Collaboration

Today, Brett Ommen is going to begin recording the final episode – at least for now – of Professor Footnote. It is a memorial episode for Joel Jonientz who died late last month before more episodes could be recorded and produced. A number of his friends are going to swing by the the Working Group in Digital and New Media lab to chat with Brett about Joel and, in keeping with the theme of the program, any topic outside our area of expertise.

I want to talk with Brett about a couple of topics that I had just begun to share with Joel. So I thought I would get some thoughts down here before I head into the studio.

One thing that Joel could do better than anyone I’ve ever met was collaborate. He had the ability to shape his creativity into almost any form required in a project and manage his frustrations with us and the project in an almost superhuman way. Since he died, I’ve been thinking about what he had that allowed him to collaborate so easily with a range of other folks across campus and what we could take away from Joel’s commitment to collaboration.

First, collaboration is not longer a luxury in academia today. We’re not longer in a world where individual projects celebrate the lonely genius of devoted scholar. Today, non-collaborative work represents – in most cases – a poor investment for funding institutions and disciplines. Collaborative work takes advantage of economies of scale and the idea that two people working together and sharing expertise can accelerate the production of knowledge in ways that a solitary scholar working away in his or her dimly lit office cannot. Collaboration, of course, take many forms and should not diminish from an individual’s ability to contribute to their field or the debate, although it might effect the credit and control an individual has over their contribution.

In the humanities, our most common collaborative moments happen in the background. We regularly rely on editors, conscientious colleagues and interlocutors, and, of course, our students who rarely get explicit credit for their contributions. Perhaps it is our familiarity with that model that make more involved and elaborate collaboration between scholarly peers less appealing.

Whatever the reason, Joel had certain characteristics that made him an effective and willing collaborator, and while it is dangerous to generalize from a single example (I do live dangerously, of course), I think we can learn something from his methods:

1. Take risks. Over the past few weeks, we’ve probably worn out Joel’s enthusiasm for bad plans. That being said, his willingness to go along with a bad plan reflected his relatively high tolerance for risks and his own confidence that he’d be able to figure out a way to make something happen. In fact, as with many entrepreneurs, I suspect his tolerance for risk was no greater than most of us, but his confidence in his abilities to mitigate that risk was greater.

The ability to manage risk is crucial in collaboration. By including more people and more moving parts, the number of variables increases and our ability to control all aspects of a project decreases.

2. Have a dynamic body of work. Joel’s work was spectacularly dynamic from traditional humanities-type scholarship in the history of comics and animation to painting, computer animation, video work, and most recently sound. His ability to move from one medium to the next allowed him to both understand the challenges facing collaborators as they struggled to develop specialized skills, as well as to supply skills over a range of different areas.

Collaborations usually depend on our ability to understand the diverse workflows of various actors, the best academic collaborators have produced dynamic body of work that demonstrates both their ability to adapt and understand challenges outside their area of specialty.

3. Have skills. Closely tied to experience with different media, is the need for real, substantial, specialized skills. The best collaborators bring a specific body of expertise to a project. This expertise might be a distinct skill – in Joel’s case this ranged from graphic design to animation – or honed understanding of a particular set of tools – in Joel’s case this meant digital tools.

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Having a well-defined skill set or area of expertise helps to formalize the conditions of collaboration by defining clear domains of responsibility. Just as having a dynamic body of work ensures that a good collaborator can understand diverse workflows, a clear set of skills ensures that a collaborator have a set of realistic responsibilities.

4. Be willing and able to work independently. One of the silliest things I hear from people resistant to collaboration is that they don’t like to work with other people. This is crazy. The best collaborations do not necessarily involve working together. In fact, I might suggest that the best collaborative ventures involve individuals with distinct skills working independently toward a common goal.

Over the past year or so, I worked with Joel in creating a new digital press. The project had (and will continue to have) its challenges moving forward. Even when the project bogged down in university politics or our own overwhelming schedules, I could rely on Joel to take the initiative and get things done without constant badgering or pressure. He could work independently to move a project forward.

5. Advocate for collaboration. Finally, the best collaborators are advocates for collaboration. One of the most bizarre things taking place at the University of North Dakota is how they go about encouraging collaboration on campus. They provide funding for collaborations at the beginning of projects, but so far have done little to reward collaborations when they’re completed.

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It doesn’t take much creativity to propose a collaborative project, but it does involve creativity to bring one to completion. I’d suggest that our fine university consider the the preceding criteria as a way to ascertain the whether a collaboration is likely to result in a positive outcome.

More importantly, however, they need to work toward practices that ensure that faculty are rewarded for successfully completing collaborative practices. Joel contributed to a white paper produced by our Working Group in Digital and New Media that helped ensure that faculty who do collaborate get recognized in the same way as those who toil away (inefficiently) on their individual projects. Recognizing the results of collaboration will do much more than funding projects at the onset to support collaborative work on campus.

I’ve blogged on similar topic here and here.

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