Making my (collaborative) butter sculptures of history

I recently came across Jennifer Gardy’s blog article “Feeling the elephant, or how scientists collaborate,” and it provoked several lines of thought.

First, Gardy suggests that there are two types of scientists in this world: those live, eat, and breathe their work and those who “make time for other activities, be they long walks on the beach, a good finger-painting session, or sculpting great scenes from the history of science in butter.” I would suggest that there are probably two types of historians who could be described in a similar manner: there are those who spend all day at the archives or at the computer and those who spend much of their time on creative projects, activism, teaching, or with their families. (Me, I fall squarely in the latter category: as soon as I meet my history-making goals for the day I move quickly onto cooking, gardening, creative writing, photography, or whatever my kids are up to.)

But Gardy’s aim isn’t simply to categorize scientists, she’s arguing that precisely because there are so many types of researchers, the need for collaboration is paramount in order to solve problems. She re-tells the fable of the blind men feeling the elephant and how they all needed to share their observations in order to understand the nature of the large animal that they were observing, underscoring the need for scientists (or let’s say, historians) to work together.

In closing she writes,

As the wise man in the tale explains, it is only when knowledge is shared that the complete picture emerges. This holds true for elephants, and it holds true for science. Our lab, for instance, studies a new class of therapeutics for the treatment of infectious diseases. There is simply no way we could test it on all of the major bugs in the world, and even if we could, would you really want to work in a lab that housed everything from Anthrax to Yellow Fever?* Instead, we focus on a couple of models that we’re experts at, and have our collaborators test the compounds in the other models that they specialize in. Everybody wins, especially those of us who get to visit our far-off collaborators every so often to compare notes in person.

Ask any respected researcher their secret, and I can guarantee that many – almost all, perhaps – will answer that it’s to surround themselves with good people, both in terms of who they bring into the lab, and who they choose to collaborate with. Those researchers who fail to foster at least a few collaborations are sentencing themselves to massive workloads, depriving themselves of important insights, and making it very difficult to get a complete picture of their subject. That, and they’re probably making a lot of elephants really mad. So unless you want a rampaging elephant trampling your lab members and stamping on your glassware, get out there and find a few willing folk to partner up with.

I’d like to do more collaborative work in history, but I struggle to know the best way to approach it (we historians tend to be wallflowers/loners), what tools to use for such work (blog, wiki, podcast, listserv?), and how to navigate the interpersonal issues related to collaborative efforts (me, I am always afraid that I come off as a bit too eager in such relationships).

But despite the possible pitfalls, I’m determined to forge onwards with my efforts. The podcasts will resume soon, the blog will have regular posts, and meanwhile I’m strengthening my ties to the various possibilities of Digital Humanities (even while I hone my skills at Second Life butter sculpting along the way).

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One Response to Making my (collaborative) butter sculptures of history

  1. matt b says:

    Collaboration’s difficult, particularly 1) because the task of writing is such a solitary one – unlike scientific experimentation, and 2)history is so impressionistic that two different people can look at the same evidence and come up with three interpretations.

    I’ve collaborated on two papers (with the same person), and in both cases one person did a bulk of the writing, and the other offered heavy revision suggestions. The benefits of sharing sources and cross-fertilizing with ideas are real, though.