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Collaboration – Not for the Faint of Heart

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24 Nov 2015
Stories from the Front
Tags: collaborative learning   |   teaching for transformation   |   syllabus construction   |   course design

The projects have, at sometimes, crashed and burned.  There have been the occasional minor derailments.  In several instances there were irreconcilable differences and un-repairable circumstances.  Once I declared utter, dismal failure.  On the other hand, there have also been profound insights; reports of experiences of magic and awe – accounts of life changing and unanticipated learnings.  Most times, the projects are completed, the aims are gained.  The cause for pause is that even with success there is a critical note of feedback from students which suggests the end result did not justify the means because of the difficulty, the time consumed, and the demanding nature of the learning methodology.  Collaboration is not for the faint of heart.

On the first day of my seminar courses, I routinely give students the opportunity to negotiate a change in the syllabus.  This semester, the students negotiated to change the required collaborative assignment to a recommended collaboration.  Further, if they choose to collaborate, their dialogue partners could be persons beyond our course enrollment.  Their spoken rationale was that collaboration is just too complicated and the logistics were just too demanding.  I, also, suspect they did not want to risk their grade on the strength (or weakness) of a peer’s efforts.  I honored their request.  I sympathized with their reticence.  I, too, have had many occasions to collaborate on writing projects, committee work, and administrative tasks.  These occasions, whether ultimately successful or not, have been overly time consuming and emotionally draining.

So I ask this very basic question: if students cannot effectively collaborate in coursework assignments, what will it mean for their abilities to collaborate in ministry?  The question of collaboration by students leads directly to the question of collaboration by teachers.  And then, in answering the question of collaboration by teachers, one must ask about collaboration by administration.  This leads to an entire unraveling. 

Should students collaborate in course work?  Yes and no; only sometimes and hardly ever. 

I suspect the question of collaboration would need to be the center of a huge curriculum transformation where the models of theological education are re-thought, re-designed, re-engineered toward community building and relationship tending as primary modes of learning.  The curriculum, to be viable, would teach as core values such notions as partnership, coalition building, and the African notion of ubuntu as well as immerse students in models of mutuality in leadership.  There would need to be a clear understanding that the curriculum was shaping students into societal change agents for social justice and peace.

Collaboration seems so counter-cultural to the common motifs of lone ranger, top of the pyramid leadership, and sole proprietorship.  U.S. culture prides itself on individualism - “pulling one’s self up by one’s own boot straps.”  Our government has the checks and balances of the many, but looks to the one for leadership.  Our denominational structures, still bastions of patriarchy, are cautiously measured in their change even in the face of certain death.  If divinity students learn from pedagogies of collaboration, will their abilities find resonance in the market place of the church and society?

Maybe we do not as much need to teach collaboration as we need to teach negotiation – similar, but different ideas.  Donald Trump, like him or not, has become a cultural icon based, in large part, upon his ability to effectively swing a deal.  The TV version of Trump does not make vivid the compromise, cooperation, concession, and sacrifice needed to swing the deal. I want students to meet the challenges of working for peace rather than negotiating treaties of war or deals in ministry which are self-serving and opportunistic.  Maybe I need to develop course assignments which strengthen students’ abilities to negotiate and ask students to report on the compromises, cooperations and concessions which enabled the deal to have buoyancy – hhmmmm.

I find less and less value in assignments which ask students to sit alone with their own thoughts and write critical essays. 

I want students to move toward the enfleshment of notions which allow for penetrating experiences Lamb standing
of community, for shalom – the Deuteronomic notions of the lion and the lamb lying down together.  At the same time, I remember Rev. James Forbes, Pastor Emeriti of The Riverside Church, saying that when the lion and the lamb lay down together - the lamb will be very, very nervous. 

My motto, words from Maria Harris, printed at the bottom of my syllabi reads, If it is not expressly prohibited, consider it a possibility.  Next semester, I am going to expressly prohibit students from re-negotiating the collaborative project.

Let us consider these questions for further thinking:

What kinds of rules, structures, or prepared-ness might assist students for deeper, more worthwhile experiences of collaboration in classroom assignments?

How would the applicant pool and subsequent matriculating class be affected if admission processes required candidates to critically compare and contrast a successful and a failed attempt at collaboration?

Does the digital age rely more or less upon collaboration, i.e. even if use of technology is so often a lone activity, are there overlooked or misunderstood experiences of life in the digital age for which teachers need more understanding and wider critical reflection?  

This is the 8th post in this series by Nancy Lynne Westfield this semester (Fall 2015).

Nancy Lynne Westfield

About Nancy Lynne Westfield

Professor of Religious Education
Drew Theological School

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Comments

  1. Hi Prof. Westfield,

    This is a timely article because I am in the midst of collaborating and renegotiating the exhibit and have a plan a and B in the event one is going to fizzle. This is the first time at Drew that I needed to address various persons to assist in setting up the exhibit but first convince them of the idea. The responses are conflicting between acceptance and concern in getting this done during the height of the holidays. There is a need for an ongoing dialogue about projects that are going to be held at the local church. The time needed to collaborate runs beyond the time limitations of a fifteen week course. In my case going through this process while physically being absent from routine and particular events organized through the efforts of the pastor creates less interest. I am projecting this self interest rather than community engagement perspective to the congregants and leaders of the church. In order to respond to all that is needed at Drew and at work; the relevant space that I am doing all of this for becomes neglected. How does any one individual feel when they are ignored or neglected? There needs to be a structure in place before the class is offered that can be shared with the theologians local church and congregation. Anticipating these ideas where meetings can take place with a committee of the church to actually include the process with others and ultimately create these ideas as a group. At least at the local church that I am involved with operates this way and with the support of the pastor this collaborative idea can “get off the ground”. Boy, I can give you an example of a failed attempt at collaboration while trying to salvage for leaving this important step out of the “equation”. I am fortunate that I have a space to conduct this exhibit if all else fails but the desired space for me is with the local church. The message of Hope, Faith and love was for the wonderful and hard working Latina sisters of our church led by a great mentor Rev. Martinez. I recommend this class be set up into two courses that allows for more time and in organizing. When I curated photographs for an exhibit at the college it literally took four months. One month to organize and work with the photographs and I invited another artist to set up his 27 photographs with me. I had collaborated with the dean who collaborated on my behalf with administration then sent out the flyers and our secretary assisted with several others for the reception. The exhibit was a success because of all the persons who assisted for this event. Working on an exhibit when indicating to others as a requirement for a grade is viewed from another perspective. That is why I am suggesting a time frame that invites one from the very beginning to begin the process of a working through process. This would shift the perspective from student collaboration to people collaboration and lead to a moment where everyone is clear about the purpose. Where everyone can see how necessary this event is for the community and how each person will benefit. In this case understanding why this is important for us as women of color. The digital age can be a useful tool and has its place; as long as we continue to dialogue with one another in a connectional manner.
    I can see how future colleagues are going to benefit from your efforts. I am sometimes the lamb that shakes before taking on a new event. It was through the efforts of the dean at our college who encouraged me to consider this exhibit because of photographs I developed in the past and shared with him. God has a way of using others to “wake you up” and facilitate your gifts. With todays’ technology we can accomplish more in less time if we utilize those persons highly skilled in this field. Thank you again

  2. Dr. Westfield. I would certainly support your desire / pull towards more collaboration, although admittedly I’ve always felt a sense of anxiousness and an initial reaction of … ugh … when such assignments are put forth. Logistics of a challenging schedule and that nagging desire to achieve a certain grade generally provide my concern. But what’s that about? The logistical concerns are real in that life is filled with so many priorities and the additional unscheduled time required around collaboration feels like a minor hardship. My concerns around grades are, admittedly, insignificant and fail to see the value of collaboration and the additional richness of experience possible when we create something “together.” Not to mention that, ultimately, the belief that a grade may be impacted most certainly includes some sense of arrogance in my own ability vs. the belief that a greater inter-dependence and diverse experience will produce a more worthwhile end product.

    So … I stand in support of more collaboration in seminary while admitting, when it comes … I’ll probably still sigh and wish to be able to lock myself up in a room and hammer out “my” “own” assignment.

  3. Working together with individuals on a project has the potential to be successful or it can be an absolute nightmare. It all depends who you are working with; there is a direct correlation between outcomes and attitudes.
    More collaboration is an ideal that we should strive to attain since the world in which we live and work is collaborative by nature. In my ministry setting there is no place for a “lone wolf.” Collaboration is a must and is often a challenge to say the least. Over time I have learnt whom to choose for certain tasks. I collaborated successfully this semester on a research project; it was purely coincidental that we came together. Our success was possible because we both approach assignments in a timely manner. As a result of our compatibility the experience was devoid of the logistic stress that accompanies such projects.
    I suggest that at the start of the semester students should be encouraged to get to know the work attitudes of their peers. This will help them identify those whose styles are compatible to theirs and form alliances for collaborative efforts.

  4. Dr. Westfield, I agree collaboration is not for the faint of heart. Collaboration requires all to check their egos at the door, a willingness to explore and engage in some negotiations. I have learned collaborations can forge a friendship or destroy all possibilities. In the grand scheme of things I am all for collaboration on projects, however, this realization resulted once I viewed each collaborative project as an opportunity to challenge my learning.

  5. Oh my… Ouch! This W-Blog is the synopsis of my semester, every Monday was a learning encounter with my colleague to be in conversation and stimulate or give rise to our creativity for the Art of Teaching Life Course. We were working together and/or separate, this article opened my concept and vision in how many times we were in negotiation or collaborative aspect in our life, all the time for our schedules, others projects and commitment. Now I enjoy differently because the experience in our leadership starts with our availability to be able and flow with the circumstances and experiences including another person.