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“Cross-institutional collaboration” is a phrase that often comes off as academic jargon—buzzwords for a desired ideal rather than a descriptor of the actual work that many scholars undertake with others at different institutions. But collaborative scholarship fills a significant number of needs for those of us working in the academy, including allowing a timely set of issues and questions to be addressed from a variety of perspectives. Such work is instrumental in sustaining vital discussions about a range of topics and gives those of us in academia an opportunity to extend scholarly conversations across intersecting subfields and disciplines.

Cross-institutional collaborations offer a reprieve from the often-isolating conditions of academic work, thus mitigating the forms of isolation that proceed from the pursuit of single-authored publications. Fostering long-term relationships among scholars with shared interests across institutions is another benefit of this work. And, of course, such collaborations also can significantly expand the quality and impact of the work we do individually.

Thus, we recommend that higher education institutions bolster support for more collaborations and underscore their value. And, in fact, the past two years have witnessed unprecedented collaborations among researchers, especially within the natural and social sciences. Laboratory teams, multiauthored works and think tanks are a part of the disciplinary standards in many of these fields. In the humanities, however, the nature of collaboration looks somewhat different, as teamwork is not always as expansive and evaluation standards for collaborative work in humanities disciplines vary widely.

We’ve found that one of the most likely sources of cross-institutional collaboration for scholars in the humanities is co-editing a volume or special issue of a peer-reviewed journal, which is how the two of us expanded our research repertoire during the pandemic. We are both tenure-track professors at major research institutions in different parts of the United States, and based on our experience, we’d like to suggest five steps that anyone—no matter the discipline or field of study—can take for a successful cross-institution collaboration along those lines. Such collaborations have many benefits for the scholars involved and often also lead to fruitful and innovative approaches for their institutions during a time when higher education could certainly use them.

  1. Brainstorm the idea for your special journal issue thoroughly. We first identified our overlapping research interests and narrowed down a specific focus. Our shared interests, as cultural and literary analysts, led us to concentrate on the literary work of three Black women writers who had recently died—Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall and Ntozake Shange—as a way to honor them. Given that we were in the midst of a history-making global pandemic at the time, we also wanted to address the ways COVID-19 had impacted people of African descent, such as by creating disparities in employment, health care, education and housing.

Ultimately, we decided to examine how these topics appear in the work of the three Black women writers. We wanted to convey how they contributed to and wrote in the service of a future to which they would not experience. The overarching question for the special issue then became: How does the work of these three writers speak to contemporary affairs and concerns?

  1. Decide early on how to delegate tasks. A part of our plan as guest co-editors was to decide up front how we would divide the tasks. Instead of having an even split in duties, we decided that one of us, Robin, would be the lead co-editor, and the other, Meina, would have a secondary editor role. As the lead co-editor, Robin ensured an equitable distribution of labor throughout the collaboration, which allowed us to work with great efficiency. We leaned on our individual strengths to offer each other detailed feedback as needed.

The separate roles also helped us streamline our correspondence with the journal’s editor in chief, and that established open and consistent communication with them. Our planned strategy as co-editors was to discuss with each other any issues that arose throughout the process before the lead co-editor would then address them with the editor.

Moreover, the division of duties helped us maintain order and organization as we grappled with new meanings of work-life balance during the pandemic. We learned that we do not have to be in the same physical space at the same time to get generative work done.

  1. Consider the best fit when selecting the journal to pitch your special issue. We prepared for approaching an academic journal that would be most suitable for our special issue by first consulting with colleagues who had completed special issues. Our topic fit within the purview of several journals, such as those specializing in literary studies, women’s studies, cultural studies and Africana studies. Upon colleagues’ guidance, we composed a master list of journals ranked in order of our preference. We ultimately agreed that it was pivotal to choose a literary journal with a large audience interested in Black women writers.

In our cover letter, we provided an overview of the special issue, how it was distinct from other special issues about those writers, why we were the right people to be special-issue editors because of our expertise in the area, possible subjects of analysis, the scholars we planned on asking to contribute to the issue and our personal experience with editing and reviewing essays for journals.

  1. Learn the journal’s procedures and other logistical matters for editing a special issue. While many aspects of producing a special issue are consistent across publication venues, each journal has its own set of house rules. We held a phone conference with our chosen journal’s editor at the beginning of the process to ensure we understood their expectations and were clear about each step of the process. In collaboration with the editor, we determined a timeline for abstract submission and review, solidified the deadlines for submissions of full essays, and clarified our roles as guest editors.

As part of those roles, we had the ability to choose the most compelling abstracts and to invite those authors to submit full articles. All articles we received then had to be vetted through the journal’s normal processes, including editing and double-blind peer review. We had access to the essays and readers’ reports, which afforded us a comprehensive view of each submission’s strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the selected essays fit very well within the concerns of the issue, which was instrumental in us being able to co-write the introductory essay.

  1. Compose a call for papers that generates a large quantity of strong submissions. A discussion about the components of our call and the venues it would be shared in, such as our various professional networks, was a part of the initial phone conference with the journal’s editor. The editor suggested that the issue’s focus should be expanded to include state violence in the wake of national protests after George Floyd’s murder. We took this input into consideration and were able to draft the call for papers while also allowing for broad definitions of violence and illness.

That change enabled us to capture the interest of scholars working across a broad array of subtopics, including medical humanities, performance studies, children’s literature, ritual practices and Black feminist studies, among others. We also directly contacted potential contributors to gauge the level of serious interest early in the process. Hence, we officially embarked upon the next phase of our co-editorship for this special issue with a revised focus on the collision of a global pandemic and anti-Black violence and their interconnections with the literary works of three perceptive Black women writers.

The completed co-edited special issue attests to its own necessity given the fact that Black women’s writing provided such a generative foundation for imagining how we might address social ills and other issues in our contemporary world. It was nominated for the Council of Editors of Learned Journals Best Special Issue Award in 2022 and has been received favorably by a range of scholars. The special issue was also featured on the Being Human podcast.

We can testify that our cross-institutional collaboration proved to be a meaningful experience that was beneficial on multiple levels. It helped us address important, timely topics regarding the lived experiences of people of African descent. It also allowed us to expand and interconnect subfields in our discipline, build relationships with other scholars across the nation, and add to our academic portfolios.

Our pathway to those results included having a master plan with considerations spanning from narrowing the specific focus of the special issue to selecting a journal with a strong fit to managing the essay revisions. We encourage support for cross-institutional collaborations, as we have found the benefits in helping make lasting contributions to scholarship and one’s own career as an academic are definitely worth the effort.

Robin Brooks is associate professor of Africana studies at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Class Interruptions: Inequality and Division in African Diasporic Women’s Fiction. Meina Yates-Richard is assistant professor of African American studies and English at Emory University. She is currently completing a monograph tentatively titled Sonorous Passages: Black Maternal Sonority and the Liberation Imaginary (under contract with Duke University Press).

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