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.

Even Professors Hate Group Work

crowderNote: this blog post was published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) is an author, minister, and Bible and pop culture educator. She serves as assistant professor of theological field education and New Testament and as director of the ACTS Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program at Chicago Theological Seminary.

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“Why do we always have group work?” lamented one of my students.

Of course, the response that immediately came to mind was “Because I am the teacher.” However, trying to be a little more diplomatic and wanting to encourage participation and understanding, I responded, “Group projects really help prepare you for the future. Most professions require some degree of collaboration.”

I said that to my students and have actually found it to be true. What I did not say was that professors have as much angst, anxiety and — let’s be honest — dislike for group projects as students.

The nature of the academy is individuality. Yes, professors teach students in various class sizes. However, so much of what we do is solo. We spend ample time researching and writing books, articles and essays for publication. Some of us have the luxury of a research or teaching assistant. However, they, at a distance, help us attain needed information so that we can get back to our respective silos. After all, it is called a monograph for a reason.

Independent research is the modus operandi throughout the hallowed halls of the academy. Professors must prove their worth by the ability to craft articles for “respected” journals. Getting a publishing contract from a “reputable” company is supposed to put one on the road to intellectual success. It is the unspoken paradigm of erudition. The ultimate prize for such labor is tenure. In some instances, professors dare not ignore the mandate to work, write and publish alone. That is what the gatekeepers train us to do — stay in our discipline’s lane and follow the rules of the road without wavering. Otherwise, one is prone to get a citation or ticket toward tenure denial.

The irony of what we do in the academy is telling. While we spend exorbitant human capital in classes, committee meetings and advising sessions, so many of us, me included, are introverts. We would much rather be … alone. Not that we are lonely, but teaching, speaking and the other public stuff is emotionally and socially demanding. We prefer time with a book behind closed doors or moments in our office writing a single-authored work. Differences in work styles, creative idiosyncrasies, uncertainty about tenure and even family obligations can add to group tension. Whereas class group exercises are fairly common, the truth is, any number of professors relish not having to do them. Grading is one thing. Participation is quite another.

Nonetheless, lest we are found to be hypocritical, allow me to posit why professors must dare to take the group plunge. The clarion call to collaborate beckons us. I will participate over the next year in a Wabash Center group project examining the taxation of the academy on African-American mothers. I am excited yet nervous. I know the fine scholars in this group, and I honestly believe this experience will be life altering. Still, the lone voice of individualism wants to scream, shout and throw a temper tantrum: “I just want to stay in my office and finish this book, presentation or article — by myself!”

So why am I going forward? Why must those of us in the academy come out and play? Here are my ruminations on the benefits of group work for professors.

It is important to exchange with voices in field. This is not rocket science. However, we need the reminder: iron sharpens iron. The problem is that the academy often pits us against each other. We fear sharing lest our idea becomes another scholar’s next bestseller. Yes, it happens, but this should not preclude us from collaborating with people we trust. It is helpful to tease out our ideas with a colleague who speaks our language.

We must get the transdisciplinary train rolling. Talking with other people in your field is vital. Seeing whether the tentacles of your research touch other disciplines is just as integral. Coming out of the academic comfort zone opens the door for more consorting and can provide feedback to strengthen your own work.

Furthermore, as departments are restructuring and forcing newly minted Ph.D.s to teach both/and, here and there, branching out is paramount. Yet it depends on the institution. In some settings treading into interdisciplinary waters can be detrimental. A tenure committee can deem it watering down your scholarship.

Learn the tenor of your context and govern yourself accordingly. I am in a context where research diversity is a plus. Although I am a Bible scholar, I try to be conversant with literature, pop culture, gender studies and sociology, to name a few. Those interdisciplinary efforts have led to the development of a new transdisciplinary umbrella, what I call womanist maternal thought.

Future projects await. The mere mention of an idea or word can trigger the next book, volume, center or institute. However, unless academics dare to push the isolation envelope, such projects may never come to fruition. A post on Facebook or a Twitter direct message has the potential to open the door to communication with people outside your academic circle. Those actions can lead to conversations about similar research interests and intersections. Social media can pave the way for a wide intellectual road. But first we must dare to be sociable.

There is power in the human touch. Participating in group work should put you in the room with, well, people. True, our classrooms and committees are inundated with colleagues, students and administrators. Yet with the ubiquitous nature of online teaching, we do not have to be in the same location or same space as another human being, and the technological wall can preclude us from dwelling with flesh and blood.

I am routinely amazed when we do not recognize in person the very people on our Facebook page — it is as if their actual being is foreign to us. Getting accustomed to such human distance should be foreign. There is nothing like being with the author whose book we engage for class, standing a few feet from the professor who first inspired us or chatting over dinner with colleagues in our newly formed cohort. The emotional connection and camaraderie that occur when people are able to discuss ideas face-to-face are almost inexplicable. Who knows? We may laugh and feel a little mushy. It takes head and heart to do this work.

Honestly speaking, group projects give professors a reprieve in teaching. But perchance we must first teach ourselves the lessons we want our students to glean from those projects. How life affirming it is to exchange with others inside and beyond our fields. Risking openness to what may come breathes new life into dead academic spaces. In the end, a computer can only give so much love.