Alone or Collaborating: How Do You Like to Work?

Posted on by Brooke

A day or two back, New Kid was writing about working with others and working alone. (This is only a partial quote: I recommend you read her whole post if you’re interested.)

Something valuable I realized, I think, was that I do like working with people, more than I realized. I think I used to underestimate how social teaching really is; academia values research more highly, and research (in the humanities) is a relatively isolated endeavor, and so I always thought of academics (and myself) preferring to work independently.…[B]ut [my history internship] became much MORE interesting when there were other interns around and I started to be able to discuss it with them.

Finishing my masters work (Master of Theological Studies), I was one of only two MTS students in a school full of M.Divs, and I was the only student working in Bible. I cross-registered at three other schools in order to meet my requirements and get with other Bible people, but around my own campus, I was alone in my endeavors.

So when I began looking over Ph.D. programs, having classmates was high on my list of priorities. Visiting one prestigious campus, I met a young man who was the only biblical-studies Ph.D. student in residence. For his part, he was as happy as could be: he had the profs to himself, and they had quickly begun to act toward him as toward a junior colleague. But for my part, I had been lone-wolfing it for a couple of years already. When I began at Princeton Theological Seminary, I entered with a class of eight (four each in OT and NT), and was happy almost to hysterical giggling to have colleagues in my field.

PTS had an exceedingly collegial student culture during my years, and I enjoyed a level of collegiality in my coursework that I think I pretty rare. This meant, too, that the shift to dissertation work, while not unanticipated, was fairly stark. My diss years were entirely post-student-housing, and (for me) pre-Facebook. So I finished my graduate work in Bible as I had begun, a lone combatant.

In all this back-and-forth, I’ve learned that my default preference is not to work alone, but rather with friends and peers. “Collegiality” is that space into which I can drop a half-baked idea to be hammered and exercised until it swims on its own or get sent back to the drawing board. If my colleagues are my PTS classmates, it’s great because we all share the same “shorthand” and can get down to business quickly. If my colleagues are not my PTS classmates, it’s great because we don’t share the same shorthand and I have to re-examine all my usual ways of talking about things.

Occasionally my work is briefly interrupted by an email from a colleague, saying, “I have to learn about X right away. Can you explain X, or tell me where I can find out about X quickly?” This is, hands down, one of my favorite experiences. I get briefly distracted from whatever is vexing me at the moment; I get a short, manageable research project to feel good about; and I get to do something for a friend. Seriously, it’s like a two-hour Christmas.

Sure, we have all had some ugly experiences with “group projects”: I myself have often muttered that a group moves at a rate inversely proportional to its size (Brooke’s Law of Movement). But, among graduate students and professionals you don’t have many slackers, just occasionally folks who are regrettably over-committed, and anyway the rest of the group have acquired the skills to work around such blockage.

What are your experiences with working alone or working with others? Do you prefer the long, solitary stretches of single-handed mental combat with your projects in research, writing, or teaching? How early or how late do you seek the input of your colleagues?