By far the best component of my current career path is that I get to spend a significant amount of time collaborating with really cool and smart people. These collaborations have been particularly fruitful over the past year, and it all starts with Tom Harbison and Mikhail Gershovich. When Mikhail hired me full-time at the Schwartz Institute and stuffed me into a windowless back corner office with Tom I warned him that if you put two historians together in a room for long enough, no matter how many bits you ask them to push, eventually they’re going to end up doing some history.
We’ve finally gotten around to it. We’re now on our second collaborative history project in the past year. The first was an essay we co-wrote for Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age about lessons we learned while Tom was teaching a series of introductory history courses on Blogs@Baruch. The vast majority of the work we were examining was Tom’s and Tom’s alone, and I’m grateful that he let me glom on and add my two cents in assessing the fruits of his significant labor. Ultimately, we argued that taking advantage of the variety of modes of writing allowed by a flexible publishing platform like B@B encourages an approach to the introductory history survey that focuses more on methods than coverage. Tom’s notion of a “micro-monograph” introduces students to the work that a professional historian does in a way that allows him or her to see the transferable value of those skills. Being a detective who can nimbly sift through a variety of information sources, learning how to construct meaning in the form of a narrative, and figuring out how to assess and measure the quality of argumentation: these are the generalizable skills that introductory history should foster. Of course knowing about the Pentagon Papers is important. But knowing why you should know about the Pentagon Papers is even more so.
Watching Tom teach those classes and then crafting this essay with him taught me tons about teaching history and writing. The collaboration was unquestionably positive. Writing a dissertation, or a journal article, or book chapter… these are lonely, isolating pursuits. I’ll confess that the isolation got to me pretty hard as I was writing my dissertation, and made me far less enthusiastic about pursuing a career that was dependent upon my producing books. I simply didn’t want my head to be in that space for large chunks of my life.
Co-authoring eases that feeling significantly. Those moments where you’re stuck on an idea or a phrase or an organizational conundrum cease to be internal recursive loops and instead become opportunities for dialogue and collective knowledge making. Sometimes the mere act of verbalizing the problem to a sensitive and familiar ear helped solve it. Other times we more explicitly addressed each others’ lack of clarity or precision. We ultimately had no choice but to push each other. We began writing different sections, then would trade until, over time, our voice organically emerged. We now can’t look at the essay and tell which one of us wrote what.
We’re currently testing that dynamic in the classroom, and I’m finding it just as rewarding. We’re team teaching a Digital History class, and collaborated in its design in much the same way as we did on the essay. We steal moments out of busy workdays to trade class prep ideas, articulate problems with our course structure, and plan time to plan. Most ultimately happens on email during our commutes, and in the 45 minutes before our class meets. During that time we co-author notes to guide us through our class meetings, and also an “assignments” post that lays out the work we expect of students before the next session. We then head to class, and one of us gets things sets up while the other answers questions or kibitzes (we take turns doing both), and then we proceed without really knowing which one of us will cover which bits of the class. Wednesday, for instance, Tom slipped into a really nice contextualization of how Sam Wineburg (who we’ve learned a lot from about pedagogy and “thinking historically”) does his work, and I discovered that the students weren’t familiar with the notion of historical “agency,” so did a five-minute lecture on the idea. It seems like our students appreciate having multiple voices — one noted that having two historians guiding them lent instruction in the class more authority because we check and verify each others ideas.
The alignment of personality, skills, and intellectual goals obviously play a significant role in the success or failure of a collaboration. Tom’s awesome, so it’s easy. In the spring I collaborated with Cheryl Smith and Mikhail (both awesome too) in helping Cheryl’s Advanced Essay Writing course craft audio stories along the lines of what you might hear on This American Life. Mikhail and I pushed into Cheryl’s class several times over three or four weeks to help students work through, shape, and ultimately put to audio their story ideas. Cheryl spoke to them about voice, narrative, and about how to draw lessons about writing from the act of composing for radio. Mikhail lent considerable expertise about producing audio and imagining an audience. And I was able to speak with students about scaffolding their projects, planning for technological contingency, and seeing parallels between each segment of the process — from planning through production to post-production to performance — and the acts of writing and editing. Ultimately, the projects would not have been as rich as they turned out without our unique combination of voices guiding students through. We all shared the goal of experimenting with this type of project, helping students find and capture their voices, and learning from one another.
Working on these projects (and watching others emerge over the years in the same spirit) has gotten me very interested in the curricular possibilities of collaborations that push back against the confines of the single class with a single instructor taught within a single semester. That structure is implicitly hostile to the collaboration our students will need to be able to do in the workplace. Frankly, there’s no reason we have to accept it.
The fact that collaborating with another scholar might keep one from going insane is just an added bonus.