Compatible Specialization or Productive Friction?: Forms of Difference in Collaboration

In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson demonstrates a real knack for taking 21st century concepts and terms that have received a great deal of bad press, like “crowdsourcing” and “hive mind,” and turning them on their heads to examine the possibilities they open up for productive learning and thinking. In the digital world, one big criticism of crowdsourcing is a sort of a variation on the “tragedy of the commons”: if no one feels responsible for the larger product, there’s a fear that the end results may be degraded in quality. In the world of composition studies, there is an additional fear of collaborative learning and writing: that it encourages consensus-building, which is often facilitated by glossing over dissent and difference. Marxist scholars like Greg Myers worry that collaborative learning, as it is commonly built into classroom pedagogy, simply reproduces harmful ideologies rather than calling attention to them. Davidson, however, insists that if difference and diversity are valued and emphasized, crowdsourcing has immense promise for its ability to innovate by combining the strengths of a number of individuals to find more creative, useful solutions than anyone could produce alone.

Davidson’s praise of crowdsourcing for “assum[ing] that no one of us individually is smarter than all of us collectively” (64) reminded me of a wildly popular TED Talk I watched several years ago, entitled “When Ideas Have Sex.” The speaker is Matt Ridley, a British journalist with a particular interest in the concept of collective intelligence as the primary engine of human progress. In the short video clip below, he explores the basic math of how different human skills can be pooled to create “combinatory” tools that both innovate new solutions and save us time. If you have the chance, watch the whole original video—it’s only a little over 15 minutes and, I think, well worth it.

There are certainly some strong connections between Ridley’s and Davidson’s arguments—connections that are particularly clear if you watch the longer version of Ridley’s talk. They are both convinced that differences in human ideas can interact and combine to create something much more powerful and interesting than can be produced by an individual.

But rewatching this video after reading Now You See It, I was reminded that simply emphasizing and celebrating difference does not guarantee the shift in our attention that Davidson so compelling argues is necessary for us to see new possibilities. Ridley’s (rather positive) take on the increasing specialization of human labor called my attention to the strangely fine line between difference as specialization that efficiently divides labor to maintain the status quo, and difference as a generator of productive friction that “distracts us” into seeing in new ways. That is, it seems to me that attention to difference is a double-edge sword: it can be employed in service of both complacency and innovation, depending on how it is mobilized. If we already account for difference in our thinking as specialization, our differences may be complementary and productive, technically speaking, but not innovative. Complementary division of labor for efficiency above all else is part of the industrial-age mindset that Davidson argues is now an outdated form of learning and creating. As she notes, ideally “crowdsourcing is suspicious of expertise, because the more expert we are, the more likely we are to be limited in what we even conceive to be the problem, let alone the answer” (64).

This fine line is something I am already struggling with in my classroom as a first-time writing teacher this semester. For Davidson, the usefulness of crowdsourcing/collaborative learning hinges on its ability to “jolt” us out of our normal patterns of seeing and doing by noticing the different ways that others see and do. Her discussion of classrooms that are using these attention-altering techniques extols the virtues of team-based learning. Partly due to their size, teams seem to provide an ideal environment for alternately building consensus (internally), highlighting difference (internally and externally, across groups), and forcing that sudden shift in attention toward new ways of seeing/doing (by seeing how others approach the same task).

Like many other teachers, I try to set up peer groups in my writing class to do just this. As students read and critique one another’s writing, I ask reviewers to try first understand what the writer is saying—to try to see through her eyes—before pushing back. Though before reading Davidson, I wouldn’t have put it this way, it’s my hope that this setup generates the most productive feedback for innovation by creating a two-way shift in attention: the reviewers are forced to see an idea through a new lens, and the author hears someone’s understanding of their ideas and then, perhaps, even some totally new ways of thinking about them.

What I haven’t done, however, is assign collaborative writing—and it is in large part due to my fear of falling into the old division-of-labor model of collaboration, where no one seems to learn anything from one another. But collaboration on a product seems to be central in all of the successful, innovative classrooms that Davidson discusses, and it is certainly a key feature of ‘real-life’ crowdsourcing in a digital environment. I’d love to hear from more experienced teachers about if and how you approach collaborative authorship in your own classrooms, and how you ensure that such collaboration really facilitates that elusive, radical shift in attention that opens minds and affords new possibilities.

6 thoughts on “Compatible Specialization or Productive Friction?: Forms of Difference in Collaboration”

  1. Like you, I’m kind of terrified of collaborative writing assignments in my class, because I know that there is the distinct possibility that collaboration will collapse, that group division of labor will become very dramatically *not* “each contributes what they are most able” and instead “some contribute everything and other people contribute nothing” (i.e. the corrupt version of labor division), and that it will turn into one of “those group projects”. I find this concept particularly terrifying when faced with major graded assignments (where my directions are more open ended), but find I have little trouble with a collaborative collapse in very task-oriented, knowledge generation activities in class.

    I retreat to group work because, even after teaching for years, I know most group projects descend into unequal labor distribution unless all the members arrived at the project of their own accord, are using it to their own ends, and are given a problem to solve. Mandated collaborative projects on a larger scale are rife with exactly the problems you identify, particularly in a mandatory university course where the general (but not totally dominant) perception is less “problem solving” and more “I have to be here.”

    So basically, I’m curious how I might change that, too.

  2. Kiley,

    As you know, this is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. And due to this over-thinking, I wonder what you mean when you say you assign collaborative writing. Is this one document that each student adds their own words to and that has all of their names on the top? Or are you speaking more of the type of writing that is shaped collaboratively during the pre-writing process and then contains only a single author on the final draft?

    I ask because I think that the way collaboration is fostered greatly changes the effects that it has. In my experience, the co-authoring model of the first type can be extremely difficult for E110 students to deal with. So many of them view writing as a singular, private, activity, that it is hard for them to mesh their words with the words of others. Moreover, some of them tend to worry so much about their grade on the project, they become too evaluative and judgmental of others’ contributions. In the later example, however, I think students are able to have their ideas pushed upon with lower stakes. They are given the option of accepting or rejecting the collaborative input, and I think this makes them more open to listen to it. Similarly, because they have ultimate control of their papers, they also have ultimate control of their grades. I’ve found that both of these reasons enable students to be more willing to listen to what their classmates have to say about their ideas.

  3. Kiley,

    I try as much as I can to encourage students to collaborate in ways that they find useful. (I’ll be doing this in our seminar on Friday.) But I have to say that I loathe top-down, imposed collaboration—when a group is tasked with completing (or coauthoring) an assignment together. That feels more corporatist than collaborative to me.

    My own sense is that, in her enthusiasm for crowdsourcing, Davidson tends to blur such distinctions. I’m eager to hear what others in the room have to say.

    A thoughtful post, thanks,


  4. This was something I noticed a lot when I worked in the Writing Center. Occasionally, I’d have groups come in for paper review- usually required by the professor. I was always struck by how consistently the groups divided up in a model where there were one or two people who did the majority of the work. Sometimes it was because nobody else would step up and take the leadership role, and sometimes it’s because the student, doesn’t trust anyone else to do it correctly and just prefers to do the work his or her self. That person in the leadership role would typically be the only group member who would dialogue with me, while the rest of the group just sort of sat there listening and nodding appropriately.

    It reminds me of Michael’s ‘curated reality’ comment, where they’re basically self-selecting their roles in the group without realizing it. I never got the sense that anyone learned anything from anyone else because they were focused on just getting the whole thing finished and getting a grade, rather then learning from the process.

  5. One thing that I’m going to try in my ENGL110 class class year is collaborative teaching. In this exercise, students in groups will have to design a mini lesson plan together and then teach a concept for the research paper to their peers. It seems that students are already comfortable with group presentations, and I think if I can center the activity on the idea of “presentation” then the writing and research that they have to do in order to perform will take away some of the fear that comes from just making something a collaborative writing exercise.

    I haven’t completely developed this yet, but I’m going to have required parts for each student (such that they can’t just stick one person with all of the writing) and we’re going to have work time in class. Hopefully, since I try to pop around and observe all of the groups in general in the class, I will be able to see problems before they become really large.

  6. Heather,

    I was definitely thinking of your work when I was writing this post! I actually *don’t* assign collaborative writing (as in collaborative authorship)– I fear it never creates a generative environment for collaborative learning the way we hope– but I noticed that all of the “model” classrooms that Davidson describes seem to do so. All of the “boss-level challenges” and team-oriented puzzles seem to involve direct collaboration on a single project. I’m thinking of the “Dark Knights of the Godzilla” Q2L student team Davidson describes on p. 86, who “have to engineer an actual starter mechanism in real life, in the school lab.” But I also noticed that she praised the way students divided up work and individually determined their specialized roles within the group. She calls it “collaboration by difference,” which “respects and reward different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction” (99). Which, of course, sounds really good.

    But Davidson was also arguing against the sort of highly compartmentalized ways of learning– both in trying to separate out school subjects from one another, and trying to separate individuals from one another. She claims that the outdated industrial model of education “mimicked the specialized labor on an assembly line, as well as the divisions in labor… in the factory itself” (73). All of this is by way of saying: I think you and Joe are both right that in writing, “imposed, top-down” collaborative authorship tends not to be fruitful. In fact, I think it tends to lead back to that “assembly line” style of creation: we each produce something in isolation, and assemble it at the end. It doesn’t generate the *friction* we need in order to shock our brains into new ways of thinking.

    So why would this model of collaborative authorship/creation work in a K-12 classroom, but not in college writing? Partly, I think it’s just an constraint of writing itself: it’s not really feasible to literally collaborate in-the-moment on a sentence-level. We can’t co-author a paper in the same synchronous way we can glue popsicle sticks together as a team to form a bridge. So I think you’re right, Heather, that it seems to work better when students collaborate on pre-writing, on the ideas-level, and then later respond to each other’s writing once it’s complete and ready for revision.

    Thanks, all, for your comments! They made me think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s