Which Half Is Yours? The Art of Collaboration

January 20, 2003

As parents, one of the first social skills we seek to teach our children is the art of collaboration -- how to play together with maximum pleasure and minimum conflict. Likewise, in our own workplaces we are often engaged in managing shared space in the same sandbox, so to speak. In this column, I want to explore the dynamics of collaboration in a deeper way than is suggested by the challenge of simply sharing the same space.

In every area of my professional and personal life, I rely upon collaboration to keep me going. And yet I see that in some significant and troubling ways, the academic workplace favors competition over collaboration. Consider, for example, the common practice of requiring faculty members to specify their share -- the official term is their "percent responsibility" -- of every collaborative work they mention in their annual performance reviews.

In many ways, true collaboration requires far more concentrated and sustained effort than independent work, and produces a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. And yet we are encouraged to dissect any collaboration into absurdly artificial allocations of "responsibility." Surely, excessive attention to "which half is yours" can cause us to lose sight of the whole.

As a writer, I am engaged in the collaborative production of a novel for young adults based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. My fellow author and I are writing alternate chapters in the voices of different characters from the play. In order to weave together the distinct threads of these characters' lives successfully and cohesively into the fabric of the novel's world, the two of us, as writers, must first be able to inhabit that world together, in our imaginations, so immediately and fundamentally that our characters can simultaneously inhabit the same world as well. Then we must let our characters live, grow, and interact without presuming to predetermine every step of their paths.

The results have the potential to be either a disaster, should we construct competing worlds, or a miracle, where the world we share with our characters becomes at once bigger and brighter, darker and deeper, subtler and more surprising, than our points of origin.

Where I have arrived, as a collaborative novelist, is a place I know already. Quite simply, this collaboration offers challenges and pleasures akin to the collaboration of parenthood.

As parents, two individuals must strive jointly to imagine a world for their children that offers a consistent and coherent home life, despite their often differing points of view. Ultimately all parents must also let their children live, grow, and interact with others without presuming to predetermine every step of their paths. Moreover, competition between parents is beside the point: The value of reading aloud bedtime stories, for instance, cannot usefully be measured against the value of teaching a child to ride a bike.

As a professor, I was privileged in my first year of instruction to team-teach a graduate seminar on "Representing Women in the Renaissance" with a colleague who became, over the course of that year, one of my closest friends in the department. Like parents, we both assumed full responsibility for guiding our students, rather than each of us accepting 50 percent of the load. We jointly devised a syllabus, and worked independently in our complementary areas of scholarship to offer challenging questions. We found that students seemed most engaged when the differences in our perspectives opened up new areas of investigation. The key lay in embracing rather than erasing our differences.

Certainly it's more efficient to teach a class on your own. Lesson plans can be simpler, assessments more direct. But in place of the typical teacher-student relationship, collaborative teaching creates an intellectual space that is three dimensional.

It is worth considering not simply what collaboration offers the community being served, but the individuals who are collaborating as well. I am constantly amazed at how much more I myself learn working with a colleague than in isolation. Collaboration brings new perspectives, seeming detours that turn out to offer the most direct path after all or that lead to an unexpected end that you recognize as your destination only after you've arrived.

I don't mean to suggest that competition has no positive role in collaboration. In fact, I have found that competition, in moderation, can work like yeast upon a collaborative project, enabling it to rise to heights that the labor of kneading the project on one's own cannot produce.

For example, I have worked with Naomi Yavneh, an associate professor of humanities at the University of South Florida, on two volumes of essays in the field of "early modern" family studies. We have always mixed our collaboration with some light-hearted competition: Both of us share the same first name and have become known to our contributors as "the Naomis." Both of us had four children before tenure (for which our code is "4B4T"), and both of us (perhaps predictably) are absorbed by our volumes' topics of maternity and sibling relations. As an example of our competitive collaboration, let me note that Naomi Yavneh's academic field is Italian studies, while mine is English literature. Our joint volumes always contain scrupulously measured allocations of space for essays in both fields, among others.

So I don't question competition per se. What I do question is the pervasive practice in the academy of assessing collaboration in competitive terms, and of devaluing collaboration in academic work. "Which half is yours?" is finally no more useful a question when designating credit for academic promotion than when evaluating the success of a duet performed by your children. (I would suggest that both individuals participating in a collaboration be judged on the basis of the quality of the finished product, receiving credit both for their stated "percent responsibility" and that same amount of credit again, in recognition of the extra work required of collaborative ventures. Two separate individuals might then receive, in effect, 100 percent credit for their joint work.)

If both individuals are committed to sharing the effort, the success of the results can be at once immeasurable and invaluable.

Naomi J. Miller, an associate professor of English and women's studies at the University of Arizona, is spending the 2002-3 academic year as a fellow with the American Council on Education, learning collaboratively from the leadership at both Arizona and Princeton University.