Monday, March 20, 2017

The Value of Collaboration

By Olivia Bloechl, Katherine Butler Schofield, and Gabriel Solis

This is a jointly authored post, and we’ve opted to sign our contributions, because we’re speaking from our different disciplinary and individual experiences. We’re thinking through collaborative ways of working aloud with you, as much as with each other, and we hope this transparent format will show both individual contribution, as well as how dialogue helps to build ideas that are genuinely collective.

Olivia Bloechl (OB): As a music historian, I’m used to working alone. Like many other musicologists, I came to our field as a classical musician, trained into solitary work early on through hours spent at the piano. My doctoral program reinforced this habit of solitude by rewarding me for my work as an individual researcher. After graduating I was hired at a prominent research university, given tenure there and full professorship at another great university, based largely on my single-author work.

So here’s why I’m rethinking how I do historical research going forward. Lately I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with two ethnomusicologists, Katherine Butler Schofield and Gabriel Solis, who’ve agreed to dialogue with me here. We’re working together to develop a body of critical theory for research on global music history and, especially, to foster work in this area by emerging scholars. From what we’ve seen, doing good music history on a larger geocultural scale is becoming truly viable, perhaps for the first time, and that’s really exciting.

Trying to theorize, let alone carry out large-scale research like this on one’s own doesn’t make much sense, though. (A reality that is tacitly acknowledged with recent collaborative projects in this area led by Philip Bohlman, Reinhard Strohm, and Katherine Schofield.) Of course, as global music history gains traction, scholars will want to contribute individually, and those in early career stages may not have much choice. (A former university of mine routinely asks faculty to submit a memo specifying their “unique and essential contribution” to any collaborative publications.) Still, it’s hard to imagine how the solo mode of intellectual labor that is so normalized is actually best for creating knowledge, especially on this scale.

Katherine Butler Schofield (KBS): The absolute preference for single authorship in music studies remains an issue to be resolved in the UK too, where big collaborative projects in the arts and humanities funded by external grants have become much more normal in the past ten years, and early-career researchers are pushed hard to apply for them. They may be regarded as prestigious, and institutions certainly like the substantial money attached, but promotions panels still prize the single-authored monograph, even over single-Principal-Investigator grants in seven figures. (My advice to early-career scholars is to get your book out first!)

Gabriel Solis (GS): Ethnomusicology has a complicated history where research collaboration is concerned. I, like many of us, cut my teeth on collaborative practice making music in pop, R&B, and jazz bands. I came to view making music as a process of dialogue and mutual editing (if not always without a measure of conflict). At its best, the primary method of ethnomusicology—musical ethnography—involves a similar ethos of collaboration. Our work grows in dialogue with our interlocutors. The topic of my current project, for instance, on the history of African American and West Indian musical styles in Indigenous communities of the Southwestern Pacific, was not one I developed myself. Rather, it emerged out of conversations with Aboriginal dancers in Sydney (at NAISDA) that were part of an entirely different project.

Many of us become the students of master musicians and dancers in our field sites, and continue to defer to the expertise of our teachers in many instances. This relationship has led to work that is legitimately collaborative, even if it has not always had co-credited authorship (I think here, for instance, of Bruno Nettl's work on the Radif of Persian music with Nour-Ali Boroumand). And yet, most of us are well aware of the power differences that typically inflect ethnographic encounters, the substantial differences in interests between ourselves and the communities and artists we work with, and how powerful the old model of the heroic anthropologist is. We have lots of ways of more fully representing the dialogic quality of our work, but a truly collaborative model is still as much ideal as accomplishment.

OB: I agree. I also think though that, whether we work in the field or the archive, we need other thinkers and practitioners more than we musicologists tend to believe. That may be reason enough to risk collaboration, even if it falls short of our ideals. This is especially obvious in the case of global music history. The prospect of trying on my own to acquire, say, a working knowledge of Hindi, Persian, Tok Piksin, or Urdu; facility with Indian notations; or an encyclopedic jazz knowledge—to name a few of my collaborators’ skills—is a clear argument for the advantages of working together. Yet there’s also a strong case for collaboration as a best practice in other kinds of historical research too. Just because we can work with documentary or material sources on our own doesn’t mean we always should. Often, putting our heads together can produce better results. More importantly, perhaps, good collaboration can make the process of creating knowledge better. 

KBS: Absolutely. Think of peer review, of literature review, of teachers and mentors. Scholarship is a polyphonic dialogue, not a solo improv, into which our own voice only ever enters part-way through. And yet, overt collaboration doesn’t come naturally in our disciplines. Scientists create and write together (often using apps like Overleaf) as a matter of course—but we are never taught how to write with other people, and more often than not we have been dissuaded from it. Thinking together before putting fingers to keyboard is in many ways even harder, and requires us to revisit our normative ways of working from scratch. What helps is having models of how to work and write collaboratively in the arts and humanities. I have been very lucky to have two of the best mentors a woman could ask for: the Hindi literature scholar Francesca Orsini; and the historian Margrit Pernau. Both of them still write single-authored works of great accomplishment. But they have for decades spent much of their time drawing together groups of people to answer bigger and more complicated questions than are possible to answer alone.

They start from the premise that collaboration is the best way to answer big questions, and think first about what kinds of work, people, and skills are needed in order to arrive at a set of possible answers. And then they ask those people to join them. The most important lesson I have learned is that even scholars who hate each other can work productively together if the big question is kept paramount and the organizer refuses to allow egos and politics to dominate. Generally people are brought together to discuss through workshops and conferences, at which important threads are drawn together through full-group discussion, leading to a collaborative volume. This can take the form of standard edited volumes; or it can be genuinely co-written, such as the series of volumes that the Max Planck Institute has published with Oxford University Press.

As for my own project, working closely as a team with eleven other researchers on a joint venture has been the most richly rewarding research experience of my career. The insights you gain from bringing several brains together, all with different skills and backgrounds, are genuinely phenomenal. To give you one example, several members of my team (Julia Byl, David Lunn, Raja Iskandar bin Raja Halid, and Jenny McCallum) are working together on the translation of a Malay narrative poem from the mid nineteenth century that describes processions full of singing, music, dance, and performative competition. David found the manuscript on one of many trips to the Netherlands. Raja translated the basic poem, which is in the Malay version of the Arabic script; but it took Julia (ethnomusicologist: Malay, Batak, local Sumatran dialect), David (literary scholar: Hindi, Urdu) and me (historian: Persian, Urdu) to decode and interpret several important terms that are no longer used, but which testify to the extraordinary trans-oceanic travels of this performance rite and many of its participants around the colonial Indian Ocean.

I won’t scoop my team! But the translation and the article that accompanies it will change the way historians understand a major political turning point in the Straits Settlements, and a key transformation in the way local peoples were viewed and treated by their British overlords. Without the collaboration of a team of scholars from three distinct disciplines working in nine Asian and European languages – and funding from the European Research Council that took the risk that what I proposed to do with a team was worthwhile – none of this would have happened.

OB: Katherine’s experience with European-style collaboration is really valuable, and it suggests that we in North America could take the larger perspective of the “global” as an opportunity to do music history differently. “Differently” may mean making music historical research more routinely critical, inclusively framed, responsive to living communities of stakeholders (especially in decolonial or reparative research, and able to narrate musical pasts in ways that are both “globally concerned” and “locally sensitive.” The multi-disciplinary, multi-lingual nature of this work also suggests transnational collaboration as a best practice, with a concerted effort to move beyond English-language (and, ideally, European-language) dominance.

GS: I couldn’t agree more! Even in the face of funding structures that prioritize solo work this kind of collaboration is important because it allows us to move beyond a model where we—scholars—all share a similar background and training, making our collaboration a matter of pooling subject knowledge within a uniform theoretical framework. This might mean collaborating not only across (sub)disciplines such as ethnomusicology and music history, but also across other divides. Especially collaboration between scholars working in the Global North and the Global South. For me it means working on a collaborative film and co-authored article with one of my ethnographic interlocutors, as well as on a singly-authored monograph.

It is worth acknowledging, too, that even with training and experience, collaborative work is hard. It can be a hassle accommodating yourself to co-authors who may have different commitments, timelines, and expectations than you. The organizational requirements, especially where funding agencies are involved, can be time-consuming and onerous. But it is also difficult in a more important way: it requires relinquishing some measure of our claims to endless expertise, or at least clearly acknowledging their limits – and acknowledging that we have never worked alone.

Olivia Bloechl is Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh.  She is the author of Native American Song at the Frontiers of Early Modern Music (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008) and Opera and the Political Imaginary in Old Regime France (Univ. of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2017), and co-editor (with Melanie Lowe and Jeffrey Kallberg) of Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015). In addition to ongoing work on European opera before 1800, current projects include a feminist philosophical study of music and vulnerability and a long-term collaboration developing theory and protocols for global music history.  [Photo Credit: Elisa Ferrari]

Katherine Butler Schofield is a historian of music and listening in the Mughal Empire and the colonial Indian Ocean, and Senior Lecturer (=Associate Professor) in the Music Department at King’s College London. Working largely with Persian sources for Hindustani music c.1570-1860, in recent research she has established music as central to Mughal technologies of sovereignty and selfhood, identified classicisation processes at work in early-modern Indian arts, examined the role of connoisseurship in nourishing male friendships, told tales about ill-fated courtesans and overweening ustads, and traced the lineage of the chief musicians to the Mughal emperors from Akbar to Bahadur Shah Zafar. She has recently finished a €1.2M European Research Council grant, “Musical Transitions to European Colonialism in the Eastern Indian Ocean” (2011-15), which investigates the ways in which music and dance were transformed c.1750-1900 in the transition from pre-colonial to colonial regimes in India and the Malay world. Her first book, an edited volume with Francesca Orsini, Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature, and Performance in North India, has just been published in a pioneering open-access format by Open Book Press (link here).

Gabriel Solis is Professor of Music, African American Studies, and Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of books on jazz, including Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making (University of California Press, 2008) and Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Oxford University Press, 2014), and co-editor with Bruno Nettl of Musical Improvisation: Art, Education, and Society (University of Illinois Press, 2009). His articles on jazz, pop music, the voice, and Indigenous modernity have appeared, among other places, in Ethnomusicology, Musical Quarterly, Popular Music and Society, MusiCultures, and Critical Sociology. He is currently working on a book project titled The Black Pacific, dealing with the history of alliances and affiliations between African Diasporic Musicians and Indigenous musicians in Australia and Melanesia, in part with the support of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


  1. This project is wonderful and important. Thanks for sharing about your collaborative process. I'd like to know more about how your collaborative work is received (or tallied) by your home institutions. Early-career scholars are often warned off collaborative work because "it won't count" toward promotion. Has this been relevant for you?

  2. (This is Olivia.) Thanks for your question, Danielle. In my experience, there's often a gap between how faculty colleagues or departments value collaborative work versus how university promotion bodies view it. Co-organizing conferences, co-teaching, co-editing, running reading or research groups, partnering with communities, as well as leading more prestigious collaborative research projects all look good for departments, but except for the last type of work they don't tend to count much for promotion. Unless, of course, they do. Unfortunately, who you are (in terms of identity) and who you know can still influence how your work is valued institutionally. That's as true for collaborative as for individual work, but it's easier to undervalue collaboration.

  3. Hi Danielle, this is Gabriel. Thanks for the kind words!

    Agreed with Olivia above. I can speak from experience at UIUC, and say that collaborative work is not actively discouraged for humanists/arts scholars at my institution, but is also not actively encouraged. I think that some collaborations are helpful in getting tenure, but as Olivia says, most probably aren't. A junior scholar in the humanities at UIUC who only published co-authored work and/or whose work appeared to be overwhelmingly tied to one other person would find it hard to get tenure, particularly if the collaborating partner appeared to be the primary intellectual "owner" of the work. I've seen all kinds of weird/bad criticisms come up in tenure reviews, particularly at college and campus-wide levels, and have no trouble imagining collaboration being used as a reason not to tenure someone. But that said, I can also see someone with substantial collaborative work on their CV doing well.

    You asked how has this been relevant for me, so I'll say it wasn't much discussed when I was an Assistant Prof. I think it was taken as read that the bulk of my writing would be singly-authored, and that I would work with my colleagues on various projects that would be intellectually meaningful (but that would not make or break my tenure case). So, I collaborated with senior colleagues on two conferences, one of which produced a volume of essays that I co-edited with Bruno Nettl. Here's a case where who you collaborate with is probably as important as the fact that you collaborated. I'd say as the junior partner in those endeavors, I didn't do all that much work. My senior colleagues acted as mentors, as much as equals. But they also made it quite clear that without a singly-authored book and a number of articles I wouldn't get tenure.