Monday, March 11, 2019

Hello again from Sydney! Collaboration: Why and How

Hello again everyone…. from the now rather relentlessly sunny Sydney. 

I promised to blog about collaboration. Since Rage for Order came out, “how can you collaborate so much” is the question I’m most frequently asked. I have been writing and working with people more and more. I love doing this. I suspect sometimes that this is because I missed a career calling as an open plan office worker… but more on that some other time.

One of the reasons why my latest book has taken so long to write is because I am in deep mourning over the end of the Rage for Order project with Lauren Benton. She joked at one point that we should call it “Ordering the World” because we’d plotted the book at restaurants all over the world from New York to Helsinki to Paris and other places in between. That was such an easy, organic collaboration that it is hard to extract general tips from it. So, I’ve asked around a bit so that I don’t just say, “give up now, you’ll never have it so good!”

Seriously, though, collaboration is the way of the future. In Australia, collaborative projects are more likely to be funded by the Australian Research Council because they present better value for money. History is getting to the point that we all need to do broader and deeper research. To do this requires us to share resources, methodologies and writing projects. Even in our mid-career fellowship applications in Australia, a whole section must describe how we will use public funds to collaborate.

Anyway, some tips:

TIP 1: Collaborate at the right time! I think it will be a while before you should co-author your first book in the US market. Our profession still thinks of careers in terms of benchmarks. A smart PhD is the first benchmark. Converting it into a cracker first book with a good publisher is the second. Then, maybe, it is time to consider working with others.

Don’t just collaborate for the sake of it, though! Do something you and your collaborators could not do by yourselves. The best collaborations are bigger and better than the sum of their parts.

TIP 2: Share resources! Even if you are not writing with someone, consider sharing your archives with like-minded scholars. Collaboration saves the world! Why do we all need to go to the archives over and over, when we can photograph and share records (or, better still, work with archives to digitize them properly)? My latest project, Inquiring into Empire involves eight scholars to varying degrees. The project is based on a vast archive of commissions of inquiry data that we have copied and shared from the National Archives (UK). We are also slowly uploading our own private digital archives to a shared Dropbox account. Some of us will need to go to London to do more contextualising work, but we have a wealth of information to be getting on with in the meantime.

TIP 3: Standardize! Again, even if you are not writing with others, consider making your data shareable by using standard systems of classification. This appeals to me particularly as the daughter of a classification-mad librarian. In Inquiring into Empire, we are working to establish standard notetaking practices so that we can spot patterns across the archive. In fact, I’m off to Tasmania in July to discuss some Australia-wide protocols for note-taking. We will discuss whether we should be coding people’s professions using standard terminology and whether we should adopt UNICEF’s classifications of crimes. If we use bigger classification systems, others can data mine our work. Imagine if we all did this? Imagine the questions we could answer about history? So, when you are starting a project, even an individual one, think about how you can contribute to something bigger for the common good.

TIP 4: Trust and like your collaborator! Pull your weight! Work with someone who pulls their weight, respects deadlines, is a great colleague who nurtures other peoples' careers, and makes you laugh. Just as important, don’t work with other people if you are not the sort of person who is always fighting to do more than your share, looks out for people and can laugh at yourself.

Even with such indicators, make sure you start small, set up expectations clearly, and see how a collaboration goes before you plan a giant project. 

TIP 5: Share the load! If you are working with people on a research project, make sure you share the load to maximize productivity. Talk about expectations and divvy up tasks. Laurie and I did this by dividing some chapters into two parts (we wrote one half each). Sometimes we allocated whole chapters. This is a great way to work because it means no one is ever waiting. You always have an independent task to be getting on with.

TIP 6: Hand it over! A great benefit of writing together is that you can send off an unpolished piece when you can’t bear to look at it anymore. That is awesome! My other great collaborator, David Roberts, and I do this from the get-go. He sends some notes about something interesting, I’ll play with them to see what they add up to and then send them back. From there we work progressively to fill in the gaps and write through in one- to two- week bursts. Our work always comes back better.

TIP 7: Write over! …Which brings me to the next tip. If you are going to write with someone, you have to decide at the outset that you are brave enough to write over their work and that you are confident enough for them to write over yours. This is the key. You should probably settle this in advance, though it happened automatically in all of my collaborations.

  1. Write with someone whose writing you admire. This tip requires faith in your collaborator.
  2. When you get something back, read with mark-up hidden. This helps you to let go of the little things. Though, it did end badly once with Laurie when we ended up in an endless ‘the’ exchange. I took them out, she put them back in, I took them out, she put them back in … and so on, until I had a Groundhog Day moment. Then I turned mark-up back on and left them in.
  3. Let things go! If you can’t let your prose go, you shouldn’t be collaborating. If some phrase is really important to you, raise it once. If your partner doesn’t like it, delete and move on. Who cares! If you have followed, sub-tip (a), all will be well. Laurie and I ended up having this conversation about Rage in reverse. I deleted an anecdote I’d written about emancipist William Redfern in New South Wales whose boorish dining habits became a metaphor for moral decay in the convict colony. Laurie told me that it should stay. So there it is.
TIP 8: Set the ground rules! Now that I am writing articles with more collaborators who have contributed to different degrees to our outputs, I’m learning some new things about setting up collaborations:

a.      Decide author order in advance. If you are doing loads of things together and will contribute roughly equally overall, maybe alphabetical works.  If, as in a recent draft article I worked on, some poor colleague gave a disproportionate amount of his life over to doing incredibly tedious computer analysis, make them lead author and list everyone else by contribution. Or, at very least, write a paragraph or a footnote explaining what everyone did exactly. But sort it out in advance, so no one feels aggrieved. And be generous!

b.      You should also sort out how the collaboration will work. Some lead investigators want to have final say on everything in return for shaping the grants, organizing publications and mobilizing everyone. As a lead investigator, I don’t work this way. I’m happy for everyone to have ideas, pitch in, write over, opt in or out as they choose, so long as we communicate and acknowledge each other’s contributions. The point is, everyone should know how it will work and what is expected of them in advance.

c.      Communicate very clearly and consistently. Our first commissions output was late (by one week, if that counts) because I thought everyone knew what they needed to do and when, but they didn’t. If you are in charge and are sending people off to complete tasks, you need to follow up everything with a very clear e-mail pointing out exactly what each person needs to do and when before you go to the beach for the summer.

d.      You won’t always agree with your collaborators and everyone has a bad week, misunderstands something or gets distracted. If something is going wrong, deal with it early. Don’t let anything fester. If in doubt, pick up the phone or organize a get-together.

TIP 9: Have fun together! Most of my collaborations work by e-mail, but it is important to get together periodically to sort the hard bits out, or even more importantly, to break bread together. Working together should be fun!

See you next week.... when I think I will write about method.