Friday, April 18, 2014

On Collaboration

by Sarah Gutowski, Chair, New Member Mentoring Program

For many writers, April is a busy month. It's National Poetry Month, and everyone who's even remotely interested in poetry seems to use these weeks as an excuse to host an event or pet project: a book release party, a NaPoWriMo blog (usually featuring first-draft poem-a-day posts), poetry videos, essays on the importance of poetry, essays on the resurgence of poetry, essays on the death of poetry: you name it, it's probably happening somewhere during April in the U.S.

At SCCC, the three English departments host a creative writing festival. This year it takes place from April 21-April 26. Events will be taking place on all three campuses, and then on the last day, Saturday, acclaimed novelist Colum McCann will join us as our Keynote Speaker for a day of workshops, readings, and discussion about the teaching and practice of writing.

Art on display in the Orient Building Student Lounge:
(Eastern Campus): A collaboration between
Drawing II and Creative Writing Students
This post isn't about the festival, however; rather, it's about the kind of work that goes into organizing, promoting, and hosting something as involved as the festival.

It's about collaboration -- which, whether we like it or not, should be at the heart of every endeavor we undertake at this college.

I know, I know: some of you not-so-new members, our mentors, might be saying something like, "Sure, collaboration! But what about that time I did [blank]? Or that other time I was on the [blank] committee and I was the only one who did [blank], [blank], and [blank]?"

I was having just such a gripe with my poor, beleaguered officemate just this week. A "hey, woe-is-me, why-won't-anyone-help" moment. Those moments suck -- and not because we're the victims of other people's disinterest or lack of responsibility. Those moments are terrible because we allow ourselves to think that we're victims.

Lest you think this post is headed toward some kind of self-help cheerleading, let's approach this from a formal, academic standpoint and visit the Oxford English Dictionary, shall we? The first definition for collaboration under the OED uses some diction that you might find fairly significant if you're a unionist: "United labour, co-operation." (Hey, British-built dictionary, British spelling.) The second definition is a little more sinister: "Traitorous cooperation with the enemy."

So for me, the question surrounding collaboration becomes the following: how do we keep our joint endeavors at the college aligned with the first definition, and keep them from sliding into something that resembles the second?

We've all probably worked on some project with someone at SOME point in our lives that involved a little back-stabbing, a little deception, a little friendly-competition-gone-wrong. I think that in our culture of Race-for-the-Promotion this can happen more often than not: after all, while it frequently seems like service opportunities are omnipresent and eternally in our faces at this college, when it comes down to it, we usually choose the service opportunities that fit our talents and strengths and areas of interest.

A problem arises when those service opportunities also fit lots of other people's talents and strengths and areas of interest. Before you know it, you're gritting your teeth and sharing tasks with someone who you don't really know and may not even like, and that can lead to either:

1) long periods of stasis, impasses caused by personality conflicts, and/or unnecessarily heavy individual workloads


2) "traitorous cooperation" between like-minded individuals, who reject the collaborative process (first definition), yank the reigns, and take off, leaving other committee members in the dust . . .  and sometimes taking all the "glory" with them (yes, ironic quotation marks are necessary).

I know I've been guilty of the latter, and that I've been part of committees where the former was unfortunately and mind-numbingly true. But I've also been part of committees where I needed to work with people I really didn't gel with -- professionally, personally, etc. -- and yet we managed to get the work done, and there was no back-stabbing, no deception, and no competition-gone-wrong.

That's 'cause we collaborated --  the "united labour" way (Okay! L-A-B-O-R), not the "traitorous" way. We respected each other's strengths, and honored them -- like adults, and in particular, like adults in academia should. We asked questions, actually considered opposing viewpoints, and in some cases back-tracked and went against majority rule when it appeared that majority rule, after all, didn't make a whole lot of sense (creating, you know, a new majority rule . . .).

Also, we considered the importance of our charge above all -- seemingly agreeing, although we never discussed it openly as a group, that no one's ego or reputation or share of the "glory" (again, sarcasm necessary) was more important than finishing the job, which -- ultimately -- was in service to what we were really supposed to be doing: teaching.

Too often we underestimate the value of collaboration. Maybe that's because it seems easier to just do the work ourselves. Maybe because it is easier, in most cases, to do the work ourselves. Sure, we're all looking for that quotable, bullet-worthy item with which we can stuff the hollow carcass of our A-forms (too strong?) -- but truly, our most successful endeavors are rarely the ones where we operate in a vacuum.

And giving credit where credit is due:
This student art exhibit was the brainchild of colleague
 Dr. Helen Wittman, Coordinator of IT Support Services

We've been running the Creative Writing Festival at SCCC for seven years now. I'd love -- love -- to make it to ten years, at least. Hell, I'd love for it to continue in perpetuity. But it's not going to continue unless it continues in the ways in which it is collaborative, and changes in the ways it is NOT collaborative.

Currently we're collaborating, between the three English Departments, in the "united labor" way so much more effectively and efficiently than we ever have before. We have open lines of communication, mutual respect, and a real sense of team effort. Inside the College-Wide Creative Writing Committee, however, things have been less along the lines of "united labor" and more like "traitorous cooperation". The chairs (of which I'm one) have been guilty of taking on too much because it was just easier to do, than to ask.

I think that if you asked the other committee members they'd joke and say things like, "this committee's great! I don't have to do anything!" This sounds kinda nice at first, but the implications are much more sinister than they appear. In the end, if the chairs of our committee don't collaborate more with the rest of the committee, we're going to be the only ones on the committee. And we're going to be the only ones who care. And that's going to kill the Creative Writing Festival.

So in 2014-2015, I'm going to try to change that. I'm going to make a concerted effort to collaborate more. For the sake of our students -- for whom this whole crazy week was conceived -- the festival should endure.

You might be saying right now, "What the !@#$% does this have to do with the union? Or me?"

I'll tell you. After my last post about the election, someone commented anonymously on this blog about my advocacy of the Stipulation of Agreement. That someone said they were thinking of voting "no" because they'd heard in dark corners (the offices of senior colleagues who felt more comfortable jawing in private than speaking up at the three campus meetings) that the extension of the contract and the terms laid out in the new MOA would be harmful, not helpful, to our members.

I wrote a very long and very involved defense of my position that, ultimately, I decided not to publish. (And that kind of wore me out, which is why you haven't heard from me since the end of March.) There were a couple of reasons why I didn't run the post, but ultimately this was the most important: while I am a representative of the FA as its New Member Coordinator, I am not an expert on our contract and I didn't want to put in print something that might be erroneous and irresponsible.

Now, after taking a few, long, long breaths (three weeks' worth, right?) I'll say this much: I like the definition of collaboration being "united labor," with or without that extra vowel. I like the idea of our labor organization,  our union, being one of collaboration -- where we work together, openly (like at our General Meetings) and not in our offices, behind closed doors, whispering to each other unproductively. I like opposing viewpoints, and having my perspective broadened, and I would have liked to hear what Anonymous, and his/her confidantes, had to say during those campus meetings.

And as someone who participated in a full negotiation years ago, as a member of the negotiations team: I welcome a return to the collaborative process after this point. This time Kevin Peterman, Sean Tvelia, and Dr. McKay negotiated in good faith for both sides of the table, with the approval of the EC, and I think in the end both sides came out the better for it. (Apparently, 89.5% of the voting members think this, too.)

But it would be good -- wise, I think -- to return to full negotiations in the future. We have a wonderful, mature contract (one of the best in the country), but it makes sense to hear, before negotiations have already been completed and an agreement drawn up, what the members have to say, since life for our members changes and a good union works to accommodate those changes. (And for the record, both sides are bound to confidentiality during a negotiation, even if that negotiation is a contract extension, like the recent MOA. Also, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I feel like the new MOA does work to accommodate change, enough that made it worth a "yes" vote.)

Still -- I am an advocate for full negotiation in the future. It might be easier for the EC and our elected officers to negotiate the contracts, but conducting a survey of the faculty, and making them part of the process of negotiation -- while admittedly time-consuming and cumbersome -- reinforces  that the union is not just a group of officers and a small governing body called the Executive Council. Our union is made up of faculty -- faculty who have opinions, and need to have them heard if they're going to feel like their labor organization truly represents them.

Members make a union. Collaboration between those members (united labo[u]r!) makes a union relevant, important, and enduring.

(And if you have a point to make about the way we're represented, please make it when we're all in the room.)