on collaboration

A few months ago, my friend Cheyenne invited me to a gathering of musicians. These were real musicians, people who actually perform and go to songwriting conferences and generally really know what they’re doing. The occasion was to retire a piano that was well loved in her home, but that no one played, in spite of lots of other musicianship taking place. This piano simply needed to go somewhere where it would be used and loved by another family; but it deserved the proper sendoff.

This invitation was flattering to me because my own qualifications and self-proclamations as a musician are fairly scant. I play piano; I don’t really practice. “Play” is accurate in all senses of the word. Those others who gathered for an evening have credentials and experience of playing outside of a living room. As for myself, I had some gigs with a couple of high school groups (25 years ago) and the folk ensemble at the 10:30 AM mass at St. Philip Catholic Church when I was 18. I beat out chord progressions as the spirit moved me while guitars strummed along and catholics with a need to sleep in on Sunday mouthed an approximation of singing.

Even here in retrospect I tend to analyze my musicianship as the judgement as an individual performer. I grew up in a world where music was performed, and all that preceded that display — a Bach festival or a choir concert — was a means towards that final product. Years since then I’ve continued to play, but generally in my home, quieter when others are around and only loud when the windows are closed. So, I came to the group thinking about how well I perform, as the Individual, and how I would compare to others. I imagined that my first task would be to figure out my role, to justify where I could fit in. Unconsciously expecting that Bach Festival or a judged performance, I had a hard time even understanding the nature of the jam session that Cheyenne had organized. I barely even knew how to begin or that my contribution was valued.

I’m still trying to make sense of how what actually happened was different from what I’d staged in my own head. Truth be told, there were musicians with much more training, talent, and know-how than me. But there wasn’t a hierarchy; no one had to sit in the back row; there wasn’t a leader and a follower. (I keep flashing on the song, Rhythm Guitar, from an old Oak Ridge Boys record of my dad’s: “Nobody wants to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus; Everybody wants to be the lead singer in the band.”) I was invited, welcomed, and even encouraged to pitch in on the piano, taking turns with others. Others contributed guitar, or switched from piano bench to guitar to melodica (yes, melodica; look it up) to some other instrument, including voices. Anna, my 14-year-old daughter, came along for the social event and brought her violin. She’s been brought up in much the same way that I have: violin recitals and orchestra concerts, in addition to the dance performances that grandparents travel hundreds of miles to see.

So when Anna, who hasn’t really had any experience in playing along with groups in any kind of improvisational way, was encouraged, she knew she could play Pachelbel’s Canon along with me; and I suspected others could follow along without too much trouble. After all, the chord progression and the key were relatively straightforward, and these were, after all, real musicians.

This was all accurate, but there was something else. Anna played a melody line. I contributed a bass line to begin. A guitar player whispered to another guitar player the sequence from D to A to B-minor and on. And then more guitars. And then a drum. And pretty soon, without any fuss, we were all contributing something to the group. And I realized that there are more practiced musicians than me, but all along I hadn’t conceptualized what this would be like, at all. Anna, the person who was least sure of how she could contribute to the group, was invited to contribute exactly what she had. The same went for me. And so the collaboration was not about creating the final performance but for the collaboration, the process of creation itself.

Since that summer evening, I’ve been reconceptualizing what collaboration means and where it shows up. For lots of good reasons (that I need to write more about), I’ve been frequenting a dance class lately. I don’t do the dancing myself, but I get to see how this is all done. And it’s similar to what takes place in a musician’s living room. The room is bigger and the expertise is different — and to be fair there is a hierarchy with a course instructor and students — but overall there’s a process that, surprisingly, isn’t about the performance of any individual.

In dance, the dancers need to be working not only independently but in collaboration because they can’t create the dance on their own. Someone, literally, might have to hold them up. Someone has to show what they created. Someone has to help you to understand what someone else is saying or doing. There are critiques and constructions of ideas taking place on the floor. Moreover, the creation and the memory of the dance being choreographed is in the collected combination of all dancers’ movements, combined. Movements and sequences aren’t written down like football plays in a playbook, which in retrospect maybe I was expecting. There are a few video recordings, and dancers write things in journals to remember, critique, and continue to create, but the archive is really there in the studio, when the dancers all collect and re-create positions and spaces with their motions. It’s as thought each person is a gear with its own timing, meshed with all the other gears necessary to animate an entire phrase.

When I was called out to try something with the dancers — part of a process of choreographing science understandings into the dance — one of the things we tried was to have me fall backwards into dancers. While I can’t say I was graceful about it, I can say that it was easy. I already knew I could trust those behind me because I’ve seen them work together. The same thing goes when a dancer needed to teach me an adaptation of the choreography. This is way outside of what I’ve spent my life training to do, and several steps outside the boundary guarding my comfort zone. I felt comfortable nonetheless, in large part because I’d seen all that these dancers had to do alongside one another.

It’s common to see choreography being created by Erik, the instructor, by mining all that takes place during improvs or as different combination of dancers invent their own “phrases” — what I imagine as analogous to a paragraph, a sequence of movement which stands on its own but is destined to become part of a longer essay. More important, these phrases are all in their own first draft, and like a paragraph of a persuasive essay these are going to be re-written, over and over. And over. And, in many cases, they’re going to be removed completely. Dancers are out on the floor, creating something that is their own, for all to see, with the very likely outcome that it will never be seen beyond the studio in the basement of the performing arts building. Even more intimidating, anything they produce could be seen in a venue outside of this basement room, by thousands of people. And most intimidating of all, what they’re creating is there for all their peer dancers to see, in the present, in its most raw, and in a venue where it can be critiqued. And everyone seems perfectly fine with this. Perhaps because everyone is in the same situation and under the same scrutiny, the culture affords a comfort with this.

It’s this culture that John Settlage and I have tried to create for years in our collaborative Science Education at the Crossroads. In that particular professional learning culture, all of the conference attendees have to actively participate by contributing two-page “Vexations and Ventures,” a stated problem they’re facing and a proposed and explicit solution to that problem. These aren’t straightforward engineering problems, though; there isn’t a case where someone has a particular thread that needs a specified bolt. Instead, the issues are more nebulous: How does someone work with teachers to promote science literacy in an environment where the administration has other values and goals? What strategies can someone employ to emphasize the effect of school infrastructure on science learning? What does someone do to change their career focus from ____ to _____? We put these discussions into an “Incubator,” the feature of which is that the presenter — the very person who wrote the piece and proposes a direction to take — has to be silent and listen attentively for a great deal of the session while the others at this round table discuss pitfalls, directions, and alternatives.

A collaboration takes place because everyone has to rely on the presence of one another. There’s a deliberate presence by each individual because of the collaboration and sense of mutual responsibility that is sustained. These two features support one another. Being so involved in this Crossroads model, I probably should have been aware enough to look for it in other places, such as music and dance.

We’ve had a tradition of having a guest to bring us poetry (yes, for a bunch of science educators) during an evening reception after our first full day. This at first was to entertain John and myself, but quickly turned into something that we continued to honor because it expanded the collaborations. Looking beyond our own discipline has helped us to see both the other possibilities as well as consider more intently our own traditions. This year, we continued to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone, but in a medium even beyond our poetry tradition.

Our invited guest, Heather, made us do something different. This “different” wasn’t so out of the ordinary in terms of our typical comfort zone, since we already hire poets and make academics shut their mouths for conference sessions. She had us making collages out of re-purposed paper: old textbooks, maps, wrappings, envelopes, and more. Later we’d add more decorum to the creations, all of us sitting in groups at round tables, science educators with scissors and paste. But then, as we concluded this project, we actually had to cut our creations into pieces so that we could share such pieces with others and re-create something from the new collaboration. The beauty of this was that the collaborations were at the ready all along in the form of colleagues side-by-side, but we needed a push, a confident, supportive guide to tell us that it would be okay. And the creations were all the better because of it.

Often, in the very classrooms and labs that I work in, we put people together in small groups in labs or small group “collaborations” in a class. But it’s not really collaboration. There are plenty of other ways to group together and “collaborate” without collaborating. One person works the widget while another pushes the button. One person does all the calculations. One person moves the photogate or the lens or the detector. It’s a divide and conquer collaboration at best, or it can devolve into everyone arguing because they don’t know what each other was doing in the first place. These versions of “collaboration” miss something at the core. There are interactions, one person may help another, and perhaps the task gets done more efficiently. But the “co” in “collaborate” seems to be lost because we haven’t crafted and nurtured the space appropriately.

At the closure of our activity, Heather made the point that the cooperative collage was representative of what Crossroads does more generally: We have to tie ideas together with those of others, and what you take away is not only a product of your own construction but an assimilation of other ideas. People at Crossroads can’t be idle; there must be a contribution both as a presenter and as a general participant. The same goes for the dancers and the musicians. Any of us, solitary on the stage, can only give us the narrow product from a singular source. In order to see something greater than that crafted, you have to widen the stage, rely on and be responsible to others in the same space and time, and, most important, allow a collective exchange that isn’t about becoming more efficient and simply finishing a task. Rather than being about the finishing of the task, it’s about the collaborative doing. I’m grateful that I get to work in these kinds of environments.

Recently I visited, Cheyenne, again, but not in her living room and not with a piano. It was in her 8th grade science classroom. To open class she asked students to report “good news,” a standard opening that she’s established as part of the very routine and culture of the class. One student said it was his mom’s birthday, another that she got to go to the movies, another described a trip. These reports take on different forms each day — sometimes “good news” is not so good, but the space provides for a needed outlet — and with each day there’s a continued building of trust, rapport, and interaction among students. A few moments later they were gathered at their tables, very similar to the round tables Heather had us collaborating at, but instead of pasting pieces of paper together these students were assembling and making sense of data they’d collected. It made me realize that the collaboration I see in a musician’s living room or on a dance floor is all a matter of a culture that’s created slowly, nurtured and sustained with care. But the results, be it choreography or a new understanding of ecology or a new take on an old song, all depend on the culture of collaboration we establish.