collaboration · DIY

The Pros and Cons of Collaboration*

I was at another Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory event this week. The Canadian Women’s Writing Conference on Space/Place/Play was held at Ryerson University. Over the course of three and a half days the conference participants sat together in a room so filled with windows that felt a little as though we were perching above the city. We sat in this room for almost eight hours a day listening to papers and meeting each other over coffee. Many of us marvelled about the sheer number of papers that were collaborative projects or collaborative presentations. Seriously, so many of us were presenting with or on behalf of larger groups of people with whom we work. For those of you who don’t work in the humanities let me say that collaborative research isn’t the norm…yet.

Much of my work involves collaboration either directly or indirectly. Indeed when I was a graduate student I was so eager to collaborate that I sought out three partners in crime and together we hosted a conference panel thinking through the positives and negatives of collaboration called “Twice the Work for Half the Credit?” I’ve written collaboratively on several projects already, and I have two more in the works, so it is safe to say I really believe in the benefits of collaborative work in the humanities. 
But, as so many of the presentations this week attested collaboration is often uneven, and almost always hard work. So here are a few gems of wisdom gleaned from some of the mutual listening and discussion this weekend.
1. Think: Does the project warrant collaboration?
Not all projects actually benefit from having many people working on them. It is worth thinking through whether or not your project actually needs/would benefit from collaboration. File this suggestion under ‘avoid jumping on band wagons if you don’t want to play in the band.’ 

2. Say no
Not all of us are good/want to/should collaborate. Nor should we! Point one not withstanding, part of being a good collaborator is knowing your own limits. If collaborating is beyond your limits then don’t do it!
3. Say yes and figure out the details later
Collaboration is hard work, sure, but if you don’t try it you’ll never know how it may benefit your work and your thinking in ways you may not even be able to imagine.
4. Figure out the details
Once you’ve decided to collaborate it is incredibly important to set some ground rules for your group. Though I rather fancy the image of a wildly artistic melange of creative minds working side-by-each on radical, organic projects that just, I don’t know,  flow together the fact of the matter is that clear guidelines and expectations set the tone and help create a positive environment. It is worth remembering that the guidelines you begin with will likely need to change over time. 
What other advice do you have?
*The Pros and Cons of Collaboration is a fabulous album by Carolyn Mark. Check it out here, it could be your collaborative soundtrack.

3 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Collaboration*

  1. Hi Erin, great topic and one that is very timely for academic work.

    At the risk of touting my own horn too loudly, I have been researching this very topic for a couple of years (with generous support from SSHRC).

    If anyone is interested, some of my publications include:

    o ““More minds are brought to bear on a problem”: Methods of Interaction and Collaboration within Digital Humanities Research Teams”. Primary author, with Cunningham, R., Duff, W. and Warwick, C. Digital Studies/Le champ numérique. 2.2. 2011.

    o “The Balance between On-line and In-person Interactions: Methods for the Development of Digital Humanities Collaboration”. Digital Studies/Le champ numérique. 2.1, 2011.

    o “The Potential of Grant Applications as Team Building Exercises”. Journal of Research Administration, 61.2, 2010.

    o “’It’s a team if you use ‘reply all’: An Exploration of Research Teams in Digital Humanities Environments”. Literary & Linguistic Computing, 24.2, 2009.

    In terms of sample agreements, this might be helpful:

    o “From Writing the Grant to Working the Grant: An Exploration of Processes and Procedures in Transition”. Primary author, with the INKE Research Group. Proceedings of INKE 2009. 2009. with the governance documents at




  2. I'm so glad that you posted on this, Erin. I think in my enthusiasm for collaboration I sometimes forget to differentiate between methodological benefit and personal preference. What it comes down to is that I just really like collaborating. I find it inspiring and energizing to work in close conjunction with other people with their own distinct passions and investments. But that should also entail recognizing that what some people are passionate about and invested in might involve working on their own, or only working with others in very select contexts. So maybe:

    5. Respect the right to solitude?


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