Blog Post

Group Think: Notes on the present + future of collaboration

I’ve had two quite different occasions this summer to think about collaboration in the Humanities. The first: a course I taught on blogging in July, which explored how writing, as a first-person and personal craft, is (and is not) changing in the era of social media and digital communities. The second: continued planning of the Food Justice conference, which has provided an opportunity to collaborate with scholars from across disciplines as well as nonprofit leaders, artists and farmers. Having done these things while finishing a monograph has raised the question, not new but perhaps newly inflected, of what collaboration has meant and might come to mean for the Humanities? And so, I thought I’d open this question on Arcade in the hopes of sparking some meaty dialogue on the subject.

For those of us working in the Humanities, our ideas of collaboration are likely all over the intellectual and emotional map. Yet, whether we are involved in a multidisciplinary, multimodal collaborative project (such an NEH Digital Humanities project) or we collaborate mainly at punctuated professional moments (at a dissertation defense, on department and University committees, in editing or contributing to collections), it seems we are all engaging in collaborative work more now than ever. As compared to colleagues in the social and natural sciences, however, collaboration remains a relatively limited piece of how scholarship “happens” in the Humanities—and perhaps especially in literary studies.

This observation gained salience with me as I began collecting bios for the speakers who are participating in the Food Justice conference. As I read through those profiles of scholars working in fields from plant genetics to anthropology, I was struck by the sheer amount of work they do on very large teams comprised not only of colleagues and graduate students but also policymakers, community organizations, government entities and activists. Of course, such collaboration is not particularly new to those disciplines (although its form has been changing with the emergence of new media for capturing, tracking and analyzing research data). Nor should we romanticize collaboration as a panacea for addressing some of the challenges the Humanities now face, and that have been thoughtfully considered on Arcade. Yet, I do wonder what would happen to our various disciplines if we pursued major collaborative grants offered not only by the NEH but by organizations like Mellon, Google, the Ford Foundation, the NEA and even the NES. And I wonder what roles we might play—or how we might expand existing roles—on multidisciplinary research teams that are investigating subjects ranging from climate change to literacy. Finally, I wonder how we might alter our own methods of research to include, for example, public policy and social entrepreneurship.

Some scholars would argue that the horizons of the Humanities shouldn’t include policy (much less entrepreneurship). While I disagree, I concur that the disciplines comprising the Humanities have both historical lineages and emerging methods that distinguish them from the social and natural sciences. The recent experiment at Shakespeare Quarterly to make four essays available online for public, peer review encapsulates this tightrope walk of disciplinary rigor and large-scale collaboration. It is certainly an experiment worth repeating, testing and debating. For one way to reinvigorate the Humanities would be to pursue precisely such opportunities to work with others, to write collaboratively and to think in public––the very opportunities that a forum like Arcade now offers.

Allison Carruth's picture
Allison Carruth is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at UCLA, where she is also an affiliated faculty member in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the Institute for Society and Genetics, and the Center for the Study of Women.