Fembot, Ada, and Collaboration

Yesterday, after three years of work, Fembot launched Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. I spoke a bit about the collaborative nature of this project in the introduction that I co-wrote with Kim Sawchuk, but I thought it was worth ruminating on the lessons I learned about collaboration and perhaps having a parallel conversation about how to effectively collaborate. I mean, collaboration is the buzzword these days, but it’s treated kind of like the classic definition of obscenity: you know it when you see it.

So here’s a first pass at some of what I’ve been thinking about. I haven’t always been very good at some of this, so this is partly a reminder to myself to work on skills that don’t always come naturally to me:

1. If you’re going to create a collaborative environment, you have to make sure that people are constantly reminded of how they can participate, not in some vague, general sense, but in terms of meaningful tasks. This can be frustrating, because people will often complain about their sense of exclusion, while at the same time refusing to do any of the work of the project. But you won’t know that in advance, so you have to constantly be creating opportunities for engagement.

2. You need to respect people’s very different work processes. I’m the kind of person who — at least before administrative work took over my life — always finished projects two weeks before the deadline. I’ve learned not to impose my work process on other people. Some people do amazing work, but — driven by adrenaline deadlines — they do it at the eleventh hour (my partner is totally like this). Working collaboratively means not worrying about someone else’s process, as long as they deliver the goods in time.

3. Working collaboratively means that sometimes you just suck it up and do the work, even when your collaborators are driving you crazy. Sometimes we all have bad days and you’ve got to leave room for the people you work with to stumble, fall, and recover (of course, when the problem is systematic, that’s another matter).

4. Sometimes work doesn’t need to be perfect. Sometimes it just needs to be done. And then you learn from it and make it better the next time around.

5. If you’re going to experiment, you’ve got to be willing to fail. Fembot has taught me a lot of lessons about failure. Some of our features haven’t worked in the ways we wanted or expected them to. Some collaborations crashed and burned. We went into the project with some grandiose ideas about bringing in grants and getting at least some funding. I wish that we’d had more funding for the graduate students, mostly, but I think that we’ve been able to do some amazing things because we DID NOT get funded. Grant writing can shape your project in ways you’re not aware of until much later and getting on the grant-writing gravy train can consume creative energy that’s then not available for content. So take that NEH!

6. Someone needs to be in charge. Not in a dictatorial manner, but in terms of making sure that agendas get written, meetings get set, that there’s clarity about vision and divisions of labor. Usually, over the course of a project, you get a sense of who can commit the time and labor to the task of management, but it has to be flexible enough to accommodate changes at the top. Leadership can be seductive, particularly when the results are exciting. But leadership needs to be shared and new leaders need to be mentored. This is one of the problems with journals — there’s often not enough turn-over at the top.

7. Appreciate people for what they bring to the project — again and again! We have been so incredibly lucky to work with talented graduate students and faculty members. You can’t say thank you enough.

8. Finally, graduate students have been the leaders in this project in deep and important ways. We’ve tried hard not to make this relationship exploitative and have figured out limited ways to re-distribute funding and resources to them. But we’ve tried from the start to make them equal stakeholders in the project and to treat them as full partners and intellectual equals. I don’t mean to speak for them, and I know there’s much we still have to do, but it may be that Fembot will benefit them in ways that we can’t quite imagine right now.

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