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Collaboration: A Totally Biased Review of an Exhibition

<u haven’t been by the Libe to see If You Give a Monk a Manuscript, you should.  I am confident in saying it is probably the most ambitious attempt at putting together a fully-fledged exhibition within a single term.  Simply put, it’s amazing. 

And I’m only completely biased.  The exhibition is a functionally complete, “real” exhibition on an element of the middle ages. It has cases, wall cards, posters, images, a website, and even had an outreach program.  Awesome.

But I think if you look deeper, the project challenges some of the ways we typically view collaboration.  Collaboration is one of the “big buzzwords”.  We so often use it to mean the blandest possible terminology that it loses its punch.  

Collaboration does not strictly mean “working together”.  I actually think that this limited view of collaboration is exactly why collaboration is often so difficult to accomplish.

For example, the class that produced If You Give a Monk a Manuscript had to collaborate in very specific ways to achieve its goals.  While every group was trying to create an exhibition, not every group was creating the same thing. 

There were groups making cases, groups creating posters, and groups developing digital content.  If every single group had tried to accomplish the same goal the exhibition would have collapsed. 

Instead, groups worked together to support each other in their unique goals, and by supporting those unique goals created a whole product that was better than the sum of its parts.  That is the real power of collaboration.

I think sometimes in higher education there’s a tendency to assume that collaboration means working together to create a single product.  To that end, we narrowly define collaboration as when two proffesors (or people) of diverse disciplines (which often aren’t all that diverse) who come together to develop a product (that product usually being an article or presentation). 

This is one type of collaboration, I suppose, but it is very limited.  For starters, actually engaging in this form of collaboration is tough because it means overcoming a great many hurdles from crossing departmental boundaries to actually finding the time and funding to develop the project.

I think this type of collaboration is great, but the exhibition proves it’s not the only type.  Collaboration can be as simple as talking with and lending diverse viewpoints on topics that are seemingly unrelated. 

In the context of the exhibition, collaboration occurred whenever a classmates gave feedback to the website group about how they felt about the website. 

Collaboration occurred when the podcast group interviewed a member of a case group, giving them more space to talk about their own project, within a different context.

When we take collaboration to mean the intersection of different methodologies and disciplines and not only the production of new material, it opens up whole worlds of possibilities to engage and collaborate.  From an academics perspective, collaboration is then as simple as a humanist giving a talk to a group of scientists about material that might only be slightly connected. 

Collaboration is inviting input and review on projects from other members in other departments, even if they don’t have the “technical qualifications” to understand the work.  Collaboration means creating work that is broadly readable even if it isn’t broadly applicable. 

The key to collaboration isn’t working together, actually.  The key to collaboration is in “translation”. It’s in the moment that one idea in one context gets translated into a new idea in a new context.  For the exhibition it meant creating digital content for a website that supported content in a case or putting information on a wall-card that tied the whole exhibit together. 

For an academic collaboration might mean the “application” of scientific ways of thinking within humanistic disciplines (or vice versa) or even a social scientist asking for help from a studio artist on how to best portray information on a poster or presentation.

These small, subtle types of collaboration are the forerunners to larger types of collaboration.  By recognizing and encouraging them we stand to help make larger, more structurally challenging projects easier to do, because the foundations have already been created. 
Collaboration, like any social endeavor, is an incredibly challenging process, especially when it occurs in the sometimes constricting structures of higher education.  But when it comes together it can be spectacular.  You only need to go to the Libe for proof of that.

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