Thirty-four years ago, Lisa Ede and I published a brief essay in Rhetoric Review called “Why Write . . . Together.” In response to that question, we offered a number of strong reasons for writing collaboratively, including the ability to mount larger research projects and answer more complex questions. And we embarked on a research study of collaborative writing across seven fields, which we reported on in a number of articles and a book, Singular Texts / Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing (1990, SIUP).
Our persistent calls for collaborative writing and our insistence that most work in the academy is done collaboratively, whether we recognize it or not, fell on many deaf ears—until the digital revolution made it abundantly clear that collaboration is the new normal, with Wikipedia being one prime example. In addition, the research I did for the longitudinal Stanford Study of Writing showed that our students are happily collaborating on everything imaginable outside of class—and that they are increasingly collaborating on course assignments as well. And of course, scholars in STEM disciplines have been collaborating on their work, almost by definition. Perhaps, we thought, the tide has turned.
But maybe not, as evidenced by a recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which asks “Is Collaboration Worth It?” in regard to a panel at the 131st meeting of the American Historical Association. This report suggests that the tide has not yet turned in the Humanities, where the single-authored monograph is still the gold standard and the sine qua non for tenure and promotion.
A panel here Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association explored the pros and cons of co-authorship in what some argued should be a particularly collaborative field (uncovering and interpreting the past is not a one-person job), but isn’t. Asked to answer the session’s titular question – “Is Collaboration Worth It?” – panelists offered a lukewarm but hopeful consensus: it may not count, but it is, in some sense, worthwhile.
By “crass” accounting, collaboration is “absolutely not” worth it, said Ben Wright, an assistant professor of historical studies at the University of Texas at Dallas who helps lead a free, online, collaboratively built American history textbook effort called American Yawp. Though the project takes up much of Wright’s time, it will nevertheless be an ancillary piece of his tenure file, he said. “I’m not going to hinge my career on this project.”
The encouraging note in this article is that the young scholars quoted all recognize the importance of collaboration for their own intellectual and personal and professional growth, even when it is not recognized by their departments. So I continue to hope that as these scholars mature they will begin to change the tenure and promotion policies in their department. But such change is amazingly slow: 35 years is a long time to have made so little progress!
In the meantime, I see a special opportunity, and an obligation, for writing teachers not only to provide assignments that call for meaningful collaboration and collaborative writing but also to introduce students to the very large body of research that supports the efficacy of such practices. It is a commonplace now for employers, from Main Street to Wall Street to Silicon Valley, to hire those who are good collaborators, good members of teams. And writing teachers know that good members of teams are not “yes” people, but rather those who look at problems from every angle, arguing out all possibilities and listening to varying viewpoints, and who know when and how to compromise without forgoing sound principles. These are abilities that teachers of writing know how to develop in students, just as we know how to create assignments that call for these abilities and that engage students in co-authorship.
So I’m encouraged that we teach students who will become history majors—and many other majors as well. We have an opportunity to send then into their majors with a strong understanding of the need for collaboration—and the knowledge of how to work and write collaboratively. Those are gifts that I hope will keep on giving and that will eventually lead to the kind of change that will make the question “Is collaboration worth it?” not even worth asking.