky Wilson, its head of geography, and we (Helen plus myself and James Evans, her PhD supervisors) devised a project to be carried out with an undergraduate material culture student (Alice Williams) as her work for a pilot ‘public geographies’ degree module. It would culminate in the kids doing a 20 minute performance about mobile phone geographies in an undergraduate material culture conference on campus (for more see the project website). To our amazement, this was a huge success. They rocked. They knew it. And so did the undergraduates. Who talked to them afterwards about going to university, etc… Unlike the other work discussed so far, this was a collaborative action-research project through and through.

What about the writing, though!? About a year ago, as ‘Chief exec.’ of the working group, I was asked to contribute a short biographical and ‘top tips’ paper to a special issue of Antipode: a radical journal of geography called ‘Being and becoming a public scholar’. I agreed, and said I’d write about how a paper I had written about papaya geographies (Cook et al 2004) had ended up being used in a revamp of the tropical fruit display at the Eden Project. When it came down to it, however, I couldn’t do this. I hadn’t got down to Cornwall to do the research, and I was uncomfortable about putting myself on that kind of pedestal. I’m not a sole author. I don;t see myself as a centre of radiating expertise.

So, I thought, how could you write something that showed how people became collaborative, organic public scholars together? As had happened in this project. Who had been involved? Remotely and in person? Before and after? What kind of ‘public geographers’ were we, individually and collectively? How had we ended up that way? What tips could we give? We transcribed what the kids had said in a vox pop film and wrote to lots of others – from social sculptor Shelley Sacks whose work had inspired the project to teachers who had used the resources on its website – asking for 250 words of biography and ‘top tips’ relating to their participation in what we’d done. Again, I edited and ordered these chronologically (with author names attached to each,) sent a draft paper out for revisions, and revised and submitted a 22-author paper – well past the deadline – with a cheeky title: ‘The loneliness of the public scholar…’. It was a messy text, authored by an unconventional combination of people for an academic journal paper. Readers had work to do to appreciate the dynamics of an unfolding, collaborative process (and the ‘top tips’ hidden in it). These were separate / overplapping life-projects… joined by chance as much as design. Work, writing, materials, conversations had lives and afterlives: shaped collaboratively as social sculpture (see).

It was rejected… looking like it had been thrown together at the last minute. Not letting busy readers know what was coming or what it was about. But after a resubmission to Antipode as a separate journal paper, with an abstract, new sections from readers who did put in the work, and an opportunity for referees to be 250-word co-author-collaborators, it’s been accepted as a 29-author paper… but there’s a whole lot more work to do, redrafting, recirculating, rewriting, etc… Not everyone knows what’s happened yet, so I’ll wait to ask for people’s comments….


Written by Ian Cook et al

September 3, 2008 at 9:11 am

One Response

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  1. This paper was finally published in Antipode in 2011 (see Hawkins et al 2011).

    Ian Cook et al

    December 8, 2011 at 12:18 am

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