This year has been marked by collaboration: curating an exhibition on Jerome Robbins at a public institution; working with dancers and a choreographer to create a performance piece on Bob Fosse; and now boosting my longstanding collaborative work on the history of New School history as we near its centenary in 2019.
I been a part of collaborations before–the Humanities Action Lab was a distinctive one with many parts and people–but these collaborations feel substantively different. They are research-intensive, focused interactions among a small group of people; they are grand endeavors in which I have a driving but still very interdependent role. It is thrilling.
One common complaint of typical academic work is that research and writing are lonely activities. That is largely true–even though no one writes a book without significant help from others–and it is a solitude I cherish. As my family reminds me, there is usually no better workday for me than one in the archives, steeped in materials from a previous era, talking in my head only to ghosts. I come home beaming.
These days, though, that grin extends to workdays in rehearsal with Netta and dancers, with the librarians and designers at NYPL, and after discussion with New School colleagues on the centenary. I am learning so much in thinking with others in real time. In all these activities, there is still a lot of work to do alone (research, writing), but I get a far more immediate reaction to that work–and inspiration to do more–in sharing and discussing it all with others. There is a more immediate responsiveness to the work as well, whether shifts in the performance because of something new that I’ve written or ideas about interactive components of the exhibition because of the items and themes I’ve picked for the exhibition. All that stands in clear contrast to the stewing that I’m doing on my next book–meandering, confused, grasping. That mode of work has its meaning too, but the payoff is not yet so clear.
There are collaborations that I have not enjoyed as much–administrative and editorial work. Perhaps it’s because the best outcome is one that serves others. Or, as a colleague coming off a long stint of administrative work has said, one’s own work makes possible the work of others. That is clearly necessary and vitally important, and I benefit enormously from just that kind of work done by others. But I don’t get as much satisfaction in the process. Perhaps I desire more visibility than that work usually supplies.
None of my current collaborations has come to their complete fruition. The end does not quite seem the point but outcomes have a way of re-setting my understanding of the whole process. Right now it’s hard for me to imagine anything other than exclamation points on thoroughly enjoyable and generative journeys. I look forward to more.