I’ve been hearing a lot about “collaboration,” especially in the digital humanities. Lisa Spiro at Rice University has written a very informative post about Collaborative Authorship in the Humanities as well as another post providing Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects. Both of these posts are worth reading, and Spiro offers some well-thought out and researched perspectives.

My own experiences with collaboration include both research and authorship. I have seen first hand how fruitful collaboration, especially interdisciplinary collaboration, can be. It is safe to say that I’m a believer. In fact the course I have been teaching for the last two years, Literary Studies and the Digital Library, is designed entirely around collaborative research projects. And yet I have to say that I’m am entirely suspicious of the current rage for “collaboration.”

No doubt the current popularity of collaboration, at least in the humanities, is a natural extension of the movement toward interdisciplinary studies. Through collaboration with people outside our individual disciplines has led to fruitful work, there seems to be an unnatural desire on the part of some administrators and even some colleagues to “foster collaboration,” as if collaboration were something that occurs in a petri dish, something that needs only to be “fostered” in order to evolve.

But collaboration does not arise out of a petri dish, it arises out of need. Sure, there are serendipitous collaborations that arise out of proximity: X bumps into Y at the water cooler and they get to talking . . . but more often successful collaboration arises out of need: X wishes to investigate a topic but requires the skills of Y in order to do a good job.

Failed collaborations, on the other hand, are all too often the result of good intentioned but overly forced attempts to bring people together. I attended a seminar a couple of years ago on the subject of “fostering collaboration in the humanities.” The organizers of the meeting certainly understood the promise of new knowledge that might be derived through interaction, but they entirely miscalculated when it came to individual motivation to collaborate. It’s a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. In my experience, fruitful collaboration evolves organically and is motivated by the underlying research questions, questions that are always too big and too complex to be addressed by a single researcher.