J. Sumerau On Productive Research Collaborations

SumerauNote: This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. J. Sumerau (@jsumerau) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research, fictional writing and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion and health in the experiences of sexual, religious and gender minorities.

Creating Strong Scholarly Relationships

A lot of my scholarly work has been published with other authors. In fact, I have published more than 50 academic works, and many of them have emerged out of productive collaborations. Colleagues — from early to later career stages — often approach me for advice about collaboration, given my reputation in the field. After the most recent round of these conversations earlier this year, I thought that it might be helpful to others to describe the way I go about collaboration.

I should start by noting that this article simply outlines the processes that I use in my own career. I am in no way suggesting that others could or should follow my approach. Rather, as I tell people when I have been asked about this, I share my experience simply as a complement to other discussions on the topic, as an effort to highlight the benefits and potential issues that arise from collaboration, and as an example of one way that has worked well to date.

I have learned from others that my approach can be incredibly useful for some, wholly useless for others or anywhere in between for everyone else. So I invite readers to consider this essay in relation to both: (1) other discussions of the topic and (2) their own scholarly endeavors, goals and preferences. Because regardless of whether or not you find anything useful in my approach, thinking about what, if any, process might work best for you can benefit any academic who is considering or already engaged in collaborative scholarship.

As the title of this essay suggests, I approach collaborations the same way that I approach other relationships. Rather than focusing on a specific project, outing or shared interest, I concentrate on the person and seek to ascertain whether I may benefit from interactions (temporary or continuing) with them. From everything I have experienced, the people with whom we interact will shape us, whether we notice it or not. As a result, I seek out people who I think may accomplish such influence in ways that are useful for the entirety of my life rather than in relation to any given project.

I tend toward people who: (1) complement some aspect of my existing interests, whether by affirming or challenging it in their own life, (2) have something — a perspective, an experience, a background, a skill set, etc. — that I do not have and can thus learn about and from, and (3) can at least tolerate the fact that my own approaches to writing and other efforts are often a bit different than the mainstream ones we more commonly see within and beyond academe.

Strategies for Collaboration

Drawn from this overall approach, I engage in a handful of strategies that have worked well for me in establishing, evaluating and maintaining working relationships with others. These strategies help me monitor whether collaborative relationships are working well over time, avoid some of the potential problems people run into with collaborations and maintain my own endeavors — no matter the result of a given collaboration.

Diversify research. First, I maintain multiple lines of scholarship. Some lines have collaborators, but others are just my own work. In some cases, I work with the same group of collaborators, and in others, I work alone. In that way, I never put all my work in the hands of any one person, and I maintain my own line of work that is not dependent on others. As such, if line No. 1 with collaborators A and B fails or gets delayed, or the project is a bust, I still have line No. 2 that is just my own work, line No. 3 with collaborator C and/or line No. 4 with collaborators D and E in progress. As a result, no single collaboration determines my professional fate, my productivity for a given evaluation or my overall research agenda. Rather, each is a piece of a larger pie, which makes the stakes of any collaboration much lower.

Prioritize research agendas. Second, I decide who, if anyone, will be on a given project, based upon the priority of the project to my overall research agenda. If the project in question is significantly important, I will either do it alone or only collaborate with people who have demonstrated their reliability to me over time. This is not a knock on newer collaborations but rather recognition that the things I most want to accomplish are not the spaces where I put the outcome at greater risk.

As other academics have noted, collaboration can be risky as one depends upon another for a final product, and recognizing that risk is important because we all work under constraints and on varied deadlines. As a result, the top priorities in my research agenda are not the places where I take on the risk of new or more recent collaborators. Rather, they are where I work alone or only collaborate with people who have repeatedly demonstrated that I will be unlikely to face any risks from their participation.

Test the waters. Third, I approach collaborations slowly, cautiously and in pieces. The first time I collaborate with someone, we will work on a project that is not as high on my own priorities list or that I am already getting something else out of — so that our work is extra rather than required for my own research agenda or potential evaluation cycle. I also engage with collaborators who help out in very particular ways by doing specific portions of the work. In this way, I have, as much as possible, low-risk opportunities to try out collaborating with new people, and from those experiences, I am able to decide about future and more involved collaborations.

Get to know collaborators. Finally, I spend a lot of time getting to know the people with whom I collaborate while also being very open with them about my own perspectives, processes and endeavors. Whether that involves arguing with them about ideas, theories or other things about which we disagree; debating the usefulness of a particular perspective or method; or simply sharing aspects of my life while asking questions about theirs, I seek to allow collaborators to get to know me and to get to know them. In so doing, and especially in case we end up working well together, I seek to integrate them into my life and see if they fit well. At the same time, I attempt to determine how I might integrate into their life in a useful manner. That strategy allows me to continuously monitor whether collaborative relationships are useful for my life as whole, and adjust accordingly.

In closing, while I know from experience that my approach may not be useful to everyone, I have also learned that developing a system that does work for you can be incredibly useful for many scholars. It is with this in mind that I close this post by encouraging readers to ask yourselves what you want from collaborations, what you need to establish collaborations (or not) in ways that feed your overall life and what your own system of collaboration might look like if put into practice.