06 November 2009

Screed of an Anti-Collaboration Curmudgeon

Over at HASTAC, Michael Widner recently posted on collaboration as a scholarly revolution:

Collaboration is one of the concepts frequently discussed among those in the humanities and those studying social networking. How do we facilitate it? What tools make it effective? What cognitive models should we use? How can the drive for it inform pedagogy? These and many other questions we explore on a regular basis with the assumption that collaboration is likely to create new, useful knowledge, is a necessary skill for our students to learn, and is probably the direction toward which current technological tools are driving us, so we need to understand it. Nevertheless, one place where collaboration is rarely, if ever seen, is in the conventional research done by humanities scholars.

He points to the work of scholars like Franco Moretti and Jonathan Gottschall as bringing the collaborative methodologies used in the sciences into the humanities, acknowledging that the hurdles are still high. In fact, "it requires a revolution."

Michael's clearly right. Something is going on with collaboration, and has been for a few years. It's hard to get a digital humanities project funded, or even considered, without it having a significant collaborative component -- actually, I can't even imagine a non-collaborative NEH-funded project. The solitary scholar producing her own digital work in isolation just doesn't exist within the funding and laboratory infrastructures set up in digital humanities, since they've largely been modeled after the sciences.

I posted a bit of a curmudgeonly comment (sorry, Michael!) to the effect of: what's the point? Plenty of people a lot smarter than I have made strong arguments for collaborative humanities work, to the point that we've now accepted that more collaboration ==> can be good; but when did the equation flip to all good work ==> must be collaborative?

Another way of putting this: we now know the value added by collaborative work. It opens up the research process, helps one find interdisciplinary connections and, with digital tools, can aggregate the wisdom of crowds. But what's the value lost?

Take wikis as an example. Wikis are astonishingly useful tools. They help us gather information in one centralized location; they operate associatively, allowing linking; their structure is flexible; and of course, they facilitate collaboration by allowing more than one editor-contributor. I've used wikis as both a student, a teacher and a researcher. I would encourage others to do the same.

But I don't go to Wikipedia to drink the well-aged words of a brilliant individual. And I've yet to see an academic essay written collaboratively on a wiki that isn't dry as a bone. This isn't a coincidence: precisely because they're collaborative, wikis transform texts -- texts that, in the hands of an individual writer, would be creative, crafted, idiosyncratic -- into pure information, bullet points.

This isn't inherently a bad thing. Sometimes you want pure information. (Can you imagine William Burroughs' Wikipedia? Impossible! And, I would submit, this is a good thing.) Other times, though, I don't want the clearest route to an idea, from point 1.1 to point 1.10. Writing produced alone, by the individual struggling with an idea -- and I'm not romanticizing the image, mind you -- can take its reader on an amazing journal, down brambly paths, butting up against dead-ends, trapping her in its cul-de-sacs. This, for me, is the added value of humanities work -- this is the pleasure of humanities work, that we get to indulge so solipsistically in thought. For all their vaunted "collaboration," our colleagues in the sciences aren't granted this privilege. In the rush to digitize (a word that so often means "scientize") the humanities, I wouldn't want to lose it ourselves.


Anonymous said...

I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
And you et an account on Twitter?

Jenna McWilliams said...

Whitney, I agree absolutely with your point about collaborative writing--I've heard others say that writing is the one activity that can never, ever, be truly collaborative. Even the collaborative writings that do show a certain spark are most often penned by one writer and added to by others, often one at a time--individualism disguised as collaboration.

Which I think is what a lot of the best collaborations are. Over at The World Question Center (http://www.edge.org/q2010/q10_1.html#brand) , Stewart Brand writes about his "guild," which is the group of writers and thinkers who help him consistently grow and progress in his work:

"They are the major players in my social extended mind. How I think is shaped to a large degree by how they think.

"Our association is looser than a team but closer than a cohort, and it's not a club or a workgroup or an elite.... Everyone in my guild runs their own operation, and none of us report to each other. All we do is keep close track of what each other is thinking and doing. Often we collaborate directly, but most of the time we don't."

This is perhaps the promise of what we might call anti-collaboration as collaboration: Smart people working on the same sorts of ideas, checking in from time to time, building something together that they could never build alone.