Collaborations between R1's and liberal arts colleges will not succeed

In the week since the joint session between THATCamp LAC participants and the people at THATCamp Prime, I've found myself reflecting on that conversation a number of times. As I said then (in person, and to the Twitterverse thanks to Rebecca Davis), the collaborations that work well aren’t between institutions, but between people.

When funding agencies state that they want to “fund collaborations between R1 and Liberal Arts Colleges”, there’s a temptation to immediately reach for a consortial solution. Why not have Liberal Arts Colleges join together to form a consortium that can partner with digital humanities centers at R1 institutions as a peer? The problem is, when collaboration is framed as something that happens between entities, people fall back on assumptions. It’s hard to avoid-- how do you, as someone at an R1 tasked with implementing this collaboration, sit down with a Liberal Arts College and find out what it does, what its needs are, and why it wants to collaborate with you? You can talk to representatives on the LAC end, but if your task is to collaborate with an entity as a whole, there’s always a lingering concern that those individuals don’t represent the full range of needs that you must somehow address.

During the THATCamp LAC/Prime conversation, someone on the George Mason end asked-- in honest curiosity, with no intent of malice or condescension-- what LAC’s can bring to the table in a partnership with R1’s. This provoked an understandably strong reaction from the LAC audience, who were taken aback at what was misread as an implication that collaborating with LACs is an act of charity. When it came to light that some THATCamp Prime attendees didn’t realize that a number of LACs have a computer science department, certain LAC attendees were disgruntled at what that misunderstanding suggested about how R1s see LACs. The part of the conversation where participants tried to relate to one another as representatives of a class of institutions, rather than scholar-to-scholar, was colored by a certain awkwardness that I suspect is inevitable given a framing of “LAC/R1 collaboration”.

I think the key to fulfilling funding agencies’ requests for “LAC/R1 collaboration” is to find people who have shared interests and a common goal, set requirements in place (if necessary) as safeguards to ensure the project doesn’t get sidetracked from meeting both parties’ needs, and not make a fuss over institutional affiliation. Certainly, the differences in the incentive structure of R1 institutions and LACs will shape the process, but when participants are able to focus on exchanging ideas and working together towards an outcome, the collaboration is more likely to succeed because the participants see each other as valued contributors, regardless of institutional affiliation. For successful collaboration, the shared interests and goals and desire to work together need to be genuine, rather than (primarily) grant-incentivized. A scholar from an R1 institution who is skeptical of the value of working with an LAC scholar, but needs some grant money to finish a project whose direction he has already determined is unlikely to be a good collaborator if “assigned” to an LAC scholar as part of a “R1/LAC partnership program”. Neither will an LAC scholar who feels resentful towards R1s due to previous failed attempts at collaboration, who hopes that the promise of funding will make R1 scholars do what he wants. Both of these are “worst-case scenario” stereotypes, but not without some grounding in reality.

The TAPAS Project and the Bamboo Planning Project are two recent examples of what a successful partnership between individuals from R1 schools and LACs can look like. During the TAPAS planning workshops, all the participants engaged with the problem at hand as individuals with a unique perspective on a common problem, and a genuine desire to work together to find a solution. Needs specific to LACs were identified, and often worked into the project scope. When consensus determined that some of those needs were outside a reasonable project scope, those of us with useful experience helped brainstorm other solutions that could meet the LAC faculty member’s immediate need.

During the Bamboo Planning Project, there were participants from LACs in every working group, and they actively contributed to efforts such as the Scholarly Narrative Repository. I never had the impression that LAC participants were viewed any differently than R1 participants-- everyone was working towards a common set of goals. That said, “what about pedagogy?” became an oft-repeated rallying cry, and ways of facilitating connections between scholars and making the case for digital humanities at one’s local institution were not in the final proposal. If the Planning Project were run again, with the goal of being an ideal LAC/R1 partnership, I think there would need to be some safeguards in place, perhaps in the form of a mandate that the final project plan must contain a pedagogy component.

This is the digital humanities under consideration. Consortia, centers, institutions, organizations all play an important role, providing centralized hubs for knowledge and resources, organizing gatherings, being the clout behind grant proposals, etc., but they're not the level where meaningful, sustainable collaboration happens. Successful collaboration takes place between humans with mutual interests and a common goal, and I hope upcoming attempts to foster “LAC/R1 collaboration” don’t lose sight of that.

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