The joy of collaboration: or a thank-you note to the AHRC

This blog-post is a thank-you letter to one of my favourite public institutions, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It’s also a response to humanities researchers across the country who continue to wonder why anybody would ever want to do collaborative research.

The Stuart Successions Project’ has been with me for eight years. It originated in preparation for a class on the literature of 1603, took shape over weekends with my late mate Kevin Sharpe, was resurrected after Kevin’s untimely death to become a collaboration with Paulina Kewes, and is right now in its final days. We launched our database in Oxford last week, and other outputs, including a volume of essays and an anthology of primary material, will follow.

But what’s the point of a collaborative project? For most researchers in the humanities, it’s not the way that we were trained, nor is it our default approach. I just want to suggest, here, that it works.

What’s wrong with another monograph?

‘The Stuart Successions Project’ began with a series of questions, prompted by my awareness of just how much material was published to mark the successions of Stuart monarchs. What was succession literature? How might it help us to reflect on the anxieties and personalities of particular moments of succession? And how might it also help us to reassess processes of change – for instance, in political discourse, values of monarchy, codes of political speech – across the Stuart century.

So why not write a monograph? Partly there were the negative reasons: I felt that a single-brained approach to such a diverse body of material might produce a rather limited survey. But there were also the positive reasons: a collaborative project held the promise to mobilize a great range of experience and expertise, far beyond what I had myself. The goal was to lend shape to a field of research.

In strictly academic terms, collaboration means pooling expertise. And the best advice I’ve ever been given about collaborative work is simple: identify the best people in the field, and grab them. The original plan was to work with one of the great, established figures in the study of Stuart politics and political culture, who just happened to be a friend. In the weeks after Kevin’s death, four years ago next month, I started afresh by methodically searching university websites. I identified the best person in the UK, and fortunately she was keen to join the project.

We then appointed an outstanding postdoctoral researcher, John West, as well as two excellent PhD students, and the project was therefore assured of a strong foundation. Part of the work has then involved drawing other researchers into discussions, to result in a broad range of interpretative work. The single best thing about the project has been the quality of academic minds that we have been able to focus on this rich body of material.

Where’s the fun in lone scholarship?

I’m sure some academics genuinely dislike working collaboratively, but I doubt whether the figure is as large as may popularly be believed. Most of us actually like working in teams, and do so all the time as teachers.

On the ‘Stuart Successions Project’, I’ve learned rather more about lymphoma than I ever would have chosen. In January 2009 I had to find the word in the dictionary; now I’ve seen its effects on two friends. I guess I’ve also learned that shit happens to middle-aged people. By my calculation, five surgeons have been involved in the project.

I’ve also come to see research collaboration as having some of the characteristics of an arranged marriage. Perhaps one needs a bit of innocence – naivety even – about what lies ahead. How many hundreds – thousands, probably – of emails have been bounced between members of the project team? How many hours of meetings? How many opportunities for the emergence of unresolvable differences? But it can also just work.

And then there’s the inestimable pleasure of working with younger academics. The outputs of the project will duly be recorded in the wondrous ‘researchfish’, but its legacy is less easily measurable. That’s a matter of the shape of a field and the interrelated trajectories of careers. It’s a matter, for instance, of our postdoc, John, starting a solo project on 1660, and appointed this week to a permanent job at Nottingham. For someone like me, approaching a kind of seniority, that feels like a nice kind of achievement.

A little bit of impact

We erred on the side of modesty with our original ‘pathways to impact’ statement. It went somewhat along the lines: maybe the Queen will die, everyone will be thinking about successions, and we’ll be there with plenty of history. Frankly, we didn’t much get impact at that point. But the AHRC is more forgiving on this matter than is often grasped by applicants: the form asks for ‘pathways’, and therefore allows space for a project and its team members to grow.

And we found that the project genuinely opened up pathways. We applied, earlier this year, for the AHRC’s follow-on funding scheme, for impact-oriented work. We’re now in the early stages of a project designed to create a range of open-access, web-based learning resources on the Stuarts, in response to changes in the school curriculum which are giving fresh prominence to this period.

And what a great research council

We’ve all hated the AHRC at one point or another. Most applications end in rejection; most applicants find these assessments brutally unfair. I even have a couple of stinkingly indignant letters of complaint on my computer somewhere.

But it’s worth remembering what it gets right. The peer review system – with the crucial facility to respond to the bastards – works more often than not. We have experienced an impressive degree of flexibility and humanity, in response to the interests of the project and its people. And most importantly, it is designed, quite simply, to support and promote quality research. Long may it prosper.

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