The following post first appeared as a talk at the 2018 MLA Annual Convention.
In 1983, Lisa Ede and I asked what we thought at the time was a simple question: Why write together? In a series of articles, and later in a nation-wide study of writers in seven professional organizations, we aimed to demonstrate that people write together because–well, because that’s the way writing works. The more we thought about it and the more we observed writers, the more we realized that writing is social and collaborative, through and through.
But not so fast! What Lisa and I intuited, and later demonstrated through research, was not accepted by our peers or our institutions, including MLA, who held to the notion of what we called “radical individualism” and of authorship as decidedly singular.
Fast forward thirty-five years. Aided by the technological revolution, which both revealed and enabled extensive collaboration, and by decades of research by scholars in rhetoric and writing studies (along with some important feminist literary scholars), the social/collaborative nature of writing is firmly established, in theory if not yet in practice (think of the MA thesis and doctoral dissertation requirements for “original scholarship” that is, of course, done individually to see how the singular author paradigm holds on, and on).
It seems important to think about collaboration not as a stable or fixed entity but as a series of at least three continua: of degree, attitude, and control or agency. In terms of degree, forms of collaboration stretch from the “single author” who collaborates with a web of sources and voices to the kind of whole-group collaboration increasingly enabled by technology (think a crowd-sourced piece on Wikipedia, e.g.). In terms of attitude, think of the range between the loving, mutually composed wedding vow to the tough-as-nails agreement worked out through warlike negotiations. And in terms of control or agency, think of the range between writers who have control over not only content but forms of publication to the almost total lack of control characteristic of much online writing.
So the collaborative nature of writing today is highly complex and fraught, much more so than Lisa and I could have imagined 35 years ago. Thus the need for ongoing research into how, when, where, and why writers collaborate to create meaning. Perhaps more important is the need for a robust ethics of collaboration. So to the three continua mentioned above, I would add a fourth—responsibility. Bakhtin alerts us to the multiple meanings of this term: literally the ability to respond (who gets to respond and who doesn’t), the recognition that response inevitably invokes audiences both known and unknown, and the need to take responsibility for what is written or spoken. This continuum runs from the text painstakingly crafted and held to the highest standards of evidence and truth-telling to the thoughtless retweets of unverified rumor, misinformation, or lies. Indeed, the deeply collaborative nature of writing in a digital age calls into question earlier distinctions between “singular” or collaborative writers and between writers and audiences (when consumers of information can suddenly become producers, for example, it makes it increasingly difficult to tell the writer from the audience, the dancer from the dance).
Such shifting and expanding understandings of writing, of collaboration, and of the way writers today interact with, address, invoke, become, and create audiences raise serious new questions about the ethics of various communicative acts. They also call for pedagogies that involve students in critically examining their own role(s) as effective AND ethical communicators who understand the complexity of such acts as well as their personal and collective responsibility for them.
Credit: Pixabay Image 593341 by StartupStockPhotos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License