Pair Programming: Could Something Similar Work in the Humanities?

Wooden chairsIn 2001, as a summer intern at a dot com company on the verge of bankruptcy, I witnessed pair programming for the first time. Two software developers sat together in front of the large monitor collaboratively editing code for the company’s flagship product that everyone was hoping would turn the company’s fortunes around. As I watched, one of the programmers seem to be almost completely idle, calmly watching as the other developer was engrossed in his writing. Every once in a while, his partner would jump in and make corrections, suggest alternative solutions, or show his approval. I was impressed by the spirit of collaboration I witnessed.

The company went bust, but my short summer experience filled me with ideas and gave me some technical skills that have enriched my studies since. As I struggle now with writing up my own history dissertation I sometimes lament the fact that compared to other fields few works in the humanities are written collaboratively. I’m sure there is a rich body of scholarship debating this fact and the relative virtues of doing anything about it, but it occurs to me that a form of “pair writing” along the lines of pair programming represents one of the more radical ways of exploring the possibilities of collaborative writing in humanities scholarship which is increasingly easy to carry out remotely.

Real-time Collaborative Editing in Google Docs

My sister is a librarian who, being on a number of committees, is often called upon to produce documents in collaboration with her fellow members. To accomplish this task quickly and efficiently, they edit these documents using Google Docs, which supports the simultaneous editing of a document. Whenever an additional approved editor opens the document, their insertion cursor becomes visible and anything they type is immediately updated real-time on everyone’s screen. The responsiveness of the document drops somewhat when two or more people are typing at the same time and the result confusing if they are trying to edit the same sentence but the possibilities here are clear to see. The use of different colors in editing can help clarify who has made what change, if necessary. There is also excellent support for comments that can develop into whole chat-like conversations in the margins. If this editing is done while the editors are directly conversing over Skype, text chat, or the regular old telephone, it surely reduces the necessity to repeatedly exchanging document drafts. Simultaneous editing of documents among remotely connected users has also been supported for some time in the OS X software SubEthaEdit and web applications such as various services hosting the collaborative editing environment EtherPad (now owned by Google). Have other readers here found other alternatives to be more effective?

The promise of real-time collaborative editing is easy to grasp when creating relatively formulaic official documents. I wonder, however, whether there might be a future for a more radical style of “pair writing” among scholars that make use of tools such as these in their academic writing. Just off the top of my head I can think of at least a dozen obstacles, but are there genuine possibilities to be explored here? Has anyone out attempted something similar?

Note: This post was written in Google Docs with my sister simultaneously editing and commenting as I went a long. Thanks for the help, sis.

Photo by Flickr user j_bary / Creative Commons licensed

Updated to fix a technical glitch.

Return to Top