Why is Collaboration Important?

Underestimated and ignored for over a century, as I will describe in more detail in Chapter 2, a great deal of attention began being focused on collaborative writing in the early 1970's when English and composition professor Kenneth Bruffee began arguing that by having students write essays and fiction in groups, students produced better work than when they worked alone. He argued that they learned more through group work than when they interacted only with their teacher ([Bruffee1973a]). Bruffee's has continued writing on the subject for several decades, has become involved vibrant academic dialogs, and has defended the classroom use of collaborative writing against criticism from the previous generation of writing professors.[1] Bruffee argued that collaborative writing and extensive peer work was reflective both of the business world and the academic fields in which students studied ([Bruffee1984] 643). Responses to his model collaborative learning have been, for the most part, extremely positive. Collaborative writings' effectiveness in the classroom has been repeatedly confirmed in what has become a large collaborative writing and collaborative learning discourse ([Gebhardt1980] [Bruffee1981] [Gebhardt1981]).

Bruffee's ideas stand upon a strong foundation of theoretical research into group work and collaboration. In their important book on group psychology, Barry E. Collins and Harold Guetzkow introduce a concept they call the "assemblage" effect, which describes the way that a group's final product is usually superior to that of even the best member's individual efforts. Karen Burke LeFevre, writing in 1987 argued convincingly that each aspect of the writing process—including invention, writing, and editing—are inherently social acts that benefit from and thrive in a collaborative environment ([Lefevre1987]). Collins, Guetzkow, LeFevre and other social psychologists use scientific research to give credibility to the power of collaborative writing that continues to be downplayed in the dominant literary environment. These researchers have demonstrated that collaborative writing could, at least in ways that can be tested empirically, produce better work and teach people quantitatively more than in situations where the same individuals write alone.

Read alone, the experiences of theorists like Bruffee and the research of Collins, Guetzkow and LeFevre form a strong argument in support of collaborative writing as a more effective mode of literary production: individuals produce better quality work, as evaluated along most sets of empirically evaluable criteria, by working with others. These theories have been affirmed in a number of empirical studies of collaborative learning and composition. John Clifford produced a study of college freshman that, using rigorous control groups, demonstrated that students who wrote collaboratively learned more from each other and, at the end of the study, had produced better work than students who had worked individually ([Clifford1981]). Another study by Collette Daiute confirmed the same phenomenon in fourth and fifth graders demonstrating that "students who collaborate made several types of significant improvements over students who wrote individually" and noted that work by groups of students was better than the best work of any single group member ([Daiute1986] 389).

In Copyrights and Copywrongs, Siva Vaidhyanathan relates the histories of literary, film, and musical copyright to emphasize how copyright is often ill-suited for the type of creativity at the root of American literary and screenplay writing and composing. He highlights the way that individualized authorship runs counter to the tradition of open sharing, borrowing and cross-pollination in American blues and the transgressive borrowing and sampling of modern rap music. He describes the way that even Mark Twain, who devoted much of his life to advocating stronger copyright law, borrowed and stole from African-American storytellers and the African-American storytelling tradition ([Vaidhyanathan2001]). Vaidhyanathan's historical analysis demonstrates that largely irrespective of authors' attitudes toward copyright, American literary history is a history of collaboration articulated as everything from editing to rampant and unabashed plagiarism. Vaidhyanathan's history of copyright shows a legal mechanism pushed in one direction by copyright holders trying to solidify control of their work in a way that legally undercuts the collaborative processes that made their work possible.

As a result, it is unsurprising that in the context of a long history and tradition of persistent and prevalent group work and its increasingly apparent effectiveness, collaborative writing remains prevalent. In a survey of six major professions, Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford found that eighty-seven percent of respondents wrote collaboratively in their work at least "sometimes" ([Ede1985]). In just the portion of the book dealing with non-academic settings, the editors of Collaborative Writing: An Annotated Bibliography list hundreds of articles establishing the prevalence of collaborative writing in corporate, industrial and academic reviewing, storyboarding, translation, usability testing and the production conference papers, documentation, policies and procedures, proposals, and technical reports as well as more traditional forms of literature like novels, plays and poems ([Speck1999]). This bibliography reflects an explosion of academic literature around collaborative writing over the past three decades; it covers nearly 1,000 sources written during the seventies, eighties, and nineties. In turn, this discourse reflects the growing popularization of explicitly collaborative writing. It reflects a shift in attention toward collaboration rather than a change in the prevalence of collaborative writing itself. Since academic communities have developed a discourse around collaborative writing and have shifted their gaze away from individualized writing processes, collaborative writing's effects, importance, and ubiquitous nature are being recognized at an unprecedented degree.



In most cases, early opponents were skeptical of Bruffee's claims of the effectiveness of collaborative writing. Many simply felt teaching a group could not endow skills in individual students and that it would allow more motivated students to compensate for those that were less ambitious. One critic was upset by what he felt was an allusion to collaborators in World War II describing Bruffee's vision of collaborative learning as on the path to, "totalitarian societies in which the individual is completely subjected to and subjugated by the will of the group" ([Stewart1988]).