History and the Politics of Scholarly Collaboration, Part II: What Is To Be Done?

January 4, 2012, 11:07 am

I won’t be at this year’s American Historical Association Meeting in Chicago, but I did promise you a follow up to this post in which I addressed the ongoing discussion about the crisis in academic hiring.  For those of you who don’t want to go back and read it, I made the following points:

  • That the market in tenure-track history jobs went into crisis in the mid-1970s and has never recovered.  And yet, as a profession we continue to organize doctoral training around a teacher-scholar model that represents an increasingly smaller fraction of what might count as professional historical labor.
  • That most of us have a significant number of contemporaries who pursued alternative careers based on their historical training. Yet we continue to write and speak about this problem as if the only solution to underemployment and the proletarianization of academic labor through adjunctification is the creation of more tenure-track jobs.
  • That we historians continue to privilege a labor model that primarily honors scholarship, and secondarily teaching, as work that has the most integrity when performed alone.  This is particularly dishonest, since we all know, even as we give and accept prizes to individuals, that this is not true.  Historians have a long past of relying on the labor of others to produce major works — whether this is Michelet’s reliance on his wife (documented in Bonnie G. Smith’s The Gender of History, 2000); Richard Hofstadter’s kiting of his Columbia graduate students’ seminar papers as the basis for The American Political Tradition:  And the Men Who Made It (1948); or a longstanding practice of employing research assistants as archival proxies.
  • That the ideological system that governs the historical profession,  as it exists, is untenable and pushing us towards irrelevance.

I ended the piece by stressing the importance of collaboration.  AHA president Anthony Grafton’s article about museum work was important, I argued, not because we can now send all of our unemployed colleagues into museums, but because “the most path-breaking and influential scholarship in the twenty-first century is likely to be collaborative and accessible to a broad public. Breaking with the model of the exceptional individual, who works in private and competes successfully among professionally and narrowly similar peers, a paradigm that has governed access to the profession for over a century, is in its own way revolutionary.”

The revolution I see in the 21st century is the gradual de-authorization of individualism as a primary model for scholarly labor.  To be sure, some valuable work will still be done alone. I am at present alone in my house, for example, writing this piece entirely by myself, although honesty would compel me to admit that it is informed by hundreds of collaborators in the blogosphere with whom I am in conversation.  But if history is to survive economically and as a relevant way of speaking to others it will have to rethink collaboration on three levels:  scholarship, teaching, and a more egalitarian dialogue with an engaged and engaging public.

Scholarship. Admittedly, I am on a high about collaboration:  I just mailed the corrected proofs for a volume of essays coedited with a colleague in which a third of the essays are jointly authored.  We have collaborated on several smaller projects, and are remarkably congenial (my unscientific theory about this, by the way, is that both of us had unusually strong sibling ties when we were growing up.)  But prior to creating a series, and co-editing this volume, our collaboration had been entirely institutional, and — here’s the point —  went almost completely unrewarded.  Although our first collaboration, team-teaching an interdisciplinary course, was funded by university money intended to spur creative pedagogy, the initiative did not require — or even mention — collaboration among two or more colleagues.  Subsequent proposals that actually emerged from this initial collaboration were greeted with institutional indifference and sometimes open hostility from colleagues who saw their institutional commitments as co-opted and degraded by our efforts to bring two fields together to create a third, and entirely new, approach.  As far as the university was concerned, our team-taught class was an end in and of itself and had no implications beyond the students’ positive experience.

Although I saw these responses as puzzling at the time, and I resented them, I now view them differently.  They resulted not from institutional incomprehension, but from the overwhelming intellectual conservatism of the academy in general and the historical discipline in particular. I mean this not in a political sense, but in the sense that historians view even minor alterations in method, practice and perspective, or the emergence of new historical subjects, as revolutionary (either in a good way or a bad way.) Some regard novelty as dangerous to the cohesion of history as a practice.

Collaboration raises similar flags:  rarely are breakthroughs in historical method or practice associated with a collaboration between two or more scholars, but instead with individuals working alone who were on a similar path, sometimes in conversation with each other but not as co-authors. This is, in fact, the essence of historiography, which narrates fields through the work of heroic or exceptional individuals who follow one upon the other.  Alternatively, look at attempts in the last decade to “shake up” presentations at history meetings: new ways of presenting scholarship usually adapt developments pioneered in other fields (the poster session) or rearrange individual research presentations in a new format (the pre-circulated paper) designed to engage an audience more fully.

These minor innovations are certainly better than the traditional panel, in which three people and a commenter get up and read to fifty people, but they are not collaborative.

Takeaway point: A precondition to training new PhDs for a range of historical work that will be collaborative would be to make intellectual collaboration central to graduate training and to the most influential public spaces in the profession.

Teaching. We in the most traditional academic jobs need to not only learn how to collaborate, and practice collaboration in our scholarly and institutional lives, we need to make it central to our pedagogies.  Part of the damage done by the high-stakes testing regime that allows students to go to college at all is the elevation of individual achievement as the only route to success.  Our best students and our worst students arrive in college persuaded that working alone is the best route to success because a) that’s all they know how to do; b) competing with, and defeating, each other is integral to entering the college of your choice; and c) they fear that others will get credit for work that they have done and should be allowed to turn into individual dividends.

Why do we allow this situation to continue?  Some of us, of course, are merely reproducing our own values and work ethic, much as we reproduce our view of the Enlightenment or post-colonial nationalism.  Others of us know better:  teaching students how to collaborate is hard, we were never taught how to do it, and enduring their endless resistance to and whining about group work takes nerves of steel.

But a second issue, as someone who has taught in a history department and an American Studies program that sent numerous majors off to graduate school, is that not once have I heard it mentioned that a path to honors, or a capstone project of any kind, might be collaborative.  In fact, it never occurred to me until today that I had not.  Our unstated but default assumption is that the students who complete individual research well — not, for example, a group of students who researched, wrote and mounted a play or exhibit about an historical episode — are best suited to graduate training in history.

This goes double for graduate school.

Takeaway point: Students are not only not rewarded for collaboration, they are not taught how to do it.  Until we teach, reward and recognize collaborative scholarship, younger generations of scholars will continue to be as myopic as their elders about the possibilities for intellectual work.

Taking our work to the public. Professional historians are less interested in our public obligations than we ought to be.  Oh sure, who doesn’t want to write a best-selling book?  Who doesn’t want to write for The Nation, The New Republic, or The HuffPo?

And yet, of all the things I have done, this blog included, what has perhaps taken my work to the broadest and most undifferentiated audience was a group of documentaries on the FBI that are re-run regularly on the History Channel.  People stop me in airports and at dinner parties (a decade or so ago I was particularly popular at a men’s homeless shelter in Lower Manhattan) to ask me about research that was completed almost fifteen  years ago.

Given how much the public loves history, couldn’t historians try to learn to love the public just a little more — and not only when it serves our careers?  Why don’t we fight to let the public into our classrooms for free?  Why don’t we mount events in our communities that allow short-term, seminar style learning? And why don’t we who work at private, and privatized public, universities, do more to persuade our administrators and trustees that the reason the public is hostile to the academy is that the academy excludes the vast majority of the public from its most important activities? Maybe the reason people care so much about college sports is that we don’t sell tickets to history lectures.

One of the things that is in vogue now is teaching college courses in prison, a highly worthy task given that public dollars for this have been retracted and that education is, perhaps, the best way of preventing recidivism.  But why do we only teach college in prison?  Why not in retirement homes, YMCAs, police stations, libraries, firehouses, unemployment offices and union halls?

Here we need to think about a different kind of collaboration that needs to be woven into our training and retraining. We need to make alliances with activists and ordinary people:  a precondition for this would be that we need to see people outside our sphere as worthy of sharing our work.  As with digital humanities projects, we need to learn to  work with professionals who can convey and translate our work to larger audiences; who don’t give a $hit about footnotes, archives or historiography; and whose objectives include entertainment and providing intellectual pleasure to people who may not read books at all.  Such work might also include collaboration with policymakers, politicians, reformers, private foundations, think tanks  and businesspeople to ensure that projects that are reshaping, or seek to critically intervene in, the public sphere are historically grounded and informed.

I would like to conclude with an anonymous pamphlet a friend picked up at Zuccotti Park.  Entitled “The Economy is a Reflection of the Connection Between Us,” the authors conclude,

trying to fix the economy without fixing the way we relate to each other is bound to fail. The main thrust behind the current economy is simple:  personal benefit above all.  But today, we are so interdependent, that personal gain is no longer working.  It is time to create an economic model of reasonable consumption and mutually responsible relations.

The structures of intellectual life that currently exclude so many cannot be blamed entirely on others.  Even as we have watched a situation develop in which more than 60% of historians are engaged in marginal, ill -paid labor, and the majority of those on the tenure track are being squeezed harder by the threat that they too can be replaced by contingent labor, we have failed to rethink the relentless individualism that gives so much to so few and makes the criteria for successful scholarship ever narrower.

Now is the time to ask: Why don’t we work with others more? And what would change if we did?

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