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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Is Our Grant Culture Good Enough?

One of the things I consider myself paid to do is worry about my department’s grant figures. They’re not too bad really, but not on a par with our performance on outputs, and competition is getting tougher while the resources available aren’t getting any greater.

So it was nice to be invited this past week, along with Jon Mee (York) and Michael Green (Northumbria), to visit another English department to advise them on how to improve their grant culture. I won’t name the university, simply on grounds of confidentiality; in fact, it was a department full of good people doing interesting things, and their review seemed smart and timely. For once, though, I had a chance to reflect on what we might be doing right at Exeter, as well as what we might improve.

Looking at Exeter, then, I’d identify four general causes of success.

  1. An expectation of grant activity

Our probation criteria (for early-career academics) and performance framework (for everyone) have been controversial. But one thing they’ve done is embedded an expectation that grant applications are a basic part of our jobs. That’s not to say that the targets are necessarily right, nor that many of us seem to get by just fine without meeting them. But what we don’t get (or not much, anyway) are perceptions that grant activity is somehow an add-on to a normal academic workload. In our host department there was an expectation that colleagues would receive workload relief for preparing grants: a practice that may be unavoidable in order to generate activity from a low base, but that might easily descend into petty haggling, and that surely prioritizes the wrong thing. We expect everyone to apply, and recognize appropriately the workloads of those who get the grants. That makes sense to me.

We also have fairly widespread acceptance of the premise that academic projects – and outputs – can take different forms. My quote of the week was from Jon: ‘there’s nothing natural about the monograph’. In other words, if we don’t fetishize the monograph we might be able to imagine more creative approaches to project grants. Monographs still matter for the REF (though maybe not as much as we think), but on the whole we get this point.

  1. A culture of success

Do we have a culture of success? It hasn’t always felt that way, and my biggest concern in recent years has been our reliance on c.5-10% of strong performers; however, we’re seen by others as successful, and there’s someting to that. If you don’t have a culture of success, it becomes necessary to import expertise: this week’s events were the start of that process for our hosts, and they’re thinking about further approaches to bridging that gap. Success, though, brings expertise: an appreciation of how projects work, of what kinds of projects fit which funders, and of how to speak the language of grant forms. Whether we deploy that store of expertise as well as we might is another matter: I often think we put too much weight on a final ‘internal peer-review’ process, by which time projects are highly (though not always well) developed, and too little emphasis on mentoring through the developmental phases. But we have, I think, a basically supportive culture.

  1. Engagement with funders

One interesting exchange. I explained how, when the AHRC last called for applications for the Peer Review College, we mobilized ourselves to get as many people as possible onto it. One response: ‘Oh yes, we know Exeter does that.’ But why not? It works. If we have plenty of peer reviewers, a member of the advisory board, and a member of council, we’re likely to understand the AHRC about as well as anyone. The value of that understanding can be overstated, but it must help. Recently, also, our department has also started to look towards the Wellcome Trust, with which our History department has such strong links.

  1. Our size

I wrote last month about size, and in the present context I think that bigness brings benefits. We have a breadth of expertise and experience, and we can perhaps afford to acknowledge appropriately the need for good timing in grant applications. In a smaller department, I fear I would feel pressure – especially as a professor – to make grant applications and make them soon. I’m not sure that’s helpful; it can take years to get one’s ducks properly aligned.

  1. We’ve grown our own

There’s nothing wrong with buying senior researchers; in some cases it’s going to be the best way of taking a department forward. But that’s not what we’ve done. Our best grant-earner started on a three-year lectureship twelve years ago, and we’ve been committed ever since to developing young researchers. Did any other department in the country win two AHRC Early Career Leadership Fellowships last year? Our approach seems to me more sustainable than others, and perhaps also more ethical.

I can see two contradictory forces in research funding for the humanities. On the one hand, although funders remain in principle open to applications from all universities, there are tendencies towards concentration. Universities like us have concentrations of quality staff and expertise; we’re also likely to have good institutional support systems. So there are some universities from which – and the figures bear this out – it will be easier to develop a successful bid. On the other hand, while we at Exeter oriented ourselves towards all this relatively early, others are determined to catch up. I heard some interesting stories this week from a couple of ambitious post-1992 universities, investing heavily in ultra-professional grant support structures. So while it was nice – uncommonly nice (thank you!) – to be taken so seriously this week, I certainly wouldn’t argue that we’re getting everything right, just as I wouldn’t want to face the VC and argue that our figures are exemplary. So I’d be very happy, as always, to hear some fresh ideas and arguments.