Partners in Scholarship

Delia Dumitrica and Georgia Gaden Jones describe the rewards of research collaboration that takes a slowed-down approach rooted in interaction and ongoing dialogue.

September 15, 2020
 
 
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In our current academic environment, research collaborations can often be a strategic response to an organizational culture focused on productivity. Working with colleagues on a research project can help access funding, milk existing scholarship for one more publication and dismantle and distribute the responsibilities of a project to get it done more efficiently.

While that process certainly has its strengths and benefits, our experience with collaboration has been quite different. The two of us -- one who now works at a research university in the Netherlands and the other at a Canadian technical institute -- have been researching and writing together for over a decade. We sparked a partnership when, as Ph.D. students, we attended the same conference. Talking about the conference presentations over dinner led us to a scholarly question that we felt compelled to explore. Out of that grew a friendship and intellectual exchange that has resulted in three completed small-scale research projects to date. Since then, our collaboration has taken a slowed-down approach rooted in interaction and ongoing dialogue between the two of us. In this essay, we describe the benefits and rewards we’ve reaped from such a collaboration in terms of the work produced, and our well-being and intellectual growth.

Developing trust. Continuous interaction with one another and with the texts and data we are working with is key to our collaboration. Every research step we have taken has grown out of an interaction between us, and every interaction has shaped both our understanding of the phenomenon under study and our own ways of thinking.

Our first project together -- a collaborative autoethnography examining gender performances in the virtual world Second Life -- prompted us to share personal experiences and to dig into our assumptions. During our data collection process, one of us used a male avatar, while the other opted for a female avatar, which challenged norms of beauty in the environment. In probing the reasons behind these choices, we realized how our assumptions about and our experiences in the virtual world were mediated by past experiences of being objectified and sexualized. Our diary at the time recorded our thoughts: “we are different people with different experiences, but the communication between us in the process of doing the research is fed back into the research itself.”

The process of this initial project taught us how to really listen to each other and to trust that each of us brings a different, yet equally important perspective and experience to the research process. On a practical level, we also learned to trust each other’s commitment and ability to contribute to the success of the project even when we were struggling. This created a space of psychological safety, where we felt comfortable to take risks and speak openly.

Making room for half-baked ideas. As doctoral graduates, we experienced high levels of anxiety about the value of our ideas. We painstakingly prepared for public speaking, fearing that we would be judged and lose credibility among peers, seniors and students. And, in fact, we still do. Confidence in presenting one’s ideas had often been presented to us as the key to academic success: “You have to own what you are saying. You are the expert!” Yet, as women, conscious of culturally shaped tendencies to apologize and opt for tentative forms of speech, and as qualitative researchers, oriented toward nuance and complexity, we often found such advice challenging.

The trust we have developed has allowed us to be daring and creative -- we feel safe to float half-baked ideas, to try out paths and detours, and to be open to whatever the response is. We cannot produce work that we are confident about without first building prototypes to play with and test.

Allowing for alternative interpretations and possibilities. Traditional models of scientific knowledge production value quantification and objectivity, certainty and precision. But our research is qualitative, iterative and highly interpretive. It is bound up in our abilities to think critically -- to question our own assumptions and interrogate what we are analyzing as well as the perspectives we bring to that analysis.

Having a research partner has provided far more than a sounding board for ideas. While analyzing representations of information and communication technologies in Time magazine covers, we noticed how our different cultural repertoires enabled us to recognize and interpret these texts in different ways. A cover from 1996 featuring Marc Andreessen from Netscape, for instance, drew quite different responses from each of us. Where one saw it as an expression of youthful irreverence, the other experienced it as sinister and possibly dangerous.

Our different interpretations gave us a valuable pause, making our analysis and discussion more complex through the incorporation of both perspectives. Not only are we more confident in our findings, but both of us are present in the whole paper -- rather than specific areas or sections.

Retaining solidarity across disagreements. A key to this process and our partnership is that we can disagree with each other and critique each other’s work. We don’t have to think about things in the exact same way. We feel confident that we can get into the woods of our disagreement and see where it leads us.

It may sound simplistic, but the value of getting comfortable with discomfort is key for intellectual growth. This is especially important for the integrity of the kind of interpretive work that we do. We don’t avoid disagreement, or see it as a threat: we see disagreement as a path to making our work stronger, and ourselves stronger as intellectuals, as humans.

In our first project, for example, we came across seemingly pornographic performances in the virtual environment of Second Life. This prompted heated debates between us on the relationship between porn and gender. One of us had encountered feminist theory in her work but did not identify with it, whereas the other had focused almost entirely on feminist theories and research in her graduate work to date. Our different disciplinary lenses and points of reference helped us enlarge each other’s perspectives, and our disagreements led us to solutions and next moves that were mutually acceptable.

Keeping a work/life balance. We each deal with different demands and pressures in our work. One of us must publish frequently and produce new and noteworthy research work. The other focuses more on teaching, which means research is usually conducted in the margins. With young children, her time is often very limited.

The work we do together is not the centerpiece of either of our professional lives, and perhaps because of that, we have felt comfortable arranging it around our other commitments. Being accountable to each other yet also knowing of each other’s personal contexts has helped us stay motivated and on track without pushing us to the limit or feeling burdensome.

Working together has also allowed us to defuse pressures at home or at work by sharing and helping each other redirect the accompanying negative emotions toward the progress of our collaboration. We do not hide our struggles from one another for fear of appearing unprofessional or incapable.

Making work a pleasure. Working together is fun. Things like cracking jokes about the slow nature of the research process and alliterating the names of theorists have amused and brought us closer together. Bringing each other up to date on the minutia of our daily lives over countless text messages, emails and phone calls -- given we live on different continents -- has also added the warmth of friendship.

The fact that working together has been fun is particularly important when our projects do not progress particularly swiftly. Friendship has meant we’ve had to take turns in teaching each other to accept our own pace. Our projects are not just work -- they are part of our friendship, playful and pleasurable.

In sum, our type of collaboration has worked for us. In a professional culture imbued with the values of scientific output, procurement of funding and the specter of evaluations, working slowly gains different connotations. It enables us to entertain multiple directions in our arguments. And it allows us to stumble across new pieces of evidence and new connections between ideas and concepts.

Granted, this approach will not be right for every type of project. Yet our experiences suggest to us that preserving spaces for slow, dialogic collaboration is important for scholarship -- especially scholarship dealing in discourse analysis or other interpretive work.

Our experiences also suggest that a key to pleasurable and productive collaboration is to commit to making and maintaining space for vulnerability, imperfection and disagreement. These kinds of collaborations stand to strengthen the depth and integrity of the work produced as well as offer valuable support and joy to scholars in their research practices.

Bio

Delia Dumitrica is an associate professor in the media and communication department at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Georgia Gaden Jones is an instructor in communications and liberal arts at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary.

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