A few words about collaborative research--

Why "collaborative"?:        The way specialized knowledge is made in American culture typically involves collaborative research, small teams of people who agree to share the effort and the reward for the task.   Solo researchers can be found, especially in academia, but even they share knowledge with colleagues and might be said to be working with a "distributed" collaborative research group.  Businesses typically bundle people together in task- or project-specific groups to improve information sharing and to encourage creative thinking.

How to collaborate:        Researchers who study business collaboration describe group functioning according to two models, hierarchical (somebody's more obviously in control of assigning tasks and evaluating contributions) and consensus (the group doesn't move until they all agree).  There are advantages and disadvantages to both models that should be obvious.  Hierarchical organizations tend to move quickly and often have their product out the door first, but they have the least complex social and intellectual interactions among their members, so creativity sometimes suffers.   And if an unworthy tyrant or an inefficient but popular member controls the group, it's a complete disaster.  Consensus groups are slow to act, and sometimes fail to produce products at all, but they have lots of complex social and intellectual interactions, and they often are more creative than their hierarchical competitors.

Hybrid collaborations and consensus belief:        Then there are the hybrid collaborations.  Those adopt hierarchical solutions for parts of the problem that are best solved that way, and work by consensus for the rest of the project.  Think of it in terms of that old strategy for dividing the last piece of pie between two siblings.  They fight over it unproductively until they arrive at a consensus rule: one cuts and the other gets first pick.  However, the consensus rule contains an explicit yielding to hierarchy in the decision to let one cut.  The separation of the "picking" role from the "cutting" role, arrived at by consensus, distributes the hierarchical authority satisfyingly and speeds the process (while producing unusually creative solutions to the task of dividing accurately an irregular object!).

Group size:        In American business culture, from which we might extrapolate to American college undergraduate culture, consensus is most quickly arrived at in groups larger than two but no larger than five.  Collaborative groups which are smaller tend to fragment unless the participants form unusually strong bonds outside the task (friendship, marriage).   Collaborative groups which are larger tend to become completely hierarchical because conversation becomes too unwieldy.  (No wonder class conversations are so hard to make genuinely open, egalitarian, and energetic!)  Obviously, though, we could apply the hybrid solution to big groups and subdivide them into consensus-run subunits who agree to be ruled by a hierarchy.  (Voila, the college's departmental structure, and if we were a bigger school, the departments would have sub-departments and more hierarchy.) 

A suggested working plan:        For the kind of collaborative research projects typically assigned by Goucher professors, I propose the following suggestions.  Plan your project to accommodate the most efficient distribution of consensus and hierarchical control by an early, consensus-based meeting that lays out the tasks, decides their ideal order of completion, and assigns people to tasks.  Be prepared to yield on matters that are insignificant, but don't lose sight of what's important to you.  If that organizational meeting shows signs of failing, ask the teacher to mediate.  Make sure, however, that your plan includes brief consensus-building events at periods appropriate to the project's length.    At least begin with a consensus-based meeting and end with a meeting which allows you to attempt a similar consensus.  If the final product contains things that have become too personally valuable to individual group members, consider giving them explicit credit (and responsibility) for them when the product is delivered.  If you arrive at important disagreements about the conclusions and/or the evidence, consider producing a "minority opinion," like the ones written by Supreme Court justices who have been outvoted by the majority. 

The ethics of collaboration:        In all cases, though, follow the general business rule of never disrespecting your co-workers, either in public or in private (since everything said "in private" usually gets out sooner or later).  Learn from them.  Grow to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and try to borrow the strategies and tactics they know.  If you have a slacker or a poorly trained scholar in your midst, it's a challenge, but group pressure usually can encourage improvement.  When all else fails, you have the option of explicitly attributing credit for work done to those who did it, either by means of dividing the product in authored sections, or by including a "preface" or "afterward" explaining how the product should be evaluated.  You also can communicate that information tacitly by the order in which you stack the authors' names on the product's first page.  You can alphabetize them if you wish readers to assume you all should be given equal credit.  However, If you say nothing else, your readers will tend to assume the names correspond to a "most-to-least" order of credit and responsibility.  In the sciences, some publications' collaborative author lists will explicitly identify one or more authors as "lead" or "principal" or "chief" investigators, scientists, etc.  In the humanities, by tradition, credit usually is shared equally.  I find that an interesting and charming quirk about the profession.

Collaborative presentations:        If your collaboration is supposed to present its results in an in-class presentation, take careful thought for your visual aids.  Photocopied handouts can be used to give your audience your most important evidence so that they can examine it for themselves.  Be sure to provide short bibliographies on the sheet for all work you have borrowed from other scholars, including page references.  You can shrink the type font to include this information, but never omit it.  PowerPoint slides and web pages can be useful tools that save paper and time, but don't invest more time in "bells and whistles" (literally, in some cases!) than they are worth.  Do not add graphics which would make your presentation look un-professional, even though you might think they are amusing, attention-getting, etc.  Though a sense of humor often is appreciated in professional presentations, don't sacrifice your authority only to get a laugh.  On the other hand, do seek ways to visually present information that your oral presentation can comment effectively upon.  Portraits, maps, manuscripts, and graphs or charts are all types of visual information which can significantly improve your presentation.  Never present visual information without comment, "just because it might be interesting."  Remember that your job as a scholar is to interpret and explain your evidence.  For each slide or image, you should have prepared an appropriately weighty commentary.  Figure out how to focus the audience's attention on a portion of a larger image, like a detail in a painting or a phrase in a larger text.  Highlighting the text or using pointers in the presentation will help speed your talk and clarify what you're saying.    If you're sharing speaking duties as a group, or if you're chosen to represent the group's work in class, be sure you've carefully rehearsed your presentation, especially if you entrust any of it to PowerPoint or web-based resources.  Make sure you know the order in which your visual information will appear, and what you are to say about it.  Make sure the presentation has a clear "beginning, middle, and end," and take thought for how you will conclude.  Try to end the presentation with one of your more important observations or discoveries to achieve a "climactic" (best last) order.  Above all, ask the instructor if the classroom in which you're preparing to present is properly equipped to give you access to such materials, even if all you need is a slide or overhead projector. 

        Finally, if you are relying on electronic media for crucial parts of the presentation, ALWAYS have a paper-based backup.  The Internet and stand-alone computers and projectors have a way of failing just when you need them.  Audiences will be sympathetic if you have at least some handouts they can share.  Trust me--I have experienced this  too many times, myself, not to think this is essential for group or individual presentations!