Reflection and collaboration

reflection and collaborationThis time last year, I wrote two posts for Abstract. In the December post, “Reflect and Reboot,” I discussed ideas from Dewey and others about reflection and deep learning. After taking some time to contemplate how these concepts applied in my own work/life, I wrote Reflections on academic writing: Three insights. Now I’d like to build on this line of thinking and discuss ways reflection plays into our work with others.

As noted in last year’s posts, Dewey suggested that reflective thought is needed “to transform a situation in which there is experienced obscurity, doubt, conflict, disturbance of some sort, into a situation that is clear, coherent, settled, harmonious” (Dewey, 1939, p. 851). He might have had collaborative writing in mind, since doubt and conflict are all too common when writers who are accustomed to doing their own thing find themselves in a situation with equally head-strong co-authors or co-editors. How can we use reflective thinking to shift into a coherent, harmonious working relationship?

We often think about collaboration in terms of a group of people working together. But the group is made up of individuals, and essential ingredients for successful collaboration derive from the individuals involved, in particular, trust, generosity, integrity. In order to be a valuable player in the collaborative project, I need to make sense of the project and how I fit. To do so, I need time to reflect.

Let’s start with a definition of collaboration:

Collaboration is an interactive process that engages two or more individuals or groups who work together to achieve outcomes they could not accomplish independently.

To be a contributing member of an interactive process I need to accept that we can accomplish something together that I cannot do on my own. I need to believe that together we can create a better book, chapter, or article than I could write myself.  This means I need to be self-aware about my strengths, and have thought through what I can give to this collaborative project. But perhaps more importantly, I need to be self-aware of the limits to my knowledge and skills, in order to be receptive to potential contributions of others. If my mindset is “I could write this article better on my own!” then I am not able to listen and accept feedback on my ideas, and input that might represent perspectives or practices I hadn’t considered.

On the nonreflection-reflection continuum created by Peltier, Hay, and Drago (2005), the highest level of reflection is characterized by the ability to ask why. Understanding why we are collaborating can help us determine the best approach. People participate in the interactive process for three main reasons, and the need for individual reflection varies with each.

Why People Collaborate: Emergent, Strategic, or Mandated

  • A collaboration can emerge when I find someone of like mind and we voluntarily decide to write something together. In this situation, we have some common bond that serves as a foundation. Even so, I need to feel that the other person will respect what I have to offer, honor our agreements, and do their part to complete the project. I need to feel I can trust my partner to give constructive criticism, and to communicate with me if there is a problem.
  • I might take a strategic approach and look for one or more people who can add particular skillsets, research, reputation, or other assets to the project. I could recognize this need voluntarily, or take this step because an editor has suggested a particular angle is needed for the proposal to be approved. I may or may not know the people, and they might represent unfamiliar disciplines or cultures. I will need to make sense of the group and be mindful of my place in the project.
  • I could also find myself in a situation where I’ve been assigned to a group project. I could be in a situation where a department chair or administrator requires my participation in a project, to generate a written report or curriculum update. I could be in a situation where the funding for a project requires that certain types of stakeholders be represented. This collaboration is not voluntary. The purpose and outcomes might be determined by the administration or funder, not by members of the group. Here the need for reflective time is essential. I need to work through my own concerns or reservations, and decide how and what to contribute to the process and the project itself.

In my experience, emergent types of collaborations succeed based on a shared sense of purpose and trusting relationships with co-authors or co-editors. Strategic or mandated types of collaborations succeed based on mutual agreements, a structured and scheduled process, and shared commitment to project completion. What kinds of reflective thinking works for you in circumstances such as these? Do you write in a journal, talk with trusted friends or colleagues, or take a distraction-free walk? Recognizing the need for reflection and making space for reflective time can translate into better relationships and outcomes for your next collaborative project!

For more, see my recent TAA webinar, Practical Strategies for Collaborating with Peers, where I discussed some considerations for working with complex, multidisciplinary projects. The session recording is available in TAA’s Presentations on Demand library.


Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.