It’s Collaborating day in #BYOD4L (when I started this) and this gives me an opportunity, albeit on my own, to reflect on a conversation some of us had in Liverpool in a MELSIG workshop led by Chrissi Nerantzi on Social Authoring.
I am driven by the opportunity to collaborate because I am riven with curiosity and an urge to be creative. For many years a musician, I wonder if I am sometimes guilty of supplanting, to my academic life, the excitement of making music with others.
So, given that I do write collaboratively in many partnerships, what is it about collaborative writing that is different to a simple understanding of academic writing, such as ‘the presentation of knowledge’?
First, the learning benefits are those found in other forms of user-generated content, broadly understood as constructionism, and in this case Social Constructionism (Andrews, 2012) in which learning comes from the act of making together. This idea of construction, or sense making, is what academic writing is about; though we often confuse ourselves that it’s primarily to do with evidencing our knowledge. Writing is a formative exercise first, and secondly a presentational context.
So, if thinking about collaborative writing, it can be understood as learning together, as in ‘making sense’ together. It’s about adding another brick to the top of the wall of knowledge; or at least making it stronger, or helping it to turn a corner.
If thinking about writing research papers, again it is easy to suppose we are primarily involved in a presentation activity. Usually it is: there are clear methods and structures we can use to report our findings. Contemplative crafting is less of a feature in producing such papers.
I write (and make) for publication using many kinds of fora and media, and so I have, intentionally, a mixed CV. I regard this as a great strength, but I am also clear that others would disagree. For me my writing is very much part of my role to promote academic innovation as a good, scholarly dimension of practice and a way of being innovative.
Social or collaborative writing, whether we believe we are writing as learners or researchers, is a rich developmental process involving collective deviations as much as sturdy conclusions. It’s about iterative challenge and validation mediated through writing things down. Its value is not about something that is about being succinct, but as something exploratory – a process rather than a product per se.
In many ways collaborative writing contradicts many of the messages we have in academia about developing a publication record and being REF-able, having legitimate rationales and plans for writing, or being instrumental.
Collaboration, however, ameliorates the risks associated with innovation and, even where innovation is more a personal matter of developing practice in which working with peers to develop and clarify thinking is so important.
It requires trust, honesty and integrity. These qualities are needed because it is pointless to just use collaborative writing activities as simply a way to generate ideas and, I have to be honest, I have enjoyed collaborative writing exercises that have been all about generating ideas. In an academic context collaborative writing must eventually be crafted and critical, not simply creative. Without this discipline, as in any academic forum, the thinking loses focus and therefore loses its audience and so its validity as a way of being scholarly and contributing to knowledge with authority.
There are two audiences for the writers in a collaboration: the writing partnership itself and the proposed readership. The first is actual, the second is usually a symbolic notion. This is a realistic view of writing. We never know enough about our readers, or even if we will have a reader. This doubt is increasingly true as we look at reader statistics in the open and digital age (Evelitch, 2014). Evans (2008) describes how the growth in the online publication of academic papers may be narrowing reader engagement with papers. Nonetheless, both ideas of readership remain important for the collaborative writing team.
Given all this, my point though is something I set out in that Liverpool workshop: perhaps there is a need to develop a social media research method that clearly articulates the value of socially mediated writing as a tool for supporting good, rapid thinking. I will attempt to sketch it out here and perhaps you can add to it or challenge it.
The method, which can be referred to as socially mediated constructionism, can be understood as an approach to Action Research and, as such, is dialogic, formative and productive. It has a dual function: to represent and analyse a phenomenon. It achieves this by producing negotiated articulations of phenomena through socially mediated spaces (Google Docs is a good example, but it could be any social media space). The use of social media both creates an opportunity to explore phenomena by reporting on them, but also analysing them by validating, improving or challenging observations and interpretations. It intentionally values the assimilation of data analysis with its presentation as a socially mediated iterative act.
What is different?
It is the common purpose found in the act of writing (or making) the artefact together, at the same time or thereabouts, using an online tool. It does not need common perspective, position or conclusion as a basis, only the common purpose that the exploration through writing will result in good thinking.
There is a notion of the act being ‘rapid’; I mean this more as a condition for co-operative psychological engagement rather as something that is specifically time delimited. It is about adopting an attitude of being busy, and enjoying ‘good enough’ (Weller, 2012) thinking.
The focus for observation and interpretation can use various methods and take various forms. Photographic evidence or survey data, for example; each provide the basis for analysis in the context of a research question or hypothesis, but it is the use of social media in this that is significant. The socially mediated act, enabled by technology, is different to other forms of collaborative writing because it happens in real time, near real time, or asynchronously and involves people who do not need to be co-located and who may have different roles and perspectives. This characterises it as being conversational.
The social media writing environment dispenses with many assumed academic constraints, and indeed values difference and plurality. While it attempts to find clarity and resolution and works within some constraints (word counts, publication deadlines), its novelty and open nature allows us to dispense with unnecessary conventions.
For the moment
This blog post invites collaboration and in itself, shows how the notion of collaboration need not be constrained by a specific environment, tool or media. It is not appropriate to conclude this. I have opened some thinking. Its originality is that it’s my thinking, but that is not to say that it’s not your thinking too.
If you can find a connection with this, please do continue this, with or without me.
Post Script: as I finish this it is now Creating day in #BYOD4L. Our last day in this week of collaborative thinking. I would expect, as in the previous iteration of the course, that the week provides many opportunities for collaborative writing and so further creative, critical and collaborative thinking.
Andrews, T. (2012). What is social constructionism? Grounded Theory Review, 11(1). Online at: http://groundedtheoryreview.com/2012/06/01/what-is-social-constructionism/
Evans, J.A. (2008). Electronic publication and the narrowing of science and scholarship. Science 18 July 2008: 321(5887), pp. 395-399. DOI: 10.1126/science.1150473.
Eveletch, R. (2014). ‘Many people read (and cite) their papers: studies about reading studies go back more than two decades.’ Smithsonian.com “Smart news”, published 25th March 2014. Online at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/half-academic-studies-are-never-read-more-three-people-180950222/