Last semester, my philosopher was granted a semester free of classes and teaching responsibilities so that he could finish his dissertation and apply for jobs. He decided to spend this semester in Delaware with me, which removed him from his extremely vibrant and collaborative philosophical community. Now that he’s back in his department this semester (at the bitter end of his graduate student days) his hours are completely taken up with conversations, papers to review, class discussions to lead, and discussion-heavy events with other philosophers.
“You can’t do philosophy in a vacuum,” my philosopher always tells his students.
As his statement implies, at the heart of analytic philosophy is the idea that our ideas must be constantly shared and butted up against the ideas of others. Analytic philosophers delight in the process of examining each other’s’ argument bits: they call for definitions and redefinitions, challenge premises, test out thought experiments, and figure out each other’s’ philosophical lineage of beliefs (is this person an ethical Kantian? If so, this influences all of the arguments they will make within ethics). To the non-philosopher, these exchanges look like heated, super-intelligent battles over very strange bits of premises.
When I contrast this with my own experience in English, I see why Kathleen Fitzpatrick challenges us humanists to think differently about collaboration and authorship in Chapter 2 of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. Fitzpatrick notes the anxieties we feel as academics in the humanities when it comes to the concept of collaboration through a series of questions: “What, exactly, will we be given credit for—or held accountable for—when our texts form part of a larger network, when other authors’ responses appear within the same frame as our own writing? How will the multivocal nature of such texts transform our sense of authority?” (82, in my e-text).
Without being deliberately condemnatory of English departments in general or of this department in particular, I will say that my experience in the process of creating papers has been either extremely isolating or semi-collaborative (and semi-collaborative only during the research process). Perhaps part of this is my own fault (the perception that one’s peers will suddenly realize how unintelligent one is), but to my eyes we don’t really have this same sort of community most of the time that philosophers do.
Now, there are times, especially after classes, when we do get together and discuss ideas from class. There are also times when we meet up somewhere and write together (sharing researching experiences along the way!). There are even times when we share bits of our work with people. These times are so sweet but so limited.
To go a step further, even many of our sources are isolating in nature rather than welcoming discussion. When I see something awesome like the Dickens Serial Novels Collection, I just want to share bits and pieces of the cool stuff I find there with other Dickens-folk. Now, technically I can do this if I find out who these secretive beings are and connect to them though social media sites, but the Dickens-folk are often closeted or hiding behind another institutionally acceptable designation (19th century periodicals). Further, removing the content on this site from the ability to comment also creates the illusion that these are untouched by the eyes and interest of others. I feel like I’m coming to these texts for the first time. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could comment right underneath, say, the first Pickwick number with an observation or a connection to another recently posted article on Victorian societies?
This said, I can’t help but consider this proposition of reimagining authorship as a collaborative practice—not necessarily writing papers together but sharing ideas together—as an absolutely fantastic idea. Yes please, let’s talk about our ideas! Let’s give up our dusty ideas about ownership and authority and create digital (and physical, please?) communities of idea-sharing!
Any additional thoughts about collaborative writing/speaking/publishing? Has anyone come across a digital archive that allows for comments? What are you most afraid of in collaboration?