Collaboration and Authorship

Do you collaborate? What have your experiences been like? Are you struck by the ways in which humanists cite Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and enjoy demolishing (in theory) the myth of the heroic-male-solo-author, and then proceed (in practice) to make sure that the infrastructure of academic productivity rewards only the solo author performance?
Here’s one of the many articles that have appeared on this topic in academic publication outlets:

Friends With Benefits

Written by two philosophers, this essay has a title that’s a bit annoying (for its adolescent humor – really, is collaboration like an experiment in alternative sexual practices? Does that make scientists promiscuous, and humanists traditional monogamists?), and fails to mention that Helen Keller was a socialist from the deep South (complicated political economic considerations would be required to wrap that around the “wise blind girl” image). But it’s a useful think-piece and might be a spur to generating discussion. For example, their concluding point applies nicely to both the labor of teaching and of writing:
“We have to actually care when others don’t grasp our point … We cannot do this by ourselves.”
It’s a pretty simple point. But the infrastructures of humanist academia tend to work against recognizing it. So collaboration remains in the space of invisibilized labor. The work of rendering opaque that which should be transparent might also be called the work of mystification.

What would the labor of de-mystification look like?

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6 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    The things that feed our souls and keep our fires burning don’t get us a leg up in the tenure process but at least they keep us from breaking into tiny little totally angry bits — most of the time.

    That said, I think I’m operating with a lot of ignorance about how the institutional bean counters work. In Informatics / sciencey worlds, we can proliferate papers through collaborations, spreading authorship all over the place, from the big Thought person to the undergraduate data coder. What I have to go on in the humanities is mostly experienced as rumor and report. Zelda’s tactics point to a very poor theory way of proceeding given what is there, reading and grafting the local processes to make something a little different possible.

    Is there anything good to read on how humanities institutions have changed over the last 300 years? Is it really the same old monastic model? Did the influx of ethnic studies and women’s studies make for transformed evaluation strategies or did the work fit into the previous models?
    Reading how change has happened before primes my imagination for thinking about how it can happen in the future. I guess ,Maxine , this might point to radical organizing and academic labor links? I would love to read that little book or support its coming into being in whatever way

  2. Maxine Power says:

    On Poor Theory: the notes that themselves point toward a manifesto:

  3. Maxine Power says:

    zelda, you’re talking about a broken system. I think we’re all pretty much agreed on that. So what would a fixed system look like, as far as collaboration goes?

    Right now most of my intellectual labor is caught up in… well, learning how best/most expediently to perform intellectual labor. Or how to game the system with what game I have and what game I can learn.

    Such is grad school.

    What I’m saying is, kludge is what I can think right now. I love the fluidity of the collaboration that zelda’s suggesting. And Lilly, I do think that a collaborative ethos might very well be caught up in “poor theory,” inasmuch as I understand it– but only if we can make it *work*. “Poor theory proposes to find ways of making the most of limited resources.” We do what we can with what we have, and one of our tools is our mutability and the lack of transparency in and between different forms we work in and different parts of our lives. It seems a bit as if, as in zelda’s example, the mystification of our labor practices is something that can work to our advantage when facing inflexible tenure committees that want to see solo ownership of intellectual products, and intellectual products of very specific types, at that.

    I’d like to see us all a bit richer, though, even if I can’t quite imagine what that academia would be. My collaborative projects are just getting rolling– a little book that explores radical organizing and academic labor (possibly never to be associated with the Real Legitimate Identity), a couple in-flux art pieces, et cetera. And I can’t imagine an academia where they get me a leg up in the tenure process in a straight-forward way.

  4. zelda says:

    Zinc is right, this is something I’ve thought about a lot and have developed strategies to address—but in only the most rough-and-ready manner, and one that I think succeeds only because the particular context allows for a lot of slippage. A little history:

    I first started thinking seriously about co-authorship in the 1990s, when I was doing group-based improvisational performance text. These texts were co-authored in the most obvious sense that any given individual was responsible for only about every sixth line of text, but there was an even more interesting problem that arose from the fact that we were working in pseudonymous online environments. People could ‘spoof’ each other, and they could also write in other voices, ad hoc. And in some cases there was underlying programming that mashed-up the incoming texts in certain ways.

    So short of keeping surveillance logs associating incoming texts with IP addresses, there was no certainty as to who wrote any specific line. (Not to mention that there is no certainty as to who is sitting at the keyboard at any IP address.) Plus, given the speed of production, it was often impossible to remember accurately afterwards which were your own contributions. Yes: it can actually happen that you don’t even know what you yourself wrote.

    The solution we chose was collective ownership and authorship: everyone involved could claim it all, and do anything they liked with it afterwards. At the same time, those of us who have continued to work with the produced texts have consistently credited the group that brought them into being. Those texts remain mostly outside the academic promotion system (most of them were produced before I entered academia), but I bring them up as an example of just how impossible authorship can be to articulate under certain conditions, and how absurd the effort to do so can seem.

    During my decade inside academia, a very large part of my production has been collaborative, in the form of perfomance work. (Like the sciences, the performing arts do recognize collaborative authorship as a necessity, and they have developed those minutely parsed job categories that we are familiar with from the movies to ensure that participants get that all-important individual credit.) My issue is that my primary collaborator and I have always seen ourselves as co-equal, and we certainly work equally hard on our projects, but we are aware that in the art world, where I primarily function, as well as in academia, it matters a great deal whose name goes first. And this is something I am particularly sensitive to as a feminist, since prior to the 1990s, in the few cases where there were female-male partnerships in the art world, the man’s name always came first; and it was understood that the woman was a secondary figure. So we have taken a somewhat unorthodox approach: for any given purpose–whether it be publicity, academic promotion, publications, grant proposals, or artist’s talks–we put first the name of the person we feel needs a resume credit as ‘primary artist’ most immediately. This doesn’t only mean that I get my name first on one project and he gets his first on the next; it also means that on project X I am credited first today and he is credited first tomorrow. Obviously, we can’t be completely fluid on this because publication credits (for example) get written in stone; but we do it as much as possible. At the same time, we are happy to articulate in a general way which aspects of the work we are more engaged with: he is more of a director, for instance, whereas I am more of a writer. It’s a dance between remaining intellectually honest and thwarting the bean counters and the idiots looking to settle in their own minds which of us is the ‘real’ artist.

    A further problem arises from the fact that I am an appropriation artist who reuses chunks of material from all kind of sources: published writings, internet forums, old films, etc. I believe that what I do is protected under the fair-use provisions of the copyright act, but because copyright enforcement in the United States is both draconian and almost completely unpredictable, I worry about becoming the target of an infringement lawsuit since I do acknowledge my involuntary co-authors. And this is a problem shared by all appropriation artists under the current copyright regime: in effect, we operate in an atmosphere of samizdat.

    And lastly, there is the fact that I have produced a fair amount of work under pseudonyms; some of it still remains unclaimed. When it came to the question of whether and how to get academic credit for this work, I chose a path that takes advantage of the extreme confidentiality of the promotion process: I chose to ‘own’ the work in the documents for my reviews. Of course, there was the possibility of not being believed, but I wasn’t especially worried about this since I have vast amounts of documentation on each project. I calculated that the two dozen people who would see these documents didn’t constitute much of a risk in terms of losing my cover. But I acknowledge that this only works for two reasons: because academia remains at a slight distance from the main circulatory systems of the art world, and because the work was not so controversial, so politically hot, that owning it would create the kind of uproar that can cost people their jobs.

    Obviously, all of these are kluges for a broken system. But kluges can sometimes serve as prompts for better systems…

  5. Zinc says:

    Zelda “accounts” for her work with pieces authored by her various proxy-names, as well as collaborative pieces; and she’s also well-acquainted with infrastructure labors. I’m sure she has insights on your bean-counting propositions. I actually think it’s possible to have these things on a CV, and counted for “something;” the question is, counted as a substitute for supposedly-real-solo-work, or just as “extra padding” for that promotion, which is still dependent on The Solo Work?

    I agree with your critique of this Chronicle article; even under supposed crisis conditions, the calls for reform in Humanities academic journals seem surprisingly wedded to a mythical notion of voice and authorship that much of its own theory has argued against. And perhaps relatedly, the figure of the Great White Theorist remains dominant, despite so many pitched battles of the last decades.

    So many Euro-oriented theorists continue to act in ways that suppose a very differently stratified world of theory (perhaps one which resembles that which they were trained in, but that California, for all its shortcomings, repeatedly challenges in terms both of embodiment and of intellection). I recall another visiting Euro critical theorist getting away with calling China a dark continent a few years ago, to a similarly constituted critical theory audience.

  6. Lilly says:

    Idea laundering: the processes by which academics, designers, and other inhabitants of the author function construct a singularity out of a social product

    Obviously, this engineer-turned-ethnographer is into collaboration. The article was not even forceful enough for my liking because it held on to the construct of “one’s voice,” as if one has one prior to collaboration that only needs to brought into others worlds through translation. My voice is very much ongoingly shaped by the conversations and situations I am embedded in where I learn things, I take up common matters of concern…

    These are quibbles, however. The infrastructure is so far behind that if voices In translation is our legitimation, I’ll take it for now.

    Six and I just submitted something as a single author, hat tip to JK Gibson Graham. We had to create a joint email address so we could jointly take up the communicative duties around the work. I am guessing I can kiss that work goodbye for a tenure committee though.

    In twitter, Catherine Liu suggested that Uci needs to occupy critical theory (in response to sloterdijk’s persistent refusal to enter collaboration with Ngugi wa Thiongo). I wonder what kinds of occupational infrastructures collaboration entails? For example, are there peer institution cases of evaluating humanistic collaboration that we can research and compile to help with tenure cases? Models of collaboration that register in current bean counting mechanisms? For example, if prem and I both authored journal articles about the hackathon as a pair but it shows up on the cv more conventionally? Which infrastructure battles to pick? Which tactics to settle for…for now.

    Does poor theory imply a stance towards collaboration?