My peer-driven classes are off to the races again this semester. We’ve gone a little further in our journey this time, choosing contract grading (which last semester’s classes thought was a little too radical) and to build something more lasting and public (thanks for the inspiration, Mark Sample! ). One class even enthusiastically volunteered to do weekly blog posts on subjects of my choosing (look for me on Twitter ; I’ll be sharing this week’s posts on Blogs vs Term Papers on Friday). But one of the more interesting elements this semester was that my students have formed smaller groups, and have even increasingly chosen to work alone.
There is quite a lot of media interest lately in collaborative versus solitary work, thank to Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. She has had a piece  published in the New York Times and has made a number of media appearances, and her message seems to have hit a nerve with a certain kind of academic . What is that message? We are engaging in a new kind of “Groupthink” fueled by a new, less violent but no less dangerous, mob mentality. Wisdom doesn’t come from crowds, it comes from solitary, isolated thought. Pair that with new research that shows that group work may actually be making kids dumber , well, it looks like we’re headed back towards the days of quiet, solitary drudgery, I mean learning.
I think the selected responses  that appeared on the NYT website warrant a look because they address many of the same reactions I had to the piece. As an academic, I am sympathetic to the image of the lone author, toiling away in their office, reading, writing, and thinking away. But, I also know that it is a myth and patently false. Why have graduate seminars or study groups, if not to learn from your peers and benefit from class discussions? Why choose your university (in perfect circumstances) based on who your colleagues will be if you never engage with them? Why bother with editorial boards, writing groups, informal discussions over coffee, or conferences if any of these activities take away from our ability to be brilliant?
Part of my dissertation research focused on the process of translating and publishing a poet into English, and thus inserting her into the larger canon(s). At a conference last year, I asked the provocative question, when does the relationship between and editor and a translator cross over into collaboration? The specific case that I looked at certainly suggested that the editor was a partner in the translation effort, even though there was only one name attached to the translation itself. I think because we think of authors and academics as “lone authors,” accentuated by the name looming large on the cover, overshadows the true nature of what goes into producing a work of any length. And while there certainly are acknowledgement pages, these are either at worst skipped, ignored, or at the very least undervalued by readers.
But I wonder what role we ourselves play in maintaining the myth of the lone scholar? Does this help us to maintain our aura of superiority, of meritocracy, of hierarchical structures within academia? I think it does. While I don’t think groupthink or mob mentality is the answer, I don’t think a group of academics, each doing their own thing, by themselves, has produced a different result. We still move in highered like a herd, blocking out the larger realities of the changing nature of our institution and the society it serves. Does challenging these long-standing paradigms undermine what we do, or undermine our confidence in what we do? And is that a bad thing?
On the other hand, as I witness in my own class, some people do work better alone. Giving them the flexibility to choose that for themselves, I think, is important. The one student who worked by themselves last semester produced work that was as good as the work produced by the groups. But to say that being in a group encourages the member to be lazy, ineffectual, or unable to produce quality is false, too. Today, the groups began really working on their projects, and the discussions I heard going on were thoughtful, interesting, and engaging. And, each of the groups was actually working. On the flip side, as if unconsciously recognizing that not everything can be done collectively, they assigned themselves homework, breaking up tasks into discreet parts that will be accomplished alone, to be brought back and integrated into the larger whole.
Look at the flagship example for the power of crowdsourcing: Wikipedia. It is a large group of individuals coming together and creating a document. But each of these individuals probably create their discreet piece in settings much like the ones Cain describes. But it is collaborative insofar as once the piece is published, it is subject to the eyes and efforts of millions of other users. But even then, it’s impossible to tell what each user did or used to be able to create their piece: online resources, books, peers, teachers, recommendations, etc. Nothing is ever done in isolation.
I hate to do this, but for me it comes back again to the assumptions Stanley Fish has made about Digital Humanities, specifically where we get our ideas from, that somehow they spring forth from somewhere within ourselves. Ted Underwood calls him out on this assumption , and it is important to note that even at a time where individual genius was particularly valued, collaboration was taking place . We, again, just don’t like to admit it.
My students are working, reading, talking, thinking. They are provoking one another and hopefully thinking about those provocations beyond the walls of my classroom. They are building in order to have a more lasting impact on the discussion taking place. I think the important factor is that they are moving towards a goal together, sharing a common interest of their choosing, which is important . They are learning how to interact with one another, negotiate, and solve problems. Those same conservative scholars who lament the new groupthink are the same ones who lamented the disconnectedness of this generation, plugged into their walkmans, I mean diskmans, I mean iPods. Collaboration means so much more than just mindlessly drudgery towards a common goal (hey, hello there tenure!), but meaningful interactions that produce something better than what they could do on their own. Even those who are choosing to work on their own are, in a way, collaborating with me. In my classroom, I am as much a part of the collaborative process as they are, not as their teacher, but as their co-conspirator.
Oops, did I say that out loud?