The Risks and Rewards of Collaboration

I am peace, / and war has come because of me. – “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” The Nag Hammadi Library 

Collaboration. It is a process apparent in schools, family relationships, the workforce, and more. NACE even includes “Teamwork” as one of their core career readiness competencies that they believe all graduating college students should possess before entering the into ther workforce. As a special education major, I am accustomed to being asked to collaborate in group projects and being told of the importance of collaboration. Yet, when I first learned that three of the essays we would write in English 431: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy would be collaborative, I was simultaneously panicked and skeptical. I remember thinking: What is the point of writing an essay collaboratively? How will so many different people’s opinions and ideas be cohesive? I already had a negative outlook on group work coming into English 431, which explains my initial reaction. This view partially stemmed from past projects I had participated in where group members contributed in unequal amounts or did not communicate well with each other. A major reason reason why I was apprehensive about writing essays collaboratively is because it meant that I would need to relinquish full control over the assignment. While I would not characterize myself as an overly controlling person in most aspects of my life, I tend to want to have complete authority over my school work, arising from my at-times perfectionist attitude. I struggled to see the real benefits of collaboration coming into English 431. Why write an essay with other people when I can produce the same product by myself without the hassle?

As the semester progressed, I furthered my understanding about the process of collaboration by reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise and working with my group on our collaborative essays. Morrison’s work and as well as our own has shown me that collaboration allows people to achieve something that the individuals could not attain on their own. In order for this to happen, however, the individuals involved must surrender some control, placing trust in those they are collaborating with.

Paul D’s escape from prison in Beloved, the first novel in Morrison’s trilogy that grapples with the aftermath of infanticide and enslavement, exhibits how, through working together and yielding control to each other and Hi Man, the prisoners are able to achieve what no one person in their situation could achieve on their own: freedom. After being left to die chained together in underground boxes during mudslide, the prisoners, following each other, pull each other’s chains to escape through the bars holding them. The prisoners collaborate, helping anyone who is going the wrong way, “for one lost, all lost.” They follow each other out, trusting that Hi Man, the leader who signals when to start working each day, will lead them out to freedom safely. If one person did not trust the others or follow Hi Man, no one would have made it out. In a similar example, Dante the Pilgrim must concede control to his guide, Virgil, in order for them both to leave Hell in Canto 34 of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, which Morrison’s Beloved may be read as being in conversation with. Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil climb downwards by clinging to the hair on Satan’s body, when suddenly, to Dante the Pilgrim’s confusion, Virgil begins to climb upwards again, appearing to be heading back towards Hell. Despite his hesitation, Dante follows Virgil, trusting that he will lead them out. Dante the Pilgrim is able to escape from Hell, something he would likely not be able to do on his own, but only by surrendering to Virgil’s guidance. Jazz, Morrison’s second book in the trilogy, also presents an instance where, through speaking and working together, the characters are able to achieve something they would otherwise not be able to individually. Jazz tells the story of Joe, who murders Dorcas, the young girl that he is having an affair with, and the subsequent consequences his actions. Joe and his wife, Violet, continue to share an apartment after the incident, despite their marriage being deeply damaged. When Felice, Dorcas’s friend, visits the couple to get the ring Dorcas was wearing when she died back, she ends up telling the couple that Dorcas let herself die, which begins a process of healing between Joe and Violet and a sort of friendship between Felice and the couple. As the three spend more time together, Joe and Violet begin to reconcile their relationship, with Joe telling Felice that their reconciliation is happening faster after she spoke with them. Joe and Violet are able heal, something they likely would not have been able to do without speaking with Felice. The characters must trust one another – Joe and Violet trusting that what Felice says is true and then beginning to trust each other – in order for this to happen.

Like the collaborations in Beloved and Jazz, I too learned to relinquish control and trust my group members in order to create something that I could never create on my own with our collaborative essays. At first, it was difficult for me to go along with the writing process that my group followed. My writing process before participating in the collaborative essays was very rigid and involved a lot of planning and outlining before I even began writing. My process entailed starting with a thesis, and then, almost formulaically, I would write each paragraph to support that specific thesis. With my group, we started by writing a bunch of ideas down, not worrying about having our argument figured out at the start. While at first this stressed me out (again, I worried about how cohesive our essay would be with all of our different ideas), I began to enjoy the process once I realized that we were coming up with ideas together that I could have never produced on my own. Especially with writing as detailed as Morrison’s, there were many times that a group member would mention something that they noticed that I had never thought of before. I discussed this with a group member during our most recent collaboration, noting that I was so glad I got to experience Morrison’s writing for the first time with other people, or else I would have missed out on the various ways that her novels can be interpreted. Since participating in the collaborative essay writing exercises, I have begun to implement practices from the writing process my group used in my individual writing process. Now, before creating a thesis, I take the time to freely bullet any idea that pops into my head relating to the prompt. This helps me generate more innovative and insightful ideas. Additionally, I recognize now that an essay can have multiple, interconnected throughlines, so I don’t have to feel confined to only writing paragraphs that perfectly align with my original thesis. Through collaborating with my peers, I was able to learn something new and realize ideas I could not have come up with on my own. But only because I relinquished some control over the assignment and trusted my group members’ writing process.

Though in many of the collaborations represented in Morrison’s writing the characters achieve something positive that they would not have attained on their own, her writing also presents the potential damage that collaboration can do, when one surrenders too much to those around them without question. An example of this is in the third novel of Morrison’s trilogy, Paradise, which chronicles the decline of Ruby, an all-Black town, and the stories of the women residing at the nearby Convent. When issues increase in the town of Ruby, especially the dissonance between the more modern views of the younger generation and the traditional values of the older generation, rumors spread that the town’s problems are being caused by the women living in the Convent. After “more than a year” of these whispers, representatives from every church in town collaborate at the Oven, the town’s meeting place, deciding that nine men will go to the Convent and shoot the women, who, though eccentric, were once regarded as helpful or at least harmless among community members of Ruby. This situation demonstrates how sometimes in collaborating, people conform to other people’s opinions without question, which can result in harm. Perhaps if one of the nine men were to question the validity of the rumor that the Convent women were at fault, it would prevent or at least maybe delay the murders from occurring. In addition, like how collaboration allows people to reach positive results that they could not achieve on their own, it can also facilitate destruction. For instance, it is unlikely that any one person would decide and successfully carry out shooting the Convent women alone. But bolstered by a group, it is much easier for the men to commit these murders.

As evident by Paradise, when people yield to common ideas without question, there is a potential for destruction during collaboration. In my own collaborative writing experience this semester, I learned how to question the ideas of my group mates by using conversational moves to open up discussion rather than incorrectly (and rudely) assert that someone’s ideas are “wrong.” In one instance, I was confused by something that my group member had written. In an effort to not surrender complete control over the project but also to retain trust in my groupmate’s ideas, I framed my concern in the form of a question asking what the author meant by the statement. I found this method to be very beneficial since I was able to receive clarification and voice my thoughts without offending my groupmate or being too controlling over the essay.

Morrison’s depiction of the complexity of collaboration, showing that it can both empower individuals to attain something beneficial that they would likely not be able to achieve on their own and also empower individuals to commit immense acts of harm that they would like not be able to realize on their own, reminds me of the both/and nature of “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” The Thunder, Perfect Mind” is a poem from the Nag Hammadi Library, an ancient collection of texts discovered in 1940, as Dr. McCoy states in her  class notes from February 24th. The language in “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” tells the reader that more than one thing can be true at once. Many sentences involve the narrator proclaiming to be two things that are antitheses of each other: “I am strength and I am fear / I am war and peace /. . . I am compassionate and I am cruel.” To me, these lines represent the duality of collaboration. Through collaborating, one can find strength and healing, but one can also generate fear and cruelty. Peace and reconciliation can be achieved, but war and violence can also arise.

As I graduate college in less than two weeks, I will take with me what I learned from English 431 about collaboration into my future classroom and other aspects of my life. I can confidently say that my attitude towards collaborative work has improved after witnessing how people’s different perspectives generate unique and insightful ideas that I wouldn’t be able to come up with myself. I feel less of a need to try to control every aspect of a project, knowing that only by surrendering some control and trusting my group members is what will enable the collaborative process to create that new idea that no one person could create themselves. I will, however, be sure to respectfully question my group member’s ideas to avoid producing damage through collaboration. It will be important to collaborate with parents and other school professionals in order to come up with the best possible solutions for issues and ideas for teaching. Maybe one day in my future classroom, I will have a student who does not know their letter sounds. It would be much more beneficial for me to reach out to others who are experts in certain aspects of the problem in order to generate the optimal solution for that child. For example, meeting with a speech pathologist, a therapist, and a special education teacher would offer me more information than trying to come up with the solution all by myself. Using the collaboration skills I developed and refined in English 431, I can ensure that when I collaborate with school professionals, I am not overly controlling in the collaboration process nor am I just going along with what everyone else says without adding my own thinking. Perhaps there is inherent risk in collaboration that cannot be avoided, but there are plentiful rewards that arise from working collaboratively as well. I choose to take the risk of collaboration, in the hopes that it will better both myself and those around me.

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