On Kinds of Collaboration

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Decades ago, Lisa Ede and I did a nationwide study of members of seven professional organizations in the U.S., surveying a random sample of 1200 members of each to ask questions about writing practices, and particularly about collaboration and collaborative writing. We wrote a book about this study, Singular Texts / Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing (1990). In our book, we reported on two types of collaboration that emerged during our study. 

The first and most common we called “hierarchical collaboration,” a model that had a clear leader who set agendas and organized activity, with members most often carrying out tasks assigned by the leader. This kind of collaboration, we found, favored white males (no surprise there!), often downplaying contributions by women and focusing on achieving a pre-set goal. We also found that this kind of collaboration was often very efficient and got results quickly. 

The second kind of collaboration that emerged we termed “dialogic collaboration,” because it was founded on dialogue and conversation, because leadership was distributed throughout the group, and because it was attentive to process as well as to the product or goal. Such collaborations were by definition more inclusive and welcoming than hierarchical collaborations and, again not surprisingly, seemed to be practiced much more frequently by women than men. They were often time consuming and even messy: but they also often produced surprisingly fresh new insights. 

Over the years, Lisa and I thought long and hard about other types of collaboration, and we were especially intrigued by the advent of what one of my students called “authorless prose,” the kind found in much of Wikipedia and in boilerplate materials: what differing kinds of collaboration enabled such prose? And of course, today I am concentrating on human/bot collaborative writing and what to make of it, how to value it, and how to teach students to engage effectively and ethically in it. 

But recently, I have been reading about the work of Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning professor of psychology who wrote—and practiced—adversarial collaboration. Kahneman, who studied human judgment and decision making, made a habit of collaborating—rather than debating—his intellectual opponents, or those who disagreed with him. In fact, he insisted on it. His goal was not to win, but to get at the truth, and collaborating with an adversary was one way to go about reaching that goal.


Daniel Kahneman on stage at a TED ConferenceDaniel Kahneman on stage at a TED Conference


A recent article by Cass Sunstein in the New York Times (April 4, 2024) describes an example of this kind of collaboration: Kahneman and a colleague had published a study showing that people are generally happier if they have higher incomes—up to a point of about $90,000. 

The article attracted a lot of attention and, later, a critic who in a similar study found just the opposite: that people with higher incomes are happier, period. Kahneman could have practiced what he calls “angry science,” attacking the new study and its author and showing why his research was superior. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he asked his critic, Matthew Killingsworth, to collaborate with him—and they worked together, along with a “friendly arbiter” to look back at the studies, under a microscope this time, to see if anything had been missed. Together, they discovered a glitch in the data, one that led the two studies to similar, rather than opposite, conclusions. As Sunstein put it in his article, “Both sides were partly right and partly wrong. Their adversarial collaboration showed that the real story is more interesting and more complicated than anyone saw individually.”

I think adversarial collaboration can have an important role to play, especially in the current political climate. As we are encouraging our students to collaborate more, and more effectively, we can teach them about this form of collaboration, one that asks them to engage critically, openly, and fairly with someone with whom they disagree, inviting that person to join in on a search for facts and truth, rather than the kind of “angry science” that is based on attack and counter attack—and almost never changes any minds!


Image via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.