It must be April in Princeton. The magnolias have bloomed, the birds have begun to sing in the scented early mornings and now the rains have moved in to ruin the one and silence the others. On campus, as is always the case this time of year, two sets of shadowy beings totter around, their skins pale, the bags under their eyes large and dark — seniors racing to finish their theses and scholars attending conferences, workshops and seminars.
For those now approaching the end of their four years of bliss, the day of judgment has arrived, as they used to sing in the Middle Ages: Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt, vigilemus! Ecce minaciter imminet arbiter ille supremus (The hour is late, the times are evil, be on guard! Someone's about to grade us very hard). For the scholars, on the other hand, this is a time of modest pleasures: giving and listening to papers, discussing old texts and new methods and sharing coffee breaks and meals with old friends who teach thousands of miles away.
In a normal year, I'd be too busy to think about anything except the seniors writing theses for me. Like my colleagues, I would be up late every night and awake again before dawn, using Track Changes to enter modest last-minute corrections and suggestions in red (Have you read that 1,000-page book I recommended last fall? It would help you fix that sagging paragraph on page 72) in thesis chapters. And I would hang around our department office on the due date until all of my theses came in.
But I'm on leave this year. Instead of teaching and urging seniors to read piles of books and ransack the darkest corners of JSTOR, I've been doing it myself. And I've had a little time to reflect on an issue that oddly connects the world of workshops and seminars with that of seniors writing theses: Collaboration.
In the sciences and the social sciences, collaboration is normal. In Nature and other scientific journals, the authors of articles come not as individuals but as battalions. Teams of professors, postdocs, grad students and undergraduates — sometimes several teams at several universities — carry out big experimental projects. Many practitioners of the so-called hard social sciences like demography do the same. Distinguished economists often have writing partners (to hire one great economist, it turns out, you may have to buy two, at the price of four).
The people who work in these demanding fields learn the collaborative habit early. I've never forgotten watching our great astrophysicist David Spergel '82 marching along at the 2002 P-rade with three classmates — the three professors, he later explained to me, with whom he had worked through problem sets when they were all undergraduates. I'm told that one reason we're building a science library (which sounds, after all, like a bit of an oxymoron these days) is to provide spaces where undergraduates can work together without bothering others or being bothered.
In the humanities, collaboration is rare. Senior colleagues warn against it: It takes longer, they'll tell you, to write an article or a book with someone else than to do it alone, and your department won't know how to allocate credit. (The former point is true; the latter problem, however, doesn't seem to stump our friends in the collaborative fields.) And relatively few of us write together.
For professors in the humanities, the fall and spring conference/workshop/seminar seasons give a little taste of the pleasures of intellectual teamwork. We organize groups whose members approach common issues from different points of view; we listen hard to one another and argue about where we and our fields should go next; and these conversations shape our next research projects. Even the less academic parts of the experience — like the concert of Byzantine songs that colleagues and I enjoyed as part of a conference — are vital, both for the common experience and sociability and because they change the way you think as much as the actual conference sessions do.
As to seniors in the humanities — well, they have their advisers and their roommates. Often small, informal groups take shape, as seniors give one another emailed bibliographical suggestions and editorial help and the odd glass of wine late at night. But on the whole, seniors in the humanities are intellectual lone gunmen, fated to walk the corridors between those Firestone carrels and face their sources and laptops alone. This year, now that I have time to think, I find myself wondering if we couldn't devise creative ways to keep the intensity of the experience, as the scientists clearly do, but make it more collaborative and less painful. Some faculty-run senior thesis writers' groups have flourished, but many haven't. Could we do workshops? Should we — as many universities do — stage more conferences where students can present their results to one another and their teachers? And could we make seminars and junior independent work and other courses a little more collaborative? It's something to think about next year — if I don't have so many eager, demanding seniors that I won't be able to think about anything at all. Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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