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5.2: Considering (and Balancing) the Two Extremes of Collaboration

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  • Collaboration always implies people working together toward a goal, but I like to think of the way collaboration actually works as being somewhere between two extremes.

    One extreme is what I call “very immediate and intimate” collaboration, where writers collaborate extremely closely, literally sitting together in front of the computer keyboard or the pad of paper and going over each sentence of each paragraph together.

    The advantages of this very close collaboration include:

    • An equal and immediate sense for everyone involved about how the project is going;
    • Writing projects that are more seamless: that is, all of the different parts fit together clearly as one complete text; and
    • A greater sense by individuals within a group of their roles, since all the group members are working together in the same time and place.

    The disadvantages of this type of collaboration include:

    • “Hard workers” in the group might resent the group members who do not seem to contribute an equal part, or some members of the group might feel they are being silenced and manipulated by more forceful group members;
    • It can be difficult to coordinate times and places to meet; and
    • It is extremely time consuming, especially if the group is collaborating on creating a more detailed writing project.

    The other extreme of collaboration is what I call “very distant” collaboration, where writers divide up the labor of a particular project into smaller tasks that can be then assigned to members of the group and put together later, assembly-line fashion.

    Some of the advantages of this type of collaboration include:

    • It is easy to set up tasks so each group member has the opportunity to contribute equally without duplicating the work of others;
    • It can be done with few (if any) meetings where all of the group members need to be present; and
    • Tasks can be accomplished quickly since all group members are simultaneously working on their parts of the project.

    The disadvantages include:

    • Because it is being done in parts, the completed project may seem disjointed and uneven;
    • It can be difficult to manage this sort of collaboration since the individual parts of the project have to somehow be put together, usually by a group leader, someone who is named by the others, or someone who takes on the role; and
    • There can be resentment within the group, either from leaders who other members of the group feel are doing a poor job, or of those within the group perceived as not doing their share of the work.

    Where most collaborative projects end up on the “collaboration spectrum” depend on the nature of the collaborative task. For example, things like in-class peer review of each others’ rough drafts, in-class reading and writing assignments, or shorter collaborative writing projects tend to end up closer to “very immediate and intimate” collaboration. Things like collaborative research writing projects, research oriented web sites, or to other longer and more detailed writing projects tend to be closer to the “very distant” collaboration side of the spectrum.

    Clearly, one sort of collaboration isn’t automatically “better” than another; it depends on your purposes. The best approach to any collaborative project is to be conscious of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the collaborative spectrum and strive to emphasize the strengths of the approach within which you are working.

    For example, one way to avoid some of the pitfalls of the “very immediate and intimate” types of collaboration is to make sure that each member of the group has a clear sense of their role in the writing project and is allowed to contribute. Conversely, the disadvantages of “very distant” types of collaboration might be avoided if members of the group strive to work on producing writing in a similar style and if there is frequent communication among group members.

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