It was just pointed out to me by the inestimable Joel Overall that our collaborative review of Bryan Crable’s Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide (U of Virginia P, 2012) — co-written with Joel, Sharon Harris, and Tyler Branson — appears in the most recent edition of the KB Journal (the digital publication of the Kenneth Burke Society).Here’s a link to the review, which I think still holds up pretty well nearly a year after we completed it. Reading back over each section of the piece and rehashing the process of working with my three TCU colleagues has me thinking two things:
1. Collaboration always seems like a way of “doing more with less” — and sometimes it is — but in the case of this particular review, merging four different perspectives (and styles) was much more time-consuming than if any one of us had written the piece independently. After everyone had read the book, we met as a full group to assign sections and discuss the general approach the review would take. Then we retired to our own desks/nooks/hovels to crank out a 500-600 word response to the section we’d agreed to review. After some tweaking and fine-tuning via a shared Google doc, we met again in pairs to revise hard copies of the review, hoping to trim an additional 300 words (or so) from the entire document while also looking for a little more consistency in each section’s vocabulary/tone. After another round of Google-doc-ing, we each took a turn at one more final revision before submitting the review to the journal’s editors. All told, the process took nearly two months from start to finish — which is FAAAAAAR longer than I’ve ever spent on a 1200-word assessment of anything in my career as a grad student. This review was quite an eye-opener regarding the transition from the completely self-motivated, self-monitored process of producing documents for a grad seminar to the more communal process of producing meticulous, responsible scholarship that others might use in their own work.
(Of course, whether our review holds up as “meticulous, responsible scholarship” is not for me to say. But we certainly tried to achieve this goal as a group, and I think we did a pretty good job considering the inherent limitations of the book review genre.)
2. All that said, I would collaborate on future projects in a heartbeat. Perhaps I was just lucky to work with three awesome individuals. (Which, like, duh. If you know any of these three people at all, you know I was in good hands.) Perhaps we were lucky enough to have an excellent text to focus on for the review. Or perhaps I’m just being overly nostalgic now that the process has come to fruition. Whatever the case might be, collaboration forced me to think about what I was writing and why I was writing it in ways that simply don’t occur to me when I’m working by myself, and there have been many moments since the fall of 2012 that I’ve wished I had a Joel or a Sharon or a Tyler to turn to and ask, “Does this make ANY sense to you?” As academics, sometimes we get so far inside our own heads that we forget we’re writing for a much wider audience, an audience that may not see the same problem(s) in the same way(s) that we do. In order to reach that audience, then, we need someone to come along every once in a while and remind us of the larger conversation we’re trying to take part in. My three co-authors were fantastic at doing just this sort of thing, and hopefully I was able to play a similar role for them as the review continued to take shape.
I guess, in the end, this is all a long way of saying that collaboration helps make us better writers because it transforms the abstract notion of “audience” into the concrete presence of another human being. Human beings require a lot more of our time, effort, and attention than do ethereal concepts, but I think the final payoff — at least in this case — was well worth the hassle.