Monday, November 29, 2010

Why I Write: A Response and a Meditation

I’m a regular reader of University of Venus. I like the mission statement, I love the variety of voices, and I appreciate the range of perspectives the writers offer. My post comes by way of a response to Mary Churchill’s post Why do Academics Write? from a few months ago. I guess you could say I’m a percolator: I think think think about something for quite some time before I formulate a response to it.

I’ve realized that one of the reasons this post has stuck with me is that it begins with a consideration of how the writing of blogs differs from the writing of academic, discipline-specific texts. Throughout this thoughtful piece Mary returns to a question which was both posed to her and which in turn she poses to her readers: why do you write?

Inevitably this question led me to thinking about why I felt so strongly about writing this blog with Heather and Aimée, which in turn led me to thinking about why I feel so strongly about collaborative writing. (& don’t forget the link in Aimée’s post that, as she discusses, is just one of many that suggests collaboration is detrimental)

Here's what I've realized: regardless of the readership--be it small, large, or wholly imagined--I write because I love collaboration. Yes, I know that the single-authored manuscript is what might get me the interview for the tenure-track job. And I know that I can churn out a single-authored article over the holidays when I’ve a small break from lecture planning more quickly than I could draft a book proposal with a co-editor. But I can’t help myself. I love collaboration.
A few years ago when I was a graduate student I learned about a collaborative peer-editing and writing group happening between two universities. This program was organized by two senior female faculty members; it paired students from the two departments and they wrote and thought together. I was green with envy! Writing and thinking in collaboration was something that I dreamed would happen regularly at the graduate level. The reality, at least for me, was that it didn't.

Later in my PhD I had the amazing good fortune of collaborating with several other graduate students to put together a panel on the pros and cons of collaboration for the annual ACCUTE meeting. When we first started writing and thinking together we were truly just acquaintances. Over the course of a year, after many long-distance phone calls, countless emails, and experimentation with digital-conversation platforms, we were definitely friends. While we didn’t get much more than a line on our CVs for the disproportionate amount of work we did, the experience of writing and thinking together was exhilarating.

Around the same time I began writing with a friend and a colleague. She was studying for her candidacy examinations, and I was writing my dissertation. She was in the creative writing stream I (obviously) was not. We started getting together at each other’s houses for writing sessions. Mostly these sessions took place in separate rooms at first, the idea being that we’d each write and then break every now and then for coffee and conversation. But eventually these conversations revealed the ways in which our scholarly thinking was in conversation as well. We started writing to and towards each other as a way of thinking through the relationship between the critic and the poet. We ended up publishing a section of our collaboration in the fabulous special issue of Matrix called New Feminisms, which was co-edited by the eminently talented Karis Shearer and Melanie Bell. Like the earlier collaboration this writing likely won’t earn me a job interview, but it feels as necessary as the academic writing that will might.

Which leads me, finally, back to this site: I write because I believe in collaboration, and I hope—however naively—that the writing we do does indeed foster some kind of collaborative thinking.

(More on specifically feminist collaboration next week…)

Why do you write, dear readers?

7 comments:

  1. I agree, Erin: collaboration is increasingly fundamental to my sense of what it means to make things happen through intellectual work in the humanities. One of the things I am committed to making happen: new understanding of and respect for collaboration, creation and experimentation in our scholarly endeavours (note "scholarly" not "research," "endeavours" in the root sense of "things we try to do").

    ReplyDelete
  2. Boo, I lost my comment as I sent it through because I couldn't remember my Google password...let me try to remember how I phrased it.

    I also agree. One of the most unfortunate presumptions of "outsiders" is that academia is isolating and lonely. So much of academic work is collaborative. Even research, I'd argue, given that even when it's just scholar and text, there's a collaboration occurring between reader and writer. Collaborative work, such as this Blog, also allows you to expand your writing skills beyond the article style of writing - something you did with your colleague when you wrote the New Feminisms piece.

    Collaboration is too often perceived as the way academics sell-out to popular research propaganda (as in, create collaborative projects in order to acquire larger research grants), and it's therefore often underrated and misrepresented.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Perhaps my views are not ones that mesh with that of academia on writing, or on collaboration, since in essence I have to collaborate for all my projects in some way shape or form.

    However, I don't collaborate when it comes to writing because I am shy about my writing, and most of those creative or even philisophical ramblings end up instead as a backdrop for some sort of painting, conceptual piece, or the like.

    I suppose not being an english major, and fearing that laughter will ensue when I put my thoughts down on paper (the concrete of the literary world I suppose) I don't write very much anymore.

    How does a visual artist approach the idea of text. As I'm sure I'm not the only visual artist who also writes some poems, and goes on about metaphysical things in a ratty old journal covered in coffee and charcoal. Concept is one of the most important parts of our work...the media is just different I suppose.

    However text seems more...important? Archaic? Solid and Platonic? Unmovable? Linear?

    Why do I write? because I feel the constant need to express myself, and linear expression sometimes does a more effective job at making ideas and concepts clear than does a painting...or some sort of sculpture made with found objects.

    Do I believe that collaboration is important with writing? Yes I do. The trick is the sharing part.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I write because I'm a reader, and because words, when strung together in a particular way, have the power to change, fundamentally, the way we think.

    I think I've always been entranced by words. Drawn in, lost. Also found. I've also been incredibly angered by them. But words, and putting words together in a concrete way that makes sense, really can alter the way we are in the world, and I love that.

    I also write because it's collaborative. An ongoing conversation, you know? I do hope that the academy will soon begin to know how to recognize collaborative work, though I recognize it can be difficult to sort out the sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I appreciate all the positive comments about collaboration here, although in a blog it's not surprising to see them. When I first started my job, I remember having to join the fight against funding bodies and institutional structures to get collaborative work recognized for the difficult work it is. Now, more scholars in the humanities realize that collaboration is important. Collaboration is recognized as legitimate and even necessary practice all over the academy, from the disciplines of music and art to (gulp) even areas like history and classics.

    So, collaboration is great, right? It feels democratic and maybe even feminist and left-wing. Except that often it isn't because it's so wide-spread. Collaborative work is the staple of many disciplines in the social sciences and the sciences, and funding bodies are pushing for more collaboration between scholars, not less. New fields like the digital humanities run on collaboration and thrive on big project grants won by groups of people.

    That's okay, mostly. But the real politics of collaboration can be very hard to sort out. The sciences are rife with stories of junior colleagues and graduate students whose work was stolen by their senior collaborators as a matter of course and even a rite of passage. Big collaborative projects work best when everyone does the work, but I have heard of collaborations where the men leave the "secretarial" and administrative work for women to do, and take the credit for themselves. Other collaborations are uneven, and they can break down around different ideas about writing, research and the inevitable extra administrative work that a collaboration needs.

    Collaborations are like any other relationship. They require trust, communication and openness to work. That's tough stuff. Sometimes they are not the best way to get writing done. I have collaborated with many people on writing projects: some worked, some didn't. Sometimes my single-authored projects were more suitable to the material I researched.

    Don't get me wrong, I love collaboration. But I'm suspicious of utopian feelings about it. Raymond Williams developed the idea of "structures of feeling" to work against any utopian idea about history or culture. It would be interesting to understand collaboration as a structure of feeling to get beyond thinking of it as an ideal practice.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I write because I have to, because it's expected of me. I love having written, but the act of writing is painful and soul-destroying. I'd rather be helping students or doing committee work, where I can see that my efforts make a difference. Sometimes I trick myself into writing by arguing that my work will help other scholars, but I don't really believe that an article 10 people will read is as valuable as 10 hours spent one on one with students. But I know I won't get tenure unless I write, so I force myself to do it.

    On the other hand, I do like to write blogs and comments on blogs. And fan fiction. That, I think, is a combination of ego and pleasure in giving pleasure (the fan fiction for the latter). But mostly ego. Suffice it to say, I have a disfunctional relationship with writing.

    That said, I do like collaboration. I was most productive when I was in a dissertation writing group, in large part because it was about helping others, and contributing my own writing fit within that mandate.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you so much for this post. I feel I only work well in collaboration, and as though writing with one name on ideas that "I" have is so misleading about the communities, conversations and disagreements within which I think. I appreciate your comments @ Dr. Identity about the difficulties of collaborative work. Feminist writings about coalition and collaboration are great for thinking through these difficulties and that collaboration cannot just be a place of home, but a place of work and struggle. I'm thinking of Chandra Mohanty and Biddy Martin's work in particular.

    I've been struggling recently to say that thinking and working and being in community together is so important to thinking (with the recognition that community isn't always an easy-fun-awesome place) and it's moving to read someone else who thinks this kind of work is important.

    ReplyDelete

Drop us a line! We're angling for vigorous commentary, but we will cut loose any vitriol dragged up from the depths.