Notes on Collaborative Practice
by David Bogen
‘Collaboration’ is a word that has become freighted with any number of cultural aspirations well beyond its rather humble meaning as ‘the condition or state of working together’ (co-laboring).
Our desire for collaboration…for more of it…and for creating forms of organization and community that will allow collaborative activity to flourish, arises out of a deep sense that we have somehow been “working apart,” and that the conditions of separation under which our intellectual and creative work has been organized for much of our recent history are now getting in the way of our capacity to expand our knowledge and to understand and solve problems on many fronts.
Successful collaborations are full of nuance and complexity that we mostly take for granted, especially when “working together” is working well. Consider, for instance, the example of two skilled furniture movers, moving a couch up a stairwell. Involved in this task are complex appreciations of spatial relations, leverage, weight, and balance. The object (the couch) and the space (the stairwell) framed by the task-at-hand (moving the couch through the stairwell) provide a field of play for the exercise of the shared expertise of the movers. Their expertise is, in turn, available as a set of specific, coordinated activities: the stepping-up and balancing of the object, the contours of speech, and the moment-to-moment reorientation of one’s own actions to the actions of the other.
It is in this sense that moving furniture — when you get it right — represents a rather deep form of collaboration.
Successful collaborations are made out of such things as shared orientations to objects, spaces, and common tasks-at-hand to which participants are, or become, committed. These commitments are built around the experience of co-constituting these objects, environments, and purposes over time in the context of specific projects and activities. In this sense, it is not the conditions of collaboration in general, but rather the details of collaboration in practice that shape our proper focus.
David Bogen is the Associate Provost for Academic Affairs at risd where he leads the development and integration of Rhode Island nsf epscor work into the research being done at RISD.
This essay originally published in 2010 by RISD in Visible Insight.