Collaboration and its Discontents

Real academic collaboration requires more from its participants

The more clichés cluster around an idea, the more it should be examined; clichés are the SOS of stalled thinking or stale assumptions. Growing up, we are always told to be a “team player,” or, more pointedly, reminded that there “is no I in team.” Spelling suggestions are one thing, but the pressure to work together presumes to teach us algebra as well, as “two heads are always better than one.” I put quotes around these words, but, in fact, they are attributable to no one in particular, which is a kind of justice, as nobody wants to take undue credit, lest they be labeled selfish linguistic innovators.

But how well we work together is, in fact, much more complicated than these middle school maxims would have us believe. Math and science courses encourage collaborative work on problem sets, but discourage it (to put it mildly) during exams. Humanities courses, on the other hand, reinforce paper writing as a solitary endeavor, unless all those Gmail Chat sessions are somehow helping you make your argument about the complicated role of politics in “Middlemarch” (unlikely).  But even this dichotomy is too stark. At the graduate and professional levels of academia, collaboration is encouraged, as if scholars emerge from a long “time-out” ready to play well with others. But why should these complexities be the case? Or to put it another way, what is the role of others in our own intellectual development?

In an article published in the Jan. 30 issue of The New Yorker entitled “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth,” Jonah Lehrer argues, “there is one overwhelming problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.” Citing the work of Charlan J. Nemeth, Lehrer proposes that the most effective way to get ideas going is to engage in debate and criticism, rather than unmitigated positive affirmation. Now, it would be fair to counter that this is not exactly an argument against collaboration per se, but rather a prescription for a specific type of team work. But it is true as well that the more we challenge, refute, and prod, the more we act as discrete individuals rather than as a cohesive unit. Too often, working together means neglecting or frustrating our own vision in favor of a “consensus” that speaks for no one.

The isolation that can define the writing experience for many of us can be equally problematic. The best, most productive minds can function as their own interlocutors, texturing their work with the insights of a thousand minds and the cadences of a thousand voices. But for most of us, our head can be a cramped place to be. It can be difficult to think of new ideas or adopt novel approaches; everything we write tends to sound the same. The solution, I think, is to be wary of approaches that veer too far toward either extreme. If we have a problem set to do, try talking about it with someone not from your class, perhaps even a religion concentrator. Try to explain what you do and why to a friend from another discipline, and thereby articulate why it’s important to you. If you are a humanities concentrator, don’t be afraid to open your ideas to critique and questioning. Recommend a great book you’ve read, and discuss your ideas with people who wouldn’t be able to tell Keats from carbon.

One of the best things about our residential house system is what we share. But sometimes, it is important to hold a little back and let some idea we have been considering or equation we have been grappling with be with ourselves, and ourselves alone. By all means, share the highs and lows of life. But remember that we are sometimes more surprising than we expect ourselves to be. Let’s be sure we give each other the time and space to notice.

Ari R. Hoffman ’10 is a Ph.D. candidate in English.

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