I recently had the honor and pleasure of giving a joint keynote presentation, “A Matter of Scale,” with Matt Jockers at the Boston-area Days of DH conference hosted by Northeastern University’s NULab. Matt has kindly put the text of our debate up on the University of Nebraska open-access repository and has also blogged about it.

This debate was great fun to prepare and also provided a fascinating perspective for me on the process of authoring. I do write a lot of single-authored things (e.g. conference papers, articles) where “my own” ideas and arguments are all I have to focus on, though I find those usually emerge by engaging with and commenting on other people’s work. I also write a lot of single-authored things where I’m actually serving as the proxy for a group (e.g. grant proposals). And I also increasingly find myself writing co-authored material—for instance, the white paper I’m currently working on with Fotis Jannidis that reports on the data modeling workshop we organized last spring, or the article I wrote with Jacqueline Wernimont on feminism and the Women Writers Project. In all of these situations I feel that I know the boundaries of my own ideas pretty well, even as I can feel them being influenced or put into dialogue with those of my collaborators.

However, writing this debate with Matt took a different turn. The presentation was framed as a debate from the start—so, in principle, each of us would be defending a specific position (big data for him, small data for me). We ascertained early on that we didn’t actually find that polarization very helpful, and we developed a narrative for the presentation that started by throwing it out, then facetiously embracing it, and finally exploring it in some detail. But we retained the framing device of the debate-as-conversational-exchange. However, rather than each writing our own dialogue, we both wrote both parts: Matt began with an initial sketch, which I then reworked, and he expanded, and I refined, and he amended, and so forth, until we were done. The result was that throughout the authoring process, we were putting words in each other’s mouths, and editing words and ideas of “our own” that had been written for us by someone else.

Despite agreeing on the misleadingness of the micro/macro polarity, I think Matt and I actually do have differing ideas about data and different approaches to using it—but what was striking to me during this process was that I found I had a hard time remembering what my own opinions were. The ideas and words Matt wrote for the debate-Julia character didn’t always feel fully familiar to me, but at the same time they didn’t feel alien either, and they were so fully embedded in the unfolding dialogue that they drew their character more from that logic than from my own brain, even as I reworked them from my own perspective.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw, but it’s clear to me that there’s more to learn from collaborative authoring than just the virtues of compromise and the added value of multiple perspectives. I’m sure there’s an important literature on the subject and would be grateful for pointers. Working with Matt was a blast and I hope we have an opportunity to do this again.

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