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Is Collaboration the New Normal?

posted: 11.20.14 by Andrea Lunsford

For thirty-plus years now, Lisa Ede and I (and others) have been resisting the notion that writing is a solo activity, rather insisting that writing is essentially collaborative, even when a writer is sitting alone staring at a screen or paper. Opposition to this notion was fierce, and nowhere more so than in the humanities where the image of the solitary writer struggling to create something new under the sun was held sacrosanct. Collaboration was suspect, sure to be “watered down” or “not real writing.”

But then came the digital revolution and with it technologies that not only enabled but demanded collaboration. The advent of  Web 2.0 technologies and its offspring—social media in particular—created what Henry Jenkins and many others refer to now as a “participatory culture,” now practically a commonplace, a household phrase. Young people writing in larger and larger groups to create online communities and texts and whole worlds.  Crowdsourcing solving problems faster than a flash mob can assemble. Re-tweets going viral, and changing policies and procedures and more.

Suddenly—and really, given my thirty years of hindsight, quite suddenly, the word “collaboration” is not only no longer despised; it is—well, it’s everywhere, from corporate handbooks to prime-time TV to magazine covers like the July/August issue of the Atlantic, which proclaimed “The Power of Two” and featured essays on creative collaboration across a number of fields.

Famous collaborators on the cover of the July/August Atlantic magazine.

As a researcher and writer, I am heartened by this newfound respect for collaboration. But as a teacher, I’m concerned to see radical individualism still resolutely inscribed in college curricula (where sharing is often seen as plagiarism) and grading procedures (the individual GPA is still the gold standard). Indeed, I still meet students who resist collaboration and who cling to the notion of deeply individual autonomous writing, even as they participate in collaborative projects online all the time.

So it seems to me it’s time for teachers of writing not only to assign collaborative writing projects and to collaborate ourselves but also to put these issues squarely on the table in our classes, engaging students in exploring the history of “single authorship” as a guiding concept and in defining the role and scope of collaboration and collaborative writing in their lives, especially their lives outside the classroom.

Along the way, we need to ask whether seeing collaboration as the new normal is a step forward, or not. Certainly, if it is presented as just “the way it is” now and practiced in an unthinking, uncritical way, it doesn’t seem necessarily seem like a step forward but rather more like a standing in place. Writing teachers are the ones who need to lead the way in making sure that the cultural embrace of collaboration is one we can endorse, one that we can explore, collaboratively, with our students.

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Categories: Andrea Lunsford, Digital Writing
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