How to Collaborate

Or, as my tattoo artist says, “How to not be a dick.”

After discussing tatoos as medium, I asked my tattooist if tattoos are collaborative.  I wondered because in many ways, my skin just seems like his canvas. So, I was surprised when he unequivocally said, “Hell yeah it’s a collaboration.” As we talked, he used a ship metaphor to describe the process; the client has the impulse that puts the ship in the water and the tattoo artist has the talent and wherewithal to pilot it.  He said that a bad tattoo experience occurs when one side of the equation is over-balanced.  If the client is too controlling or the artist is too obsessed with their vision – the collaboration doesn’t go well. And, most importantly, the work may suffer.

Wilma and Betty get work done!

I bring this up because I’ve been having a similar conversation with my friend Wilma, who I’ve collaborated with in the past. She described another colleague who reached out to collaborate on a project for which Wilma and I already drafted an abstract. The colleague sent Wilma an abstract and asked her to “look for ways to make it more digital rhetoric friendly.” In other words, rather than coming to Wilma with a potential project and discussing how they could work together, the colleague just wanted Wilma to add to her pre-existing project. Wilma was an add-on, an accessory – not a true collaborator.

Wilma brought this up because she and I were already writing an abstract for the same edited collection. Ironically, I also had a project that partially fit call for papers (CFP).  However, our interaction went more like this:

Me: Hey Wilma, I have this paper sitting around about Jane Addams.  I was thinking about responding to this  CFP with it, but I’m not sure where it would go from there.

Wilma: Ohhhh, what’s your paper about. Maybe I have something that will complement it.

And so on…. Our project came together because I asked Wilma to draw on her own expertise to to build on my project – not sign off on it.  I used my own strengths and Wilma used hers. This is why we work well together.

In other words, collaboration is a lot like a dance. You may occasionally have times in which you walk solo into the spotlight, but most of the dance is about working with your partner(s) to make something amazing.  When I think about how this relates to writing, it becomes clear that collaborative writing must find that balance between working alone and working together.

My friend Wilma and I want to be the next Ede and Lunsford or Hawisher and Selfe. We work well together because we recognize that one of us may be busy and the other needs to step it up for a while.  Or, that changes to one another’s prose isn’t personal – it’s about the product. Our process of collaboration serves the product.

Writing without an Audience

The first time I encountered Peter Elbow’s theory, I scoffed. I thought that he was too “touchy feely” and focused on making students feel better about their writing.  I totally dismissed his notion of writing without an audience in mind.

I believed that audience awareness was essential to good writing. In fact, Elbow toptenz-clapping-audiencedoesn’t disagree. In “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience,” Elbow (1987) claims that “It’s not that writers should never think about their audience” (51). However, he quickly suggests that audiences influence our writing: “It’s a question of when. An audience is a field of force. The closer we come-the more we think about these readers-the stronger the pull they exert on the contents of our minds” (ibid). In other words, taking the audience into consideration too soon in the drafting process can unduly influence our writing.

Writing is hard work and hostile audiences can paralyze even the most brilliant mind. In “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard: Reflections on the Inability to Write,” Elbow (1998) recounts professors at Williams College and Oxford University who made him feel terrible about his writing. His description of his tutor at Oxford is horrifying: “Once a week, I’d knock on the oak door and come in and read my essay to him, and be instructed, and then at the end he’d say something like, ‘Why don’t you go off and read Dryden and write me something interesting.’ My first essay was on Chaucer and he was pretty condescendingly devastating. ‘What are we going to do with these Americans they send us?'” Ironically, Elbow wrote his dissertation about Chaucer, but he could have easily fallen prey to his tutor’s terrible feedback.

I guess I am sharing this because I don’t feel like a good writer.  I often feel like good writing is an arcane art that I haven’t mastered.  I say the incantations, but I always mess up a word or forget the chicken bone in my sack. Part of my anxiety is rooted in a fear of what “They” will think.  In my mind, my audience is full of hostile old crones who will curse me for each misplaced modifier (a grammar thing I struggle with to this day). So, rather than thinking creatively, I struggle to please a fiction who can never be pleased.

Maybe we need to make writing fun again?  Or, can we find the balance for which Elbow advocates?  Instead of focusing on the audience, we focus on what the writer can do.

Long-Distance Collaborative Writing

I’m currently working three different writing projects with people across the country. I’m collaborative-writingcurrently sitting in a coffeeshop using Facebook instant messenger to discuss an abstract with a collaborator.  In twenty minutes, I’m using Google Hangouts to video conference with two other collaborators about a paper we’re giving in May. And, I’m direct messaging on Twitter with another collaborator about a panel for a conference next year.

Yes, that’s three different methods of social media interaction.

As I navigate this complex web of relationships and work habits, I am reminded that writing is not a solitary activity. This notion is indebted to Lise Ede and Andrea Lunsford’s (1990) Singular Texts/plural Authors. In other words, I always write collaboratively. I always have friends read my drafts and talk through ideas with me. Reciprocally, I do the same for many of my friends, and by doing so, I become a better writer. Moreover, I always imagine an ideal audience and try to anticipate their objections.

So, what changes when I deliberately write with other people?  Well, the digital spaces to share files like Dropbox or become essential. Software that allow us to talk in real time become essential because sometimes a thirty minute conversation replaces hours of back and forth emails. Quick check-ins via instant messenger help clear up minor differences of opinion. Social media are essential to contemporary scholarship.

What is Digital Rhetoric?

Today, we worked toward a definition of “digital rhetoric.”  I think we discovered that it’s actually pretty complex.

Just trying to define authorship became messy.  Is someone an author onlyAristotle_by_eviolinist if they are famous?  How much can an author borrow and still be an author?  What makes something original?

A few times, we tossed the work media around.  However, like authorship, media has complex meanings. Many commentators consider new media a catchall for all web-based texts.

In the end, Elizabeth Losh’s definitions from Virtualpolitik (2009) may be a good place to start.  She focuses on four definitions:

  1. The conventions of new digital genres that are used for everyday discourse, as well as for special occasions, in average people’s lives.
  2. Public rhetoric, often in the form of political messages from government institutions, which is represented or recorded through digital technology and disseminated via electronic distributed networks.
  3. The emerging scholarly discipline concerned with the rhetorical interpretation of computer-generated media as objects of study.
  4. Mathematical theories of communication from the field of information science, many of which attempt to quantify the amount of uncertainty in a given linguistic exchange or the likely paths through which messages travel. (47-8)

I think definitions 1 and 3 will be of particular use to us this semester.