Sunday, July 1, 2007

Collaborative work is hard, and other thoughts on research residencies

When I was invited to be a peer advisor or mentor for a new kind of research residency at the BNMI I was absolutely thrilled at the possibility of exploring research outside of a university setting. At the end of the first week I can definitely say that I'm still excited, but it's also much more difficult than I anticipated.

On a personal level, I find myself wondering if it was an unforgivable kind of arrogance that allowed me to believe that the past ten years of research and five years of teaching hundreds of students from over a dozen different disciplines in the arts and sciences would serve as some sort of preparation. On an institutional level, I find myself wondering if the university really is the only place where people have the desire and opportunity to explore interests that are contrary or irrelevant to their own. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that a research residency modelled on artist residencies is fundamentally different than university or classroom-based research, and probably should not be evaluated by the same criteria.

Unlike my regular working and learning environment, we are here for a short and intense period of time to work specifically on our own projects. We come from incredibly different places and perspectives, and there is no expectation of shared concerns except for at a most general level. We find ourselves in unfamiliar settings, at different stages of research inquiry, and we're often unsure of what we're doing. While I do believe that this is an exceptional collaborative programme and environment, I think it might be more appropriate to say that we are actually working beside each other, rather than with each other.

Of course, I want to be clear that I think the BNMI staff are amazing and the residents are an extremely talented and interesting bunch. It's not other people making it so challenging for me, but rather me struggling to understand my own role here. If these kinds of collaborative research opportunities are to become more common, and still be productive, then I suspect we need to start better preparing ourselves and our students for the challenges we may face outside of our traditional domains.

From what I understand, lots of artists don't want to be researchers, or more precisely, don't want to have to be identified as researchers in order to get respect--and that seems completely reasonable to me. But it is also very difficult to exchange perspectives and skills under these circumstances. How long can an academic speak before they are accused of lecturing? What's the difference between a discussion and a conversation? When does an offer to share become an imposition? At what point does autonomy become offensive, or authority become oppressive? Are inter-personal or cross-cultural differences at play?

To be honest I don't have any answers. Hell, I don't even know if these are good questions. But I am really looking forward to the next three weeks--even if if they end up being some of the most challenging I've experienced.

UPDATE 02.07.07

When it comes to how sociologists understand artistic practice and how artists understand sociological practice, Nina recommends reading:

Howard Becker, Art Worlds (more)
Gary Fine, Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art & the Culture of Authenticity
Alex Coles (ed.), Site-Specificity: The Ethnographic Turn

I've also made a note to check out Alex Coles & Alexia Defert's The Anxiety of Interdisciplinarity and Becker's New Directions in the Sociology of Art & Studying New Media

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