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From “I Still Can’t Work with You” to “Let’s Work Together”: Creating a Rhetoric of Collaboration that Supports Professors

What changes at the level of the department, college, university, and profession at large must occur in order for junior faculty members to participate in collaborative projects without jeopardizing their careers?

Are we willing to undertake the potentially time-consuming and contentious work required to revise tenure and promotion guidelines so that collaborative research and publication will really count? (Ede and Lunsford, “Collaboration” 364)

These quotations articulate vital questions about how English studies frames and values collaborative scholarship. Although these questions were originally published in 2001—and Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford’s work on collaboration dates back to 1983—as a discipline we continue to seek suitable answers even today. Although many forms of collaboration have a long history of creating new knowledge in the humanities, whether blind-review feedback for authors or the teamwork involved in creating a scholarly edition, these efforts are persistently discounted during faculty evaluation. Though compelling arguments have been made to redress this situation, the changes over the past thirty years might be described as unsubstantial at best. As Lunsford, Ede, and Corinne Arraez describe, “despite our research and work like it, despite a protracted and thoroughgoing critique of the author construct and despite the attempts of feminists to articulate an agency not bound by those ideologies, little in the academy has changed” (Lunsford et al. 8–9). The downgrading of collaborative scholarship persists, effectively making it an activity open only to “privileged academic classes, senior faculty” (Entes 57).

One issue with this imbalance is that walling off collaborative work harms professors who must always weigh the benefits of any project against how an evaluation committee may regard that work. Those benefits, we argue, are uniquely important to scholars in a variety of roles for three reasons: contemporary research questions often benefit from many and diverse skill sets beyond those possessed by an individual scholar (Lunsford et al. 9); the opportunity to publish single-authored monographs is shrinking because of the decline of academic presses (Stanton et al. 13); and collaboration with senior scholars provides professors with important professional development in terms of professional networks, research experience, and even access to positions that will advance their careers (Anderson and Lord; Stanton et al. 56). Despite these factors, the prevailing arguments that persist in downgrading collaborative work in English departments focus on a fetishization of individual authors in narrowly defined roles and a concern that inadequate scholars will mask their deficiencies by attaching their names to projects anchored by more talented thinkers or more productive workers (Mullen and Kochan 131). These concerns run counter to both the theoretical dismantling of the solitary author in literary studies (by now a somewhat dated commonplace) and quality issues that adhere to any manner of publication, whether single-authored or not.

Because professors stand to gain so much through equitable evaluation of collaborative work (and we are not just talking tenure), we argue that the rhetoric of collaboration in the humanities can do more to support professors. Although much of the public rhetoric surrounding collaboration and multidisciplinarity extols their virtues, faculty governance documents and, by extension, higher education administrators often do the opposite; they frequently downgrade and discourage the work (Entes 47). Together, these messages may leave professors in limbo (Damrosch 70). They may find themselves saying no to exciting projects that contribute meaningfully to their fields of study and that extend to them the benefits of working with senior scholars or practitioners in other fields. After three decades of calls to reconsider how collaborative scholarship is evaluated, professors find themselves saying, “I still can’t work with you.”

To address this issue, the authors of this article adopted an existing framework for developing a collaborative culture in higher education. This framework breaks the task down into three essential stages—building commitment, commitment, and sustaining—and demonstrates the reality that collaborative cultures are sought across institutions (Kezar). Neither the desire for nor the challenge of producing a collaborative culture is unique to English departments. When mapped onto the work we accomplished to promote collaboration, this framework provides a useful means of organizing and building a rhetoric of collaboration that can support collaborative cultures across a variety of contexts.

Stage 1: Building Commitment

In stage 1—building commitment—Adrianna Kezar identifies four necessary elements: external pressure, values, learning, and networks. In this stage, “the institution uses ideas/information from a variety of sources in order to try to convince the members of the campus of the need to conduct collaborative work” (844–45). Our effort originated in one way with external pressure from the provost’s office “to streamline the review process and make expectations more clear” (Ballentine). Although the Ede and Lunsford quotation at the beginning of this essay casts the arduous task of revising tenure guidelines as a hurdle to be cleared, we found that the inevitable cycles of revising review and tenure guidelines in fact open up fortuitous opportunities for these kinds of conversations. Our provost’s invitation to clarify expectations coincided with a departmental discussion in which faculty members expressed a need for a more capacious definition of scholarly activity that included labors such as professional editing, multimedia work, and collaboration. In other words, the discussion led to an identification of values—another important element of building commitment.

Another often hidden, undervalued, and essential form of academic collaboration is committee work. We realized that our participation on the revision committee could be fruitfully expanded into a collaborative research project that would have a life beyond the narrow scope of our department. We therefore proposed working together as an interdisciplinary collaborative research team to investigate how other disciplines at our institution and other peer institutions evaluated collaboration, in order to establish disciplinary and institutional valuations of collaboration beyond those expressed by our colleagues. At the time, one author was an assistant professor with administrative responsibilities coordinating undergraduate writing courses, and the other author had just been hired as an assistant professor of modern American poetry. Even though we came from different disciplinary backgrounds and had significantly different duties in the university, we had both already experienced the benefits of collaborative work. Our partnership demonstrated that the fair assessment of collaborative scholarship is not and should not be regarded as an issue that adheres to one kind of field or approach; collaboration is not unique to rhetoric and composition, nor is it solely the province of a digital humanist or the scholar with a focus on feminist process. It is a fruitful and arguably vital path to creating new knowledge across multiple fields and methods—a path that can at times be even more arduous than working alone. We also had to recognize and accept that our endeavor was not without risk, especially for two early-career scholars like ourselves. There was no guarantee that our work would produce the changes we sought. And the time spent on this project was time not spent on the single-authored publications that would ensure our continued employment. Nonetheless, we decided to take the chance because we planned from the beginning to write about and share our work so that our effort was not simply or easily relegated to a category of departmental service alone. Moreover, we hoped our efforts might prove useful to others who are trying to advocate for a similar reconsideration of collaborative projects at their home institutions.

Early on, we identified a major gap between the rhetoric of collaboration as articulated by theorists and a kind of institutional rhetoric of collaboration as expressed in the sundry documents pertaining to faculty evaluation and promotion in universities. To explore more broadly the disciplinary grammar of collaboration as it exists in other academic fields and institutions, we first collected information about how other disciplines in our college evaluated collaborative work by examining their publicly available faculty evaluation guidelines. In addition, we contacted English departments at peer institutions to learn about their evaluative language for collaboration.

Institutional Findings

The college of arts and sciences at our university consists of sixteen different departments or divisions, each with its own sets of rules. For example, five departments—math, philosophy, physics, biology, and chemistry—did not explicitly mention collaboration in their guidelines. Four departments—world languages, English, history, and political science—required scholars to assign collaborative work a percentage that best described their contribution, seeming to employ the interpretive frame that suggests partial collaboration, in which “authors divide a writing assignment and each takes responsibility for specific sections” (Austin and Baldwin 24). This approach, while common, also immediately assumes that collaborative scholarship must be valued less than work done wholly individually. Whereas the author of a single-authored article automatically received credit for one hundred percent of the article (despite reviewer or editor feedback, input from colleagues, etc.), coauthors automatically received less than one hundred percent of the credit regardless of scope or impact, setting them up to have to produce even more collaborative or single-authored projects. Only two departments, communication studies and geology and geography, offered full credit for collaborative work.

Among the institutional examples, the geology and geography department’s language created space for more equitable evaluation of collaborative scholarship:

Papers written jointly with other authors are considered to be of equal importance with those written by a single author as long as there is a mix of publications in which the faculty member may be sole, senior, or junior author. A statement of the proportion of contribution the faculty member made to a multi-authored paper should be included in the evaluation file. (Department of Geology 7)

The language still contains many of the conventions found in discourse about collaborative scholarship, including an emphasis on single-authored publications and a statement on the scholar’s contribution to a project. Where this language differs greatly, however, is in the explicit statement that “papers written jointly with other authors are considered to be of equal importance with those written by a single author.” True, there is the condition that scholars should provide a mix of publications, but we found the explicit possibility of equal importance to be noteworthy. In our analysis, we also wondered about the need for the conditional statement. What was its importance? Anne Austin and Roger Baldwin argue that, in a meritocracy like higher education, “the system demands to know who contributed more and who contributed less to the collaborative endeavor” (67). This explains the need for a statement on the proportion of a scholar’s contribution and suggests something about the limits the system places on how much collaboration a scholar might pursue. This language began to shift our perception of evaluating collaborative scholarship from a strictly numbers game (x percent of a project) to a language game of how one builds and describes a scholarly profile. In essence, we began to see how the official language describing how collaborative scholarly work should be evaluated both enabled and constrained how professors might describe the work in their annual reviews or tenure letters.

Our perception of this language game continued to grow as we looked at how collaborative work was evaluated in other departments. For example, the Division of Social Work and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology offered praise for collaborative work while telling assistant professors directly that they should not rely on collaborative projects to see them through the tenure process:

Faculty collaboration is encouraged. Collaboration may be within the field or cross-disciplinary. However, a research portfolio is strengthened when it includes some research work and some research products/publications that show the competence and ability of the individual faculty member and her/his separate contributions as a scholar. While both single- and multiple-authored work can be evaluated for promotion and tenure, it is wise counsel, particularly to assistant professors, that their body of work include single-authored publications. (Policies and Procedures 11)

This language sounds quite similar to the language from the Department of Geology and Geography, but what struck us about this explanation was the move away from the finite counting of effort in terms of articles and percentages. Instead, our analysis suggests a move toward placing a scholarly profile on a continuum of weaker to stronger. In terms of a scholar’s professional ethos, one appears less credible if one has not or is unable to demonstrate one’s individual contributions to the field of study. That is, scholars’ work on collaborative projects may raise red flags for evaluation committees. What is especially interesting to note here is that the reverse is not true. If a scholar were to produce only single-authored publications, he or she would likely be praised for exceptional productivity—despite the recorded benefits of collaboration or the potential stultification from working in isolation. We wondered, Is it possible to redefine a strong scholarly profile as one that demonstrates a balance between the two ends of the scholarly production spectrum, a demonstrated ability to do both individual and collaborative work? The ability to include and reward collaborative projects in one’s scholarly profile would also allow professors to experiment with a variety of different kinds of researching and writing and to diversify the types of scholarly objects they produce. In our experience of crafting single-authored pieces, from articles to monographs, we appreciate the unique benefits of that mode of writing, whether as an opportunity to finely tune one’s own critical voice or to envision and realize a major project on one’s own. At the same time, as collaborators on this and other projects, we know the equal, though distinctive, time, commitment, and creativity required for ventures undertaken with our peers. Our hope is that both kinds of work can flourish and be rewarded side-by-side, instead of elevating single-authored pieces and denigrating collaborative projects as somehow lesser forms of intellectual labor.

National Findings

As our inquiry expanded beyond our institution, our findings grew muddier instead of clearer. Of the twenty peer institutions we contacted, we received responses from ten. We can argue this about the findings: Most of the institutions did count collaboration. However, the ways in which these schools did so were far from formalized and consistent:

  • Peer institution 1 reported not having a document for tenure and promotion.
  • Peer institution 2 reported that collaborative work could contribute to a junior colleague’s research profile but that the institution would “get nervous” if it was the sole publication.
  • Peer institution 3 reported that the single-authored monograph was still the standard for tenure.
  • Peer institution 4 reported that collaboration was encouraged, but mainly for teaching.
  • Peer institution 5 reported coauthored book-length works were evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
  • Peer institutions 6 and 7 reported that in practice the institution offered full credit for coauthoring as long as the scholar showed single-authored publications as well.
  • Peer institution 8 reported that collaboration counted minimally because “English is a field that values single-authored publications.” Furthermore, assistant professors were warned to be “judicious about the amount of work [they] coauthor, either with peers or with more senior scholars.”
  • Peer institutions 9 and 10 reported that collaboration was counted but that scholars needed to contextualize “the extent of participation and type of contribution.”
  • Peer institution 10 explicitly asked for a percentage.

As researchers, we found this disparity surprising and intriguing given the length of time that English scholars have been addressing collaborative work in our field’s publications. Ede and Lunsford essentially brought this conversation to the fore in 1981 with their article “Why Write . . . Together?” One of their central claims since then has been that change has to happen at the faculty evaluation level (Lunsford et al. 13). Our limitations for this inquiry prevented us from doing a broader national survey. As a result, we cannot make any generalizations about the state of evaluating collaboration throughout the discipline. This small snapshot of English department faculty evaluations suggests that collaborative scholarship is still a dubious proposition for professors. This snapshot also reaffirmed that what we felt we needed at our institution—holistic and updated language for evaluating collaborative scholarship—might prove useful to other assistant professors in other departments.

Stage 2: Commitment

Our discussion of stage 2, commitment, is brief but important. Kezar identifies the important elements of this stage as a sense of priority, mission, and networks. She writes, “in this stage, senior executives demonstrate support and re-examine the mission of the campus and leadership emerges within the network” (845). In our case, our inquiry into how collaboration is evaluated created an opportunity for us to present our findings at a department meeting. It will come as no surprise that by investigating the subject and being able to present tangible—if limited—information enhanced our credibility on the issue. We emerged as leaders on the subject within our network. While we encountered some skeptical voices and registered that resistance, we received significant support from others interested in opportunities to collaborate. This led to the leadership team drafting the new departmental guidelines and asking us to provide language for evaluating collaboration. The combination of emerging leadership (through learning), a reexamination of the mission, and demonstrated support propelled the endeavor to the third stage: sustaining.

Stage 3: Sustaining

Although there was and remains more work to do within the first stage, the opportunity to present new language advanced our work to the third stage of advancing a culture of collaboration. Sustaining involves “the development of structures, networks and rewards to support the collaborations” (Kezar 845). The structure we had the opportunity to shape was the faculty evaluation guidelines themselves. Therefore, we cocreated language for our English department that offered a more comprehensive and contemporary view of collaborative scholarship. Our goal was to sustain a rigorous approach to research and professional ethos while also fully acknowledging the complexity and necessity of collaboration. Our ideal model is as follows:

The English department values collaborative and interdisciplinary work, recognizing the vital role that it plays in the creation of new perspectives and new knowledge.

Furthermore, the English department encourages tenure-track faculty members to engage in some collaborative projects because of the many recorded benefits of such work, including exposure to new skill sets, rigorous cross-examination of research claims, and the mentorship of senior researchers in one’s discipline.

The English department also recognizes the unique challenge of fairly and equitably assessing collaborative work. Therefore, scholars engaged in collaborative and interdisciplinary work must do the following:

  1. Identify the type of collaboration (according to the taxonomy created by Ede and Lunsford)
    • Cocreation: Creators work together at every stage of the process, including inventing, outlining, drafting, revising, and seeing the work through the process of publication.
    • Cowriting: The creators divide the work according to tasks or skill sets. For example, each creator drafts a quantifiable amount of the finished project or one creator completes the research write-up while another completes a statistical analysis.
    • Group writing: This category describes projects with many creators who contribute various components. For example, coauthors may work on pieces of the work over time before one or two members of the group compile those pieces for editing and proofreading.
  2. Contextualize the collaborationFor each collaborative project, faculty members should fully describe their work. At times, the faculty member may find it helpful to quantify his or her contribution by using a percentage. Faculty members may also find these questions useful as guides:
    • What role did you play in the collaborative project?
    • Why was collaboration vital to this project?
    • What was the significance of this project?
    • From a professional development perspective, what did you gain by participating in this project?

Our expectation is that, just like our own department, other departments might use this evaluative language as a starting point and first draft for crafting their own language about evaluating collaborative scholarship. Furthermore, we hope that individual faculty members may use this language, whether it’s been implemented in their departments or not, for the purposes of invention. We believe that professors—research, teaching, clinical, or adjunct—can use this language as a first step in advocating for collaboration and convincing their community members of the need to foster collaborative communities. At our institution, we were successful in getting a version of this ideal language included and approved in our updated department-level faculty evaluation guidelines. Although not as comprehensive as the language above, the new language reflects both the taxonomy component and the need to contextualize the work (while minimizing the percentage aspect).

Conclusion

As the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship suggests, “We need to devise a system of evaluation for collaborative work that is appropriate to research in the humanities and that resolves questions of credit in our discipline as in others” (Stanton et al. 57). So far, the prevailing system of evaluating collaborative work—assigning some percentage to it—explicitly values collaborative scholarship less than single-authored publications. In this system, to work with any other person is to handicap one’s own evaluations because of the forced decision to assign a percentage of less than one hundred percent. Therefore, although our collective discourse suggests that “collaboration . . . offers significant opportunities for enterprising, untenured scholars to tackle problems or interdisciplinary topics too formidable in scale or scope for an individual” (Stanton et al. 56), many department evaluation documents either implicitly or explicitly discourage untenured scholars from undertaking collaborative work.

Addressing this issue and repositioning English scholars as important collaborators for research across disciplines in the twenty-first century requires more inclusive and more equitable systems of evaluation, yet achieving this goal requires a profoundly holistic view of the work needed to promote collaborative cultures. English scholars must build commitment through learning and networks. They must seize opportune moments created by external pressure or, in some cases, work to create that pressure. They must establish commitment by clarifying missions and taking on leadership roles, often by repurposing departmental service into opportunities for establishing and expanding the value of collaboration. Finally, they must work to sustain collaborative communities through new structures, rewards, and solidified networks (Kezar 850). To that end, we will add that, although our focus here has been narrowly trained on the tenure, review, and promotion process within universities, much can be done beyond universities to incentivize collaborative work. Professional organizations are well positioned to offer awards for collaborative academic projects or simply to make sure that their award guidelines do not tacitly or explicitly devalue collaborative works. Such organizations might also provide competitive funding for undertaking these kinds of projects, all of which aids in raising the stature of collaboration. This makes it easier for faculty members to use these accolades when rhetorically situating the value of their coauthored pieces for chairs and deans. The key to the overall reframing of collaboration is its vital role in professors’ success. Our hope is that collaborative work in English studies flourishes in the next thirty years so that our future doesn’t mirror our past.

Note

Earlier drafts focused solely on assistant professors; however, our research and conversations revealed an inherent bias based on our subject positions. Clinical professors, teaching professors, and others, including adjunct faculty members, have as much to gain from effective collaboration as traditional research assistant professors. Furthermore, they bring vital knowledge and skill sets to collaborative projects.

Works Cited

Anderson, Lara Lomicka, and Gillian Lord. “Coauthoring: What Every Department Should Know.” Profession, 2008, pp. 202–13. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/25595895.

Austin, Anne E., and Roger Baldwin. Faculty Collaboration: Enhancing the Quality of Scholarship and Teaching. George Washington U, 1991. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports.

Ballentine, Brian. “Faculty Evaluation Guidelines.” E-mail message to Thomas Sura, 4 Apr. 2018.

Damrosch, David. We Scholars. Harvard UP, 1995.

Department of Geology and Geography Faculty Development and Evaluation Manual. West Virginia University, Department of Geology and Geography, 2010. PDF download.

Ede, Lisa, and Andrea Lunsford. “Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship.” PMLA, vol. 116, no. 2, 2001, pp. 354–69. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/463522.

———. “Why Write . . . Together?” Rhetoric Review, vol. 1, no. 2, 1983, pp. 150–57. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/465586.

Entes, Judith. “The Right to Write a Co-authored Manuscript.” Writing With: New Directions in Collaborative Teaching, Learning, and Research, edited by Sally Bar Reagan et al., State U of New York P, 1994, pp. 47–59.

Kezar, Adrianna. “Redesigning for Collaboration within Higher Education Institutions: An Exploration into the Developmental Process.” Research in Higher Education, vol. 46, no. 7, Nov. 2005, pp. 831–60, doi: 10.1007/s11162-004-6227-5.

Lunsford, Andrea, et al. “Collaborative Research and Writing in Higher Education.” Profession, 2001, pp. 7–15. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25607178.

Mullen, Carol A., and Frances K. Kochan. “Issues of Collaborative Authorship in Higher Education.” The Educational Forum, vol. 65, no. 2, 2001, pp. 128–35.

Policies and Procedures for Annual Faculty Evaluation, Promotion, Tenure, and Performance-Based Pay. West Virginia University, Division of Social Work, 2010. PDF download.

Stanton, Domna C., et al. “MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship.” Profession, 2007, pp. 9–71.

Julia Daniel is assistant professor of English at Baylor University, where she teaches courses in American literature, modern poetry, and modern drama. Her research focuses on modernist poetry, ecocriticism, and urban studies, as seen in her recent book Building Natures: Modern American Poetry, Landscape Architecture, and City Planning.

Thomas Sura is associate professor of English and coordinator of the undergraduate writing program at West Virginia University. His teaching includes courses in introductory writing, professional writing, and teaching composition. His research interests include service learning, writing pedagogy education, and writing program administration.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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