Academic partnerships are more than ‘a pissing contest’

Matthew Reisz considers the advantages – and the challenges – of long-term scholarly alliances and the role that gender can play 

January 17, 2019
marching-band
Source: Getty

There is something fascinating about the dynamics of creative couples.

A major exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre, Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant Garde, explores the tangled artistic and sexual lives of figures such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Frida Kahlo. Jon S. Baird’s new film, Stan & Ollie, builds a drama out of an episode from the closing years of Laurel and Hardy’s days as a double act.

I would have once assumed that there is no equivalent within the academy. But when a colleague recommended Michael Lewis’ compelling account of the relationship between the Israeli behavioural economists Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky, The Undoing Project: A True Story, I realised that this assumption was false. The pair would spend six hours a day together, often wandering around Jerusalem, and had such a close relationship that their wives got jealous. Although they eventually fell out, their joint work largely created a new discipline and, after Tversky’s death, won Kahneman a Nobel Prize.

Inspired by this, I set out to find other cases of “academic soulmates” who could tell me why two heads are better than one, particularly when venturing into uncharted intellectual territory. What I discovered has been published as a feature.

I made few rules for myself, but did decide not to include the special case of long-term intellectual partners who are also married or romantically involved – although I was intrigued by the case of Lee Miller (University of Plymouth) and his wife Joanne “Bob” Whalley (Falmouth University). Performance artists as well as researchers, they often put on shows at home, and Miller admitted that “there is little in the way of distinction between our life and our work. Bob is an acupuncturist, I teach yoga, we have two dogs, I bake... All of this has found its way into our practice (both performance and writing).”

I certainly learned about some inspiring examples of harmonious partnerships.

Asked about any tension or rivalry in their relationship, psychologists Lars E. Olsson and Margareta Friman (Karlstad University) firmly stated that, “We do not have any. We are friends and work very well together… One important feature of our ‘duo’ is that we easily ‘kill our darlings’ and let the other revise text, content and design without any feelings of being run over.”

Ruth Cameron and Serena Best jointly run the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials. They stressed that disagreement “really isn’t an issue. We discuss major decisions as they come up and have always been able to come to an agreement about the best way forward.” They were also very clear that “neither of us considers that there is any relevance of our gender – or anyone else’s gender – to the work environment”.

Yet others took different lines. Several suggested that productive intellectual partnerships can be highly argumentative, and even rely on disagreements to make progress. Nor does gender always seem to be irrelevant. One man, in an all-male intellectual partnership, noted that their collaboration was “never a pissing contest, but rather a genuine effort to join forces to solve something”. Another man praised “the man-woman dynamic” of his research double act, reflecting that “If we were both men, there would be a lot more testosterone and dominance behaviours.”

I was told about some predictably depressing gender stereotypes which can harm otherwise very productive research partnerships between a man and a woman. There is probably no recipe for the success of academic duos, any more than for a happy marriage. Despite regretting the unnecessary obstacles sometimes put in their way, I was left with an inspiring sense of the vast potential that academic partnerships hold. 

Matthew Reisz is a reporter and books editor for Times Higher Education

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Related articles

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Sponsored