Researchers increasingly exercise reflexivity with regard to their personal locations, research participants or chosen methodology. However reflexivity about the process of researching as a group, about what shapes research relations between researchers that are often colleagues and friends, seldom happens (Bryan 335, McGinn 559). This may be because writing one’s interpretation of what happened during the collaborative process is risky: as I critically assess the strategies we used inside the semi-private space of collaboration, I also publicly expose the power relations inside and outside of our collaborative practice. The context of our collaboration in a western academic institution as well as the differences between collaborate members (experiential, hierarchical, pedagogical) both structured and enriched our collaboration in specific ways as I will discuss later.
The transformative potential of collaboration was critically emphasised in an article that ensued from our research (WASS Collective) and this led me to consider how the alternative forms of student/staff interaction that took place in our project can be seen as simultaneously challenging and reinforcing the disciplinary and hierarchical boundaries that structure higher education. This article, then, focuses on analytical reflections about the ways in which the powerful structures of higher education (enacted here through hierarchies of expertise) and practices of academia (particularly publication procedures) concurrently shape the transformative potential of ‘collaboration’ both as a research and a pedagogic strategy.
The collaborative project this article draws on took place in and was funded by the Reinvention Centre, University of Warwick during October-December 2005 and was concerned with feminist activism in Higher Education. We were investigating the transformative potential of gender activism inside the ‘Warwick Anti-sexism Society’. As members of that society ourselves, we were sometimes researching ourselves. The initial decision to make the project collaborative was partly linked to the aims of the Reinvention Centre, which encourages students to become research active and, where possible, to reinvent the spaces in which learning takes place, but was also a reflection of our commitment to feminist ways of working. (Luke and Gore, Peck and Mink) The research collaborate was constituted of staff (2), postgraduates (4) and undergraduates (4) from a range of disciplines (English History, Sociology, Philosophy, Politics) who contributed to the research design, data gathering and analysis of the materials. The end of the project culminated in the submission of an article about our findings to an online sociology journal.
As feminist activists, our understanding of ‘collaboration’ was rooted in principles of shared responsibility, equal participation, and a commitment to dialogic exchange as a strategy for change. The rationale for opting for a collaborative strategy was twofold: firstly to contest the usual practices of higher education research and secondly to enrich the research process through engaging multiple voices. This was reflected in how the research was conducted: tasks of data gathering were divided and agreed on according to personal preferences and skills-based expertise so that the workload was equalized and meetings were arranged on a weekly basis to share feedback on the research process and findings, as well as our thoughts on emergent themes, in a challenging yet supportive atmosphere. The final period of collaboration involved analysing data during a day-long group work session, and the writing-up stages included suggested amendments to the final draft from collaborating members.
Our collaborative project, as an alternative learning and research strategy, challenged higher education hierarchies and practices in many ways, however, here we will focus on two of its most significant achievements.
Firstly, our joint participation in a project regardless of our different locations, both disciplinarily and hierarchically, was disrupting the usual ways in which academic learning usually takes place (mostly through lectures or seminars), thus contesting the structural divide between students and academics, and therefore challenging the institutional framework of the university. Moreover, this challenge to the pedagogic exchange also disrupted the unequal power relations usually at play in typical classroom interaction: in our group discussions opinions were taken into account outside of the framework of reporting to, or seeking approval from an educator, but more in the context of dialogue as a learning strategy (Morley and Walsh). This was especially apparent in the last analytical phase of the project, where our creative voices were both in creative tension with another, whilst seeking to find ways to articulate our differences without losing the essence of the argument.
Our egalitarian vision of collaboration was adhered to through to the last stage of our research and impacted on decisions about the authorship of the article we were submitting for publication. Although our names all appear on the paper, we opted for a collaborative name that reflected our affiliation with the student society that we were also researching: thus, the author of the paper became the Warwick Anti-Sexism Society Collective. We considered the option of listing our names alphabetically with et al. next to the first name, but felt that it would not reflect adequately our conceptualization of collaboration. Acquiring credit for research and publications is key to gaining academic achievement and is often a resource that is scarce for junior researchers and even more so for undergraduates. Our project, and particularly the decisions made with regard to authorship, successfully challenged the hierarchies of academia: our strategy of sharing credit uniformly for the research between academic staff and students enabled us to contest the prevalent practice of senior researchers being credited as the main authors. This also allowed us to shift the power distribution in the university in general by introducing and advocating a research practice whose rationale centres around students and junior researchers being recognised as authors on their own terms.
As suggested, our collaboration was also constrained by the organisation and practices of higher education and in this sense, our research can be seen as highlighting the power structures of academia: ‘Throughout this research project, we have been forced to reflect on how we develop and implement praxis within and through the powerful hierarchies of academia.’ (WASS Collective 8) Reflecting on the wider constraints that structured our research output also helps to identify which factors are still limiting the transformative potential of collaboration.
The first way in which our collaboration reinforced existing structures within academia was reflected in our collaborative discussions. Although power relations are inherent within any research process, considering how they are organised can shed light on how certain types of expression come to be privileged. The dialogic learning exchange that took place during group sessions enabled certain types of ‘dominant’ skills that are prevalent in higher education to become the main communicative strategy; this in turn allowed group members who were familiar with certain academic practices and therefore proficient in these skills to have more input in the generation of knowledge from the data. The hegemony of ‘dominant’ skills such as assertiveness, leadership, and rhetorical expertise continues to be part of the ways in which academia is structured through “the replication of taken-for-granted forms of dialogue and exclusion” (Knights 136). This is played out in day-to-day pedagogic practices where students are judged, and sometimes assessed on, their participation in seminars and performance in presentations (Fejes 31), but where listening and facilitating skills continue to be undervalued. In this sense the limits of our collaboration in creating innovative learning strategies lie right at the centre of our practice so that the communicative tools we used to collaborate were instrumental in partly reinstating the hierarchies of knowledge production (Mahony et al.).
Our project can, however, also be seen as reinforcing existing hierarchies within academia because of the allocation of tasks during the research process. While all students (undergraduate and postgraduate) were involved in gathering data for the research, the members of staff were involved in the writing of the article and the production of a final draft that was open to amendments by all members of the collaborate before submission. This meant that responsibility was not divided equally between us, and that participation was not as egalitarian as we had hoped. While I am not implying the superiority of some part of the research process, it is clear that the development of high quality writing skills is key to establishing one’s position within academia. It could be argued that allowing for participants to develop and improve certain skills by matching them to specific tasks appeared to be connected to an already existing hierarchy.
However, the writing strategy we adopted managed to partly resolve this division of labour issue. All members could suggest amendments to a draft crafted by the two staff members, changes were then discussed by all collaborate members via e-mail and eventually some agreed revisions were included into a later draft by the academic staff. This strategy not only allowed all members to have dialogic input into the article, but also formed part of a pedagogic exchange where junior researchers were part of the process of developing writing skills for publication purposes and gained insights into the craft of academic writing. This was developed through modelling best practice of the writing process: crafting notes of a joint thinking session into a first coherent draft of the article.
The most significant constraint to the transformative potential of collaboration was the pressure of working towards a publishable piece of research. This was partly because of the contrast between the quite independent data gathering stages of the research and the more intensely collaborative writing-up stage. Most importantly publishing constraints impacted on our project in powerful ways. Firstly, we found that both the word limit and the format of the article restricted and sometimes erased the interesting complications and differences that were at the heart of our collaboration. For example, our different analyses of the data gathered were partly simplified into one consistent story, to preserve the coherence of our argument but also because of space issues. The stylistic demands of traditional academic journals could not fully capture the messiness and creative tensions arising from collaborative work. Disordered exchanges and mixed up thoughts were at the heart of the collaboration and in many ways created the fuel for the article. For instance, the process of collaboratively crafting a theoretical framework for the article proved a challenging and complex exercise whose strength lay in its emergence from differences and disorder, we were not able to render this fully in writing.
The enterprise of publishing our research was also connected to and strengthened already existing academic structures and practices. For example, the likelihood of the article being accepted for publication relied at least partly on the expertise of academic staff and their familiarity with publication standards and procedures. The deadline-meeting pressure of producing an article meant that time constraints prevented us from producing the article through a joint writing session as we had initially planned. Even though we placed a high value on doing the research itself, as our project was geared towards a publication from the outset it was necessarily very much shaped by its demands. However, ways to alleviate these constraints could have been explored by employing alternative methods of reporting our research such as performances, fiction writing and diaries that may have allowed for a more comprehensive and multiple account of our research.
Collaborative work between students and teachers is an empowering and difficult exercise that both strengthens and challenges the powerful hierarchies and practices of academia. In our case students’ learning and expertise have benefited from this project further through the continuation of the collaboration: members are currently involved in jointly revising the article according to referees’ report and are preparing papers that will be jointly presented at various UK postgraduate conferences this summer. Our project also revealed that practicing alternative strategies inside a single collaboration allowed for both expertise-led and student-led forms of work and enabled skills and merit to be more evenly distributed within academia. Most importantly, as we learnt through the production of an academic article, the incompatibility of this hierarchical vestige of academic practice with collective ways of working had powerful implications on our finished work. Hopefully this will constitute the site of future challenges to traditional practices in academia and will encourage alternative ways of producing publishable academic work.
Thank you to all members of the Wass collaborate for being supportive of my writing reflections about our project, and also for their insightful comments and encouragements about this piece.
Thank you to Danny Beusch for his constructive and honest comments on an earlier draft of this article.