(Not) Jacked Up: Actor Network Theory as Lens for Collaboration
Andrea Stark Bishop
Crystal D. Harris, contributor
University of Memphis
My friend Crystal infuses such emotion—such intense meaning—into her favorite saying, “jacked up.” That student? Jacked up. The article she’s been struggling to write? Jacked up. The reality TV show she tried to watch? Jacked up. The collaborative work that we’ve attempted? Occasionally, somewhat jacked up… but more often, totally NOT jacked up. While never simple, while often frustratingly cyclical, collaborating with Crystal continues to be one of the highlights of my graduate school experience.
After a particularly satisfying escapade of collaboratively writing and presenting a conference paper with my friend and colleague—alligators and a midnight dance-off were both somehow involved—I found myself wanting to explore why and how our partnership works. Before I began co-writing with Crystal, I admit to carrying a rather romantic notion of collaborative writing teams. I naively assumed such collaborators probably finished one another’s sentences, they likely wrote in tandem with minimal effort, and they certainly offered one another just the right ideas at just the right time. My own partnership with Crystal has corrected much of those fanciful notions, but it has also helped me realize the benefits that come from co-writing with another human. Because I absolutely believe collaboration with Crystal has made me a more effective scholar and teacher of writing, I want to better understand how my partnership with Crystal works, but I also want to engage in the conversation about the values of collaborative writing.
Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT) serves as a helpful lens for better understanding and doing collaborative writing. In We Have Never Been Modern, Latour explains network as the way we negotiate nature, culture, politics, and society. He likens a network to the mythological thread of Ariadne (3), a device that helped Theseus escape after killing the Minotaur. The network enables us to find our way, serving as the map navigating the maze leading to knowledge. And in Aramis or the Love of Technology, Latour attempts to show machines (specifically machines of technology) as “cultural objects worthy of […] attention and respect,” suggesting that by adding an “interpretation of machines to interpretation of texts,” the results of study will “take on added density” (viii). Latour continues this emphasis on both the network and the inanimate in his explanation of ANT, attempting to both complicate and contextualize any study of social situations.
With ANT, much of the theory rests upon the significance and effect of nonhuman actors: from an office chair to a broken printer, from an especially mild winter to a terribly hot cup of coffee, from an easy relationship with a co-worker to a stifling office environment—the importance of such actors weighs heavily in the study. John Law, friend of Latour and co-developer of ANT, explains that “actor network theory is descriptive rather than foundational in explanatory terms” (141). The inherently descriptive nature of ANT is the ideal complement for examining, describing, and analyzing a collaborative writing team.
Through ANT-inspired reflections from my work with Crystal, this project will demonstrate an application of the concepts ANT promotes. While Latour is generally read as a singular (rather than collaborative) author, his work with ANT seems a perfect lens of inquiry for collaborative writing since so many non-human actants are at work when two humans attempt to compose together. Additionally, this project will be informed by the work of collaborative writing partnerships such as that of Jonathan Wyatt and Ken Gale, both qualitative researchers engaged in the social sciences. Wyatt and Gale have produced insightful work showing the value of collaborative writing while also exposing the vulnerable underbelly that comes from working so intimately with other scholars. Their autoethnographic approach to studying collaborative writing inspires the format I’ll follow for this project—a structure of scholarship broken up with reflections intended to exemplify or characterize the scholarly concepts under consideration. I’m certain some meandering will be needed as I follow the threads that make up the Crystal and Andrea writing network.
The English department teaching assistants at our university share a large space that houses 40 individual cubical-style desks. Our space, officially “Patterson 103/105,” is on the bottom floor—i.e. basement—of the English department building. Unofficially called “The Pit of Despair” (or just “The Pit”) by those housed within, the space is generally cold and dank, regardless of the season, and the atmosphere seems to breed a certain amount of negative energy. During my first semester as a TA, I was constantly frustrated because of the anxiety induced, woe-is-me rhetoric spoken by my colleagues and desk mates. Crystal, however, was a bright spot in that shadowy space. She never added to the complaints; she never walked into the room spewing negativity and despair about her imbecile students, and she never made me feel anything but happy to see her.
Neither Crystal nor I remember exactly what made us laugh together for the first time, but we both agree that our relationship began over laughter. Soon enough, Crystal pronounced me perfectly “jacked up” and the bargain on a friendship was struck.
While we had not yet begun collaborating, we did begin to walk off campus to get coffee or sandwiches. We left the negative space of The Pit and carved out our own space at Café Eclectic, a coffeehouse down the street. Essentially, we moved. We moved out of a negative space and into a positive one. We moved into a site where we could make ourselves heard in one another’s heads.
Latour’s ANT traces the interactions of the participants within a network—a network such as a collaborative partnership. This practice of tracing interactions is where I want to begin exploring my own collaborative relationship with Crystal. Latour speaks against the empty terms like “society” and “culture” that permeate the scholarship of sociology and, I would add, the scholarship of English studies as well. Instead, he emphasizes a “common sense” approach to exploring collectives, an approach in which “the task of cohabitation should no longer be simplified too much” (Reassembling 262). He states that “in order to trace an actor-network, what we have to do is to add to the many traces left by the social fluid through which the traces are rendered again present,” adding that the purpose “is to see whether the event of the social can be extended all the way to the event of the reading through the medium of the text” (133). Essentially, this means that in order to trace—to value and explore—the collaborative products of my work with my collaborator, I need to examine all of the possible actors (both human and non) that have influenced our work. I need to determine how these actors interact to either aid or resist the work we attempt.
The social character of collaborative writing deserves—no, it actually requires—an ANT-like exploration. Collaborative writing needs discovery, description, and discussion. Perhaps this project will create a better conversation about, or a better space for, collaboration. Perhaps providing a descriptive method of collaboration, and exploring what it means to write collaboratively, will serve as a useful pedagogical instrument for later work. Collaboration, the intentionality of working in tandem with another human being, needs authenticity and awareness. Even if it’s occasionally jacked up, collaboration deserves fruitful discussion.
One of the first things I remember noticing about Crystal, back before we were anything more than colleagues who shared office space, was how she talked about class activities. She valued them. They were not merely a means to an end—simply a way to make it through a 90-minute class period. Like me, she believes that teaching is not just telling; rather, teaching is practicing, sharing, exploring, using, talking, writing—most of which must happen in concert with other people.
Crystal builds group learning into almost every class session, believing that collaboration works in the classroom. Perhaps our mutual faith in collaborative class activities and collaborative learning stems from our academic backgrounds. We both have master’s degrees in education. Perhaps the social aspect of learning presented in those education classes underpins our reliance on the use of collaborative methods in our pedagogical practices. Possibly, because we both taught high school English before returning to academia, we value social learning in ways that scholars—rather than teachers—cannot truly appreciate. Regardless, this shared value of social learning is at the core of our collaborative efforts. It seems especially relevant that our shared regard for social learning positioned us for a partnership since we likely would not have considered collaborating if we did not already value collaboration. Our past experiences as educators and our shared knowledge of social learning are significant actants in this partnership.
Wyatt and Gale mention the disconnect between the messy reality of how collaborative writing takes place and the tidy fantasy of how it is presented. They write that “collaboratively written work is for the most part presented as seamless: the joint-authored text written as if from nowhere in the first person plural, with apparently no ‘gaps’ between its disembodied and immaterial authors” (345). In my own collaborative work on course planning, teaching, presenting, and writing with Crystal, I’ve known messiness, but I’ve also known the magical final product. The process and product both engage and fulfill me in ways that are difficult to name, perhaps because our language associated with authorship is ever and always singular in nature. We intuitively ascribe to authorship a singular author. Andrea Lunsford labels this ideal the “lonely scribbler,” one who is “singular, originary, autonomous, and uniquely creative” (529). We have little language available for the accounting of collaborative writing, and so we stick to empty words derived from our limited understanding of single-authorship. We settle instead for flat, one-dimensional explanations.
Latour explains that a benefit of ANT is that it smashes singular or dual-dimensional ideologies of understanding. He writes that ANT is a “change of topology. Instead of thinking in terms of surfaces–two dimensions–or spheres–three dimensions–one is asked to think in terms of nodes that have as many dimensions as they have connections” (On ANT 370). Collaborative writing needs this new topology to better understand the different-ness, the more-ness, that is writing in a partnership. We are so much more than mere lonely scribblers when we work together. Wyatt and Gale also challenge the “metaphors of linearity” that accompany collaborative writing and urge their fellow scholars to consider the “complexities of each [author]” and the “ways in which they speak both to and against each other” (346). How co-authors manage to dream the ideas and manufacture the words and transcribe the meanings into a product is not a linear process. It is complex and cyclical, fluid and messy, yet partnering with someone also provides perspective, agency, and support.
Wrestling with Agency
As I’ve worked on this project, I’ve wrestled with this concept of agency. Yes, Latour assigns agency to both the animate and the inanimate, the human and the nonhuman, and I fully agree that nonhuman, inanimate objects have the power to affect a network. But I also realize that even without adding in the nonhuman element, agency is tricky enough to detangle when two humans attempt to work together. I asked Crystal to help me account for agency in a collaborative partnership. As a black woman, her concepts of agency differ from my own. Her experiences are different from mine. Yet somehow we seem to have found a peaceful negotiation of our collective agency as writing partners. Crystal says, “In order for a collaborative effort to work, both or all parties must feel they can bring their expertise and/or best experiences to the project. Therefore, trust is needed in order to express ideas that others may accept, reject, or alter.” She adds, “Of course, no one wants to be rejected, but if you know and respect the work of your partner, a gentle dismissal, or sometimes blatant laughter, is easier.” My crazy ideas either take root and thrive or shrivel and die based on Crystal’s reactions. Her laughter, or a proclamation of “Ummmm…that’s jacked up,” often serves as notification that I’m heading out of bounds. She believes—and I concur—that the agency of support (regardless of whether our ideas are fruitful or not) empowers each partner. Crystal says that empowerment lies in how “we remind one another of our strengths to correct the fissures in the project.” In essence, trust becomes an agent that allows us to verbalize our disagreements as well as our support. The agency of our partnership effectively becomes another actor in the network.
Ehren Pflugfelder explains that Latour’s “most fundamental” assertion is that “both humans and nonhumans have agency within networks of distributed power” (117). Pflugfelder adds that these nonhuman actors “can be objects and things, sure, though also animals, weather, political structures, institutions, ideological instantiations, laws, and other hybrid formations” (117). He adds that in this great amalgamation of potential actors there is no set hierarchical design dictating who or what is most important. Essentially, everything is important. Nothing can be overlooked.
Latour further contextualizes this concept of agency by discussing the idea of proximity as an agent. Latour explains that our tendency is to consider proximity as an essential factor in a network. However, he argues that the proximity is unimportant without connectibility. He adds, “I can be one metre away from someone in the next telephone booth and nevertheless be more closely connected to my mother 6000 miles away” (On ANT 371). These concepts of proximity and connectibility converge and act with and against one another within the network.
Proximity or Connectibility?
Proximity was perhaps the impetus for our network formation. Crystal and I met in the fall of 2015. We were both beginning our second year of PhD course work and were each serving as teaching assistants for the university. While we shared office space in The Pit with about 30 other TAs, her desk was situated quite closely to mine. We both had a Tuesday/Thursday class schedule, which meant we were in the office and on the campus at the same times and for roughly the same amount of hours every week. We also had one graduate class in common that semester. Proximity was certainly a factor/actor: our desks, our teaching schedules, our shared class.
But there were other teaching assistants who shared space with us, others who shared a schedule with us, and some who even shared that class with us. I can’t say that proximity was the only actor in this network, but the location of her desk to mine, coupled with her personality and the personalities of the other teaching assistants around us, worked collectively to encourage me to swivel my chair around to talk to her fairly often. And when we talked, we laughed. While proximity may have been a factor, it was certainly outweighed by connectibility.
As we got to know one another better, I realized that our backgrounds and upbringings were eerily similar. While we do not share the same color of skin—and in the South this fact can be and often is a deal breaker—we do share an uncommon number of similarities. We were both raised in two-parent homes by happily married, religious parents. We both grew up with brothers who caused us joy and frustration. We both experienced feelings of otherness as children and struggled with just wanting to fit in rather than stand out. We both did our undergraduate studies at small, private, liberal arts colleges in Arkansas. We both have backgrounds in teaching high school English. We both are in long-term, committed relationships with men we love. We share a quirky and slightly irreverent sense of humor. While of course we have had different experiences—the color of our skin dictates that our experiences must be different—we found common ground that provided us with a fast and firm foundation for friendship.
Latour organizes Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory around what he calls the sources of uncertainty. Those five uncertainties are the nature of groups, of actions, of objects, of facts, and of risky accounts. Closely examining each of these elements in a social network enables a researcher to better understand the network being studied. According to Latour, overlooking any or all of these factors leads to flat, ineffective, and inaccurate results.
Latour explains that the formation of a group is never fully complete. He argues that many social scientists studying networks make the false assumption that the group being studied is static, with its boundaries “marked, delineated, and rendered fixed and durable” (Reassembling 33). Instead, Latour asserts that a group is endlessly regrouping and redrawing those boundary lines. He argues that if a network remains static, unchanging, then it erodes into something unworthy of study. The Crystal and Andrea group formation is ever influenced by space, by outside demands, and by personal responsibilities. As our statuses have changed, from new PhD students to dissertating PhD candidates heavily immersed in our respective fields, our network has shifted as well.
Our favorite coffee shop is an easy ten minute stroll from the Pit of Despair. When we need air, a change of scenery, a place to laugh, we walk down the street for caffeine and carbs. Depending on the weather, we order our caffeine iced or steaming and we use the free Wi-Fi to work and to talk. We have found that we can easily be silent in one another’s company or we can fill the space with chatter—and both extremes are easy enough.
There is something inherently comfortable and comforting about the smell of rich coffee mingling with the faint aroma of burned Paninis. There is something cozy and intimate about sharing a booth with a view of Highland Street. The sounds of the occasional train whistle, of the constant traffic outside, of the chatter of others in the café—these have become the white noise we embrace to fill in the quiet spaces. When we order a hot tea for me and a hot coffee for her, we tend to just read and write. When we order spicy chicken nachos and fancier, frothier drinks, we tend to talk, to plan, to dream. The mugs in hand, the clicking of spoons on porcelain, the whir of the cappuccino machine—all are part of the network.
Sometimes this talking, planning, and dreaming are results of a project we are working on together, but at other times we simply act as mutual sounding boards. While we are collaborators, we certainly do not write everything as a team. She is a scholar in African-American literature. I am a composition studies scholar. Our goals and needs do not always align, but this is okay. We talk about the knowledge we share, but we also talk about what we simply want to share. We dream too—for and with one another. These shared and separate goals, these times of talking and dreaming, are all part of our network.
According to Latour, for the second uncertainty, action becomes the issue of concern. Latour insists that the general understanding of action is too simplistic, arguing that researchers must look beyond the action completed “under the full control of the consciousness” (Reassembling 44). Instead, Latour asserts that actions must include “a conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly disentangled” (44) and not taken at face value. He suggests that researchers begin by questioning “the uncertainties and controversies about who and what is acting when ‘we’ act” (45), ultimately arguing that “an actor is what is made to act by many others” (46). Latour explains further that an “actant can literally be anything provided it is granted to be the source of an action” (On ANT 373). In essence, this argument leads to the deeper emphasis on both human and nonhuman actors in ANT. This emphasis is at the heart of the third uncertainty, which is that objects—rather than just people—can have agency.
It is via the uncertainty of objects that Latour explains that ANT shows “an association between entities which are in no way recognizable as being social in the ordinary manner, except during the brief moment when they are reshuffled together” (Reassembling 64-65). He uses a supermarket as his example for this, explaining that on its own, a shelf might have no agency, but a shelf filled with produce on a busy aisle in a crowded supermarket suddenly has its own power. He also asserts that if there is no doubt “that kettles ‘boil’ water, knifes ‘cut’ meat” [sic](71), then there should be no doubt that objects have agency. A pristine textbook. An unwritten syllabus. A deadline. Each act with powerful agency.
And So It Begins
January 2016—one week before the spring term.
Anxiety level: middling to high. (Note: Anxiety must be acknowledged as an actant.)
I was about to teach English 1020 at the University of Memphis for the first time; the course textbook was still wrapped in its pristine shrink wrap and buried in the bottom of my messenger bag from when I’d shoved it there before Christmas break. I’d fully enjoyed my month of leave, but classes were resuming in 7…6…5…days, and I needed to get to work. Crystal and I were both on campus assisting with the fall writing program assessment project a few days before classes resumed.
I saw an opportunity. I had a need. I asked her to collaborate.
It’s important to note that Crystal and I were just two of about a dozen graduate students helping with the assessment project on that day, but I did not even consider asking anyone else. It honestly never crossed my mind that anyone else might like to work with me, or that I might be willing to work with anyone else.
I knew Crystal. I respected Crystal. I really liked Crystal. So, I asked if she’d like to work together to plan our semester of teaching English 1020 with the hopes of getting a calendar of assignments together. She energetically agreed, and we met the next day at our coffee house.
We brought our pristine textbooks and our laptops, we bought our hot caffeine, and we plotted and planned. During those three hours we were sequestered together on that cold, January day, we generated our list of reading assignments, planned out the due dates for major papers, selected days for peer review, questioned and reasoned, asked and answered, talked and sipped, ordered second cups, requested third cups and muffins, and by the time we left, we had the bones of the semester saved on our hard drives.
As that spring semester continued, we met every couple of weeks to plan the specific class assignments and to work together on course material. We quickly realized that we are both meticulous—and frankly ridiculous—planners when it comes to lesson plans. Neither of us likes to step into a classroom without a full complement of work set forth for the class period. Crystal even estimates the time it will take to do each part of her lesson plan and jots those digits in the margins of her notes. Because we both embrace our over-planning natures, we agreed to meet regularly to flesh out those specific daily plans.
We worked in two week units, fastidiously establishing group activities, finding YouTube clips, creating handouts for students, and making Power Point presentations. Sometimes we met at the coffee shop, sometimes we met at the café in Barnes and Noble. We often met on Monday mornings when my children were in school and neither of us had classes to teach or to take. It soon became apparent that Crystal was the Queen of the Power Point, and that I reigned as Queen of the Handout. When I made a handout for a class project or to describe the format of an upcoming assignment, I sent it to Crystal. When Crystal made a Power Point to share with her students, she sent it to me. Soon we were using each other’s materials interchangeably. Soon, her Power Points became the starting point for my handouts, and my handouts showed up in her slides. “Hers” and “mine” were starting to become “ours.”
About eight months into our friendship and three months into our collaboration efforts as instructors, we were asked to present at the monthly professionalization meeting for the English department teaching assistants. The topic? Collaboration and planning for the classroom. While we had worked together for months, this was the first time we would actually write together.
A couple of weeks before the presentation, we met in the faculty lounge on the fourth floor of the English department’s building. This site is significant. Up until this point, practically all of our collaborative meetings had been completed in coffee shops or bookstore cafes or occasionally down in The Pit when we had a few moments between other obligations. While meeting on the fourth floor was not an intentional move on our part, in retrospect I see significance in that site. The fourth floor is the hub, the center, the nucleus of the English department. The main office is located there. The mail room. The copy machine. The faculty offices. The reading room. It’s where the “official stuff” happens. For us to move to that floor, to meet in that site, to sit at a table in the room where so many of our mentors might see us sitting and working—that was actually a pretty big moment in our collaborative relationship. We were no longer meeting in The Pit, no longer finding a separate space off campus. We were claiming the fourth floor as a place where we belonged, and we were legitimatizing our collaborative work.
Of course, it was absolutely jacked up.
Too many people walked by, saw us, and then popped in to talk. The microwave was a popular location that day, and three or four people came in to warm up meals and stay to chat. At one point, a fellow graduate student we’d never met engaged us in conversation for a long 10 minutes about Peter Elbow and Expressivism because she’d heard me mention one or the other and wanted more information. I don’t even know her name. I just remember the interruption. We didn’t get anything actually written, but we did flesh out an outline...of sorts.
We decided what we might cover in our twenty minutes of limelight. We sketched broad strokes and we each took detailed notes. I remember being vaguely disappointed when we gathered our things to head to our respective evening classes. I think I imagined that we would magically produce a collaborative text, that as we talked and planned, something beautiful would happen on the laptop screen and lovely words would appear. She was supposed to finish my sentences. We were supposed to somehow write in perfect harmony. Such a dream.
Collaborative writing is hard.
Latour encourages ANT researchers to remember that “everything is data: everything from the first telephone call to a prospective interviewee, the first appointment with the advisor, […] the first launching of a search engine, the first list of boxes to tick in a questionnaire” (Reassembling 134). He tells his reader that nothing is more important than field work, and nothing found in field work should be overlooked.
When everything is data, everything matters. The centripetal force of ANT is that it explains “how to study things, or rather how not to study them—or rather, how to let the actors have some room to express themselves” (142). Latour also emphasizes the importance of the root words for network, saying, “Really, we should say ‘work-net’ instead of network. It’s the work, and the movement, and the flow, and the changes that should be stressed” (143). The work is the movement. It is the flow of conversation, the back-and-forth from text message to email. It is the open Google Doc that tracks changes. The work of a collaborative writing partnership is fully present in what occurs between the initial blank page and the final (though never fully final) copy.
When Everything Actually Does Matter
Sometimes Crystal sends the text or swivels her chair or starts the conversation that leads to the next collaboration. Sometimes I start the proverbial ball rolling. Sometimes we are approached by those outside of our network, those who manage to become a part of the network by asking us to present or to comment or to advise. Our partnership changes, ebbs and flows, determined by our other obligations and by what we need or want from one another. Each of these obligations, each outside force, each request from a colleague serves as an actant. But there are other actants as well.
In our second year of collaborating, an unexpected actant was Crystal’s medical restrictions on driving. Due to a couple of scary seizures, she was not allowed to drive for a full year. That restriction prompted me to offer her rides to and from the university on a regular basis. A thirty-minute drive through typical jacked up Memphis traffic offers more than enough opportunity to laugh and to vent the frustrations and elations of the day. Crystal’s music selections were often comically at odds with my own—she prefers Andra Day and India Arie over my own favorites Ed Sheeran and James Taylor—which gave her plenty of opportunities to pronounce my music choices as jacked up. (Thankfully, we both agree on the absolute necessity of Sam Smith.) The drives, the laughter, the music, the damn Memphis traffic—all were actants at work in strengthening our friendship and, in turn, prompting more discussion on shared collaborative opportunities. I can’t overlook the importance of Crystal’s medical condition. To pull on that thread means tugging on dozens of other threads as well. Her health is woven into the network.
Latour sums up the first three uncertainties with “Groups are made, agencies are explored, and objects play a role” (Reassembling 87). To summarize the fourth uncertainty is to “be open-minded about the shape in which former objects of nature might present themselves in the new associates we are following” (111). In other words, we must question the previously asserted facts and continually shuffle and reshuffle both groups and objects in pursuit of new knowledge. For the last uncertainty, Latour turns to the act of and product of writing as the way to trace what he calls “risky accounts” (120). He argues that we must approach research with a meta-view, looking at the whole while also examining the parts. He says that “there is no better way” (123-124) to research than by “bringing the writing of reports into the foreground” of a study. He suggests that by making the writing as much a part of the study as the study itself, a researcher can distance herself from the “cold, disinterested” language of traditional research (125). He calls for narratives rather than reports. He calls for exploratory writing rather than simple recording. Latour says:
A good ANT account is a narrative or a description or a proposition where all the actors do something and don’t just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation. As soon as actors are treated not as intermediaries but as mediators, they render the movement of the social visible to the reader. (128)
Essentially, Latour privileges the written text as another type of actor in the network. Latour argues that the term network is an expression, a concept, a “tool to help describe something, not what is being described” (131). This distinction should be reflected in the type of writing that ANT employs. This paper has become another actor. It describes and reflects the network. But the constant text message thread between Crystal and myself is another actor, as are the email messages and shared documents that shuffle back and forth between us.
Crystal and I do not have a set schedule for collaborating; rather our collaborations are the results of requests from outsiders or of our own needs or wants. Essentially, our network reacts. Our first presentation together was the result of a mentor requesting our expertise. Our second presentation came from our own desire to showcase our work and support our department at the annual Shaheen Symposium at the University of Memphis. For our third collaboration, Crystal needed a conference presentation for the upcoming spring semester to keep her CV current and active. Since she had a need and a specific conference in mind, the University of Florida’s Conference on Pedagogy, we collaborated on an abstract, sent it off, and eventually received the acceptance letter. Our next collaboration will be for another conference in the fall. We will be working together to delve into concepts of student agency and voice.
Over the course of our partnership, there have been other conferences, other needs, other brilliant ideas to which we wanted to give voice, and our network has adapted to meet each one of them. Often times, those needs are located within our classrooms. In fact, a primary benefit of our collaboration can be found in our pedagogical practices. Even though we aren’t currently teaching the same courses, we still highly influence one another’s classrooms. We collaborate on ideas for teaching specific texts or genres. We share strategies, struggles, and successes. I’ve learned from her; she’s learned from me. Last year, we became the first collaborative partnership in the English department at the University of Memphis to ever be recognized for teaching excellence. What had historically been an award given to a single instructor became an award that recognized the value of collaboration for teaching excellence. We are better because we work together.
I’m sure there will be another request or that we will determine another need at some point in the future, and our network will again activate and change and produce what we need it to produce.
Collaborative writers Gale and Wyatt teamed up with Ronald Pelias, Larry Russell, and Tami Spry as part of a four-year experiment on collaborative writing, presenting their work once a year at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In their article about writing intimacy, they discuss the untidy nature of writing in a group, “It’s messy. A lock of hair here. A bit of bone there. Pieces strewn about the page” (411). They bring to light how difficult it can be to carve out time for one another, to plan ahead, to make a conscious decision to write with the intention of sharing those words and ideas with someone who would then reciprocate.
This messy part of collaboration is one thing that must be mentioned. When a sick kid in my house delays my response or when a stack of papers prevents Crystal from generating “her part,” when my husband is out of town or Crystal’s brother comes to visit, we feel the pressure of the mess. These are considerations. They are actants. Future collaborators should be warned that such things occur, and they affect a collaborative partnership much more than they might affect a solitary scribbler.
Our Story Continues
The tale of collaboration looks a whole lot more like the minutes of a really boring meeting than a splashy narrative. No big aha! moments, nothing especially remarkable appears on the surface. The day after our initial attempt to collaboratively write—otherwise known as our Fourth Floor Failure—I sent Crystal an email with a couple of pages of text that I’d written. She read it. We discussed it via text and phone call. She added to it and sent it back. I read it; I added to it. We went back and forth for a couple of days, adding in headings for who would speak which parts.
Time became an actor. I am an early bird, Crystal a night owl. There were lags—pauses in the process that were initially frustrating before we found a rhythm to our responses. We tweaked and fiddled because that’s what we do. I produced the final draft, similar to a handout, because I’m the queen of the handout. And then, because Crystal is the queen of the Power Point, she started a Power Point. We worked collaboratively on that as well until we were both pleased with our script and our presentation materials.
A couple of days before the presentation, we met and practiced our performance. Because we often (always) laugh, we chuckled our way through our practice session. Crystal pronounced us as jacked up several times, but in the end, we felt confident about presenting. Incidentally, that first presentation went beautifully. We were funny when we meant to be funny. We were scholarly when we hoped to be scholarly. We felt like rock stars when we left.
We discovered that our system of collaboratively writing is to start the discussion together, in the same physical space. We dream aloud, talk, and take notes but don’t necessarily compose. We do not seem to be co-composers in that way. So, we process together and then write in our own homes—texting, emailing, calling as we write. We send one another drafts early and often. We respect one another’s time clocks. We add and we subtract. We tweak and we polish.
Hers becomes mine. Mine becomes hers. It all becomes ours.
Collaborative team Gale, Pelias, Russell, Spry, and Wyatt write about their yearly presentations at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, saying, “Hearing and feeling the presence of one another’s voice and body simply standing close together in performance is as powerful an onstage embodied experience as many of us have had as performance and/or autoethnography scholars” (407). Their words fully resound as I reflect upon the presentation performances I have shared with Crystal. Hearing her voice alongside my own as we share the words we created together—this experience is difficult to describe. There is a deep satisfaction, yes. There is a joy in sharing the light together, indeed. But there is also a sense of awe that we can, and do, stand together as a team, as a partnership, as two voices speaking as one. That we are in agreement and of accord is a truly remarkable thing.
Gale, Pelias, Russell, Spry, and Wyatt show this relationship of how the words become property of them all when they write, “Wait, Larry said that. I said that. We said that” (413).
They call their collaboration a methodology of the heart (415), and again this rings true for me. They write of the action of their words, something Latour most definitely would approve. They say, “The words accomplished something. They kept moving so they might make the leap from here to there. They did not prove or plod or even argue much, but the tone of their movement was searching—heuristic. Yes, that was the task: discovery” (418).
Yes, indeed, discovery.
Discovery and a desire to not be jacked up.
Discovery. Understanding. Space. Discussion.
These were my goals for this project. In fact, these are the ever present goals of my collaborative relationship with Crystal. Collaboration is not an easy thing. It is shaped by so much more than the two authors, so much more than their shared interests. In some ways, my work with Crystal has felt almost inevitable, not effortless to be sure, but almost destined. If her desk had been on the other side of The Pit…if I did not make her laugh…if she was more interested in the literature than in the students…if we did not connect emotionally, our team would not exist.
But those actants did exist, and we found ourselves in a corner booth with mugs of caffeine.
About the Author
Andrea Stark Bishop has completed her coursework at the University of Memphis and is wrapping up her data collection for a dissertation focused on how undergraduates conceptualize voice in their own writing. Part of her study includes how undergraduates in a technical writing course negotiate an appropriate collaborative voice when writing with peers. When she’s not researching or writing, she is an academic success advocate and writing coach for students enrolled in UM Global, the university’s online college. At home, she is the wife of a devoted husband, the mom of two teenage sons, and the chief wrangler of a couple of sweet but stinky dogs and three annoyingly self-important cats. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Gale, Ken, Ronald J. Pelias, Larry Russell, Tami Spry, and Jonathan Wyatt. “Darkness and Silence: The Dis/connection of Writing Intimacy.” International Review of Qualitative Research, vol. 5, no. 4, 2012, pp. 407-426.
Harris, Crystal. Message to the author. 18 May 2018. Text Message.
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Wyatt, Jonathan, and Ken Gale. “Singularities and Multiplicities: A Preface to the Special Issue on Collaborative Writing.” International Review of Qualitative Research vol. 5, no. 4, 2012, pp. 345-347.