A winning pair

Despite exhortations to academics to collaborate, jointly authored research still draws some suspicion. Co-authors Janet Beer and Avril Horner are adamant that, with the right chemistry, such efforts can repay huge professional and personal benefits

October 6, 2011

Senior leadership roles in any sector are hard to combine with the continuation of personal research or other professional activity. In higher education, it might be assumed that the vice-chancellor and senior team would continue to be research-active for the very reason that research is central to the core purpose of a university. However, this is rarely the case: constraints on time and the largely unpredictable nature of the commitments that fall to a vice-chancellor combine to eat up the days, evenings and weekends. The role of a vice-chancellor is not only institutional but regional, national and international, which leaves little time for quiet reflection. Pro vice-chancellors, deans and heads of schools similarly face the erosion of time for research.

One way out of this conundrum for senior managers trained in the humanities or social sciences is to abandon the monograph and embrace teamwork and co-authorship. Having done so ourselves, neither of us can now imagine life without co-authors.

When we met in the late 1990s, we were both professors of English with managerial responsibilities - Janet as head of department at Manchester Metropolitan University and Avril as director of the European Studies Research Institute at the University of Salford.

We both had already produced collaborative work, which went against the grain of research and scholarly practices in our discipline at the time. Avril had co-authored her first book for publication in 1990 (Landscapes of Desire: Metaphors in Modern Women's Fiction) with Sue Zlosnik, a Manchester-based academic and friend. As mature postgraduates and late starters as lecturers in higher education, they found co-writing exciting and productive, although it was looked on as something rather strange at the time.

After delivering a conference paper, the most frequently asked question was not about what they had said but: "How on earth do you manage to write together?" Avril and Sue went on to specialise in the Gothic, co-authoring many essays and two books.

Meanwhile, Janet had realised that once you take up a significant leadership role in higher education, time that might be spent updating research to add depth and breadth to existing expertise would be in short supply. So, wishing to write a piece on the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she approached Katherine Joslin, professor of American literature at Western Michigan University, to see if she would be willing to try an experiment in joint authorship. The answer was "yes" and emboldened by the success of this, another partnership - more local but still distant - was attempted; Janet co-authored a piece on social purity fiction in late 19th-century America and England with Ann Heilmann.

In these early partnerships, we quickly discovered that one of the great beneficial outcomes of successful collaborative working is confidence: that such an arrangement could not only be made to work but could add all kinds of value in terms of depth of knowledge and the creative generation of ideas. Far from acting as a constraint on originality, joint working produces much more spark than solo efforts: with a trusted co-author you can float the wildest ideas and, with luck, some will be jointly honed into fresh insights and new perspectives. Having complementary areas of research expertise means that writing partners are able to enrich each other's contributions so that the whole work becomes more than the sum of the parts.

There are, however, certain ingredients that are essential to a successful writing partnership.

First, co-authors must share the same broad intellectual agenda in terms of both content and critical approach.

Second, they must be able to produce a seamless document that shows no shift in author style or crash of linguistic gears. This means having the freedom to say what you think about your co-author's contributions and style (such as "I can't live with that paragraph!" or "Do you realise that that sentence runs to 10 lines?") without danger of tantrums, sulks or petty invective on either side. There is no room for prima donna behaviour when writing together - you need to be able to concede that your beloved argument about the importance of a minor character in chapter 30 might not be as innovative as you thought and to sacrifice it for the good of the larger project.

Third, a sense of humour is imperative to see you both through the periods of frustration and exhaustion that are inevitable when trying to write something groundbreaking and well researched. As in any successful relationship, a certain amount of like-mindedness, willingness to compromise and an ability to see the funny side of life are key elements. And don't even think about working out who wrote how much: that way lies the thorny path of word-counting and resentment. Co-authoring is best regarded as going Dutch intellectually.

Although joint publication between academics is becoming more common in the humanities, it remains the exception rather than the rule. Both Avril and her co-author Sue Zlosnik experienced prejudice about co-authorship from members of appointment panels when applying for jobs.

Although already professors, Sue was once asked in an interview whether she had a problem writing on her own, and it was suggested to Avril as recently as 2002 that perhaps her publication list should be cut in half to give a true indication of her research profile. It is difficult to imagine such questions being asked of physicists, say, or molecular biologists.

This lingering suspicion of co-authorship in the humanities and social sciences is certainly apparent when it comes to the government's research excellence framework. We therefore advise all co-authors in the humanities to learn by heart the Higher Education Funding Council for England's statement that "all forms of research output across all disciplines shall be assessed on a fair and equal basis...including interdisciplinary and collaborative research" (published in July in Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions).

Given the advantages of joint publication and the training it provides in collaboration (much encouraged in higher education for some years now), continued prejudice against co-authorship seems ill-founded. However, perhaps it explains the fact that joint publication with doctoral students is common in many disciplines but not in the humanities.

Avril makes a point of including essays by doctoral students in books she edits and co-edits, and Janet has published both edited books and essays with several of her doctoral students. On one occasion, Janet invited a well-established scholar, Pamela Knights, of Durham University, to join her and a postgraduate research student to edit a Routledge Sourcebook, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. This required quite a lot of face-to-face meetings, but only for the mundane allocation of tasks and tiny pieces of joint writing to introduce different parts of the book. The three editors had a wide network of contacts and so were able to put together a really interesting group of contributors, again adding a richer range than a single editor would have been able to manage.

Tasks could also be divided according to individual strengths and time availability. This gave the third editor, Elizabeth Nolan, then a doctoral student, the chance to work alongside established academics and gain from their experience of editing texts; it also enabled her to get into print earlier than otherwise might have happened.

Finally, it meant that the research that fed into the volume was really current: as we all know, you are never as up to date as when you are writing your PhD. The benefits of collaborative working travel both up and down the academic ladder, enriching the work of established as well as new researchers.

Our co-authored book, Edith Wharton: Sex, Satire and the Older Woman, has taken us about five years to complete. It has been written one section at a time, always following the same pattern. Avril would start the chapter, writing several thousand words, and then send it to Janet, at which point Janet would be shamed into a response that doubled the text in length, throwing in a few wild ideas that Avril would then moderate. The next stage - the refining and polishing of each chapter - was always done jointly either by telephone, email or with both of us sitting hunched over the same computer.

Putting the whole book together in a final editing process took two days of intense work punctuated by meals with supportive partners.

To say that one of us could not have done it without the other is probably true, in that we brought different strengths and areas of knowledge to the project. What is undoubtedly true is that we signed the contract in 2006 knowing that joint authorship - given the right chemistry between individuals - is enriching and challenging.

With Avril an emeritus professor at Kingston University and Janet vice-chancellor of a large university, in a sense, neither of us faces an urgent imperative to write. In fact, people are sometimes rather puzzled that we still wish to work at the cutting edge of our discipline. Those outside academia cannot seem to reconcile the fact that Avril is officially "retired" with her tendency to embark on publication projects that involve pressures and deadlines, despite her assurances that this is what emeritus professors actually do.

Those who know the demanding nature of a vice-chancellor's role wonder why Janet puts herself under additional pressure to publish when there is no expectation that she submit publications for the research excellence framework.

Our decision to carry on writing has to do with enjoying intellectual challenge and gaining immense satisfaction from the way in which we are able to work together. It helps revive that passion for literature that took us into research and higher education in the first place.

Keep a hand in: can vice-chancellors do research and their day job?

Unsurprisingly, academics who have made it to senior management positions at the top of the university hierarchy after years of scholarship are loath to leave their research behind.

Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, says she finds that doing research is a "vital part" of her identity.

"It is intrinsically rewarding and reinvigorating. It ensures that I never forget what lies at the heart of a great university - discovery and dissemination."

Don Nutbeam, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, explains that having a network of colleagues prepared to lend "tremendous support and goodwill" means that he finds himself able to keep a "tenuous hold" on his research.

"Remaining engaged in research and even undertaking some teaching responsibilities helps me to remain sane, reminds me why I do the job I do, and ensures that I can credibly engage with my academic colleagues when we have difficult decisions to make about academic priorities."

But the nature of the role means that many vice-chancellors can find time for research only at weekends.

For Mary Stuart, vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, research time is usually limited to Sundays and holidays. "I believe in doing it despite that," she says. "It is part of academic leadership."

Meanwhile, Paul Webley, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, is currently on a four-month period of research leave from his institution for the first time in his five years of leading Soas.

According to some, remaining research-active boosts a vice-chancellor's credibility.

Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, maintains that research "can be both personally stimulating and provide evidence of ongoing academic leadership and credibility to colleagues in the university".

And Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, argues that it means that other academics "don't think of you just as an administrator or a bureaucrat".

Nevertheless, other university leaders - despite their enthusiasm for research - find it impossible to continue. One such is Richard Davies, vice-chancellor of Swansea University.

However, he adds that "as an applied statistician, I do find myself from time to time assisting or advising others who are undertaking complex data analysis as part of their research. I would now classify this as a 'leisure activity'."

And Steven West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, says that research is not regarded as part of his job.

"For me, although time to research in my primary academic discipline would be a nice thing to do, the reality is that it doesn't fit with my role or the expectations of my university or board."

Theoretically, could a vice-chancellor who publishes sufficient work be entered into the research excellence framework?

The latest guidelines for the REF say that staff eligible for submission must have contracts that specify research (either alone or with teaching) as the main activity.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England confirms that this would exclude vice-chancellors unless they have a separate contract with their institution for their research activities.


Complementary couple: partners give optimism, expertise and insight

Avril Horner and Janet Beer describe the specific attractions of their scholarly collaboration

Avril on Janet

Janet's invitation to work with her on Edith Wharton's fiction persuaded me to move into publishing on American literature, a field into which I had only nervously dipped a toe before.

Her established reputation as an expert on 19th- and 20th-century American writing and her encyclopedic knowledge of Wharton's life and work made it possible for me to enter that field with confidence and optimism at a time when my research might have become stuck in a Gothic mire.

Given our different roles at the moment, I have more time than Janet to do the background research necessary when embarking on a project; Janet, however, as an extremely incisive thinker, is quicker than I am at cutting through material to key issues.

I've always particularly enjoyed focusing on women writers, and the fact that Wharton loved Gothic tales and appropriated them for her own ends confirmed for me that I could add something original to our joint project.

Janet on Avril

When provoked into thinking about my job and the reasons I do it, one of the best questions I have been asked recently is: "What brings you joy?" Of course there are - even in these most challenging of times - many things to bring joy on a daily basis.

Graduation ceremonies are occasions full of an infectious joy. Talking to colleagues about the research that excites and energises them brings me joy; boasting about it to others brings me more. Devising strategies to improve the student experience, talking to students, putting in place structures and facilities to ensure that they can get the most out of their years in higher education - all this brings me joy.

The job is hugely rewarding and pleasur-able. But working with Avril on our joint research brings me a wholly personal reward and pleasure - one that, I believe, resonates through the way in which I carry out the rest of my work. Thinking through a textual or thematic problem, receiving a piece of writing from her and being inspired, on the spot, to respond because her work is so provocative and also so irresistible brings me joy.

She supplies the deficits in my own scholarly background, in being an eminent scholar of both the Gothic and of modernism. She brings that comparative and interpretative intelligence to the work of Wharton in a way that has refreshed and renewed my approach to it. The benefits of keeping alive what brought me into the profession in the first place - a passion for my subject and a desire to communicate that passion - are immense.

It allows me not only to understand what motivates my colleagues and their students on a daily basis, but also to maintain a balance of priorities in my own working life that brings not only personal but also, prob-ably, institutional benefit.

It's good for me to be reminded that to write, you need a place where you won't be interrupted and to have time to think in order for ideas to gestate. At a moment when an environment rich in the atmosphere of research and scholarship might be removed from the higher education experience on offer to many future students, we all need to be reminded about the enormous rewards of being taught by an expert in the field and enthused by someone who is constantly seeking to renew their own scholarship and to make a contribution to knowledge.

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