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.

Moving Backwards and Forwards Through Thresholds

When I entered through the threshold of English 431 (the doorway into Bailey 204) on my first day of spring semester classes, I expected to find myself steamrolling solely in the direction of the future, which for me is graduating in May and beginning to enter the workforce as a teacher. Or, at least, I expected to be focusing on my present, which consists of me taking the last English class I will ever take and a few other required courses at SUNY Geneseo. Instead, as I reread Dr. McCoy’s syllabus and browsed my previous blog posts on, I was transported to the past. 

As mere happenstance, I began, and am now ending, my college career with an English class taught by Dr. McCoy. I started my fall semester as a first-year student in Dr. McCoy’s English 203: Reader and Text class on the works of Percival Everett, and now I am finishing my spring semester senior year with English 431: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy. This inverted symmetry reminds me of the literary device, chiasmus (a term introduced to me by Dr. Graham Drake in his class on the Bible due to its frequent appearance in biblical literature). Because of this chiasmus-like situation, I am directly confronted with how I began as a student and as a reader/writer at Geneseo as I end both journeys. 

I have been recalling how I felt and what I thought in English 203 and reflecting on how I may have a changed perspective in English 431. I remember my fears of inadequacy in my writing and in my abilities as a student in general as a first-year. Back then I wondered: What if I can’t understand the books we read? What if my writing is not at the college level? Is college even for me? Now, I feel more assured in my reading and writing abilities, but I am not free from all insecurities. I still question: Has my writing improved? Will I be able to apply the skills I have learned in college to my future career? 

In reflecting on my past experience in English 203 as I stand at the thresholds to English 431, I am reminded that a threshold, which can mean both a point of entry and/or a doorway/ gateway, swings both backwards and forwards– sometimes concurrently. In other words, when it seems like you are crossing a threshold to the future, your past may find you there, waiting for you to face it. While reading and thinking about Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the elements of Dante’s Inferno that, as Dr. McCoy notes in her class notes from February 1st, Beloved may be read as being in conversation with, I notice this forwards/backwards motion of thresholds, where when one thinks they may be moving in one direction, they are actually moving towards another. Especially in Beloved, the inescapability of the past becomes evident as characters try to cross thresholds forward. 

The characters of Beloved, whether consciously or subconsciously, resist memories of their horrific past as they attempt to make a life for themselves outside of enslavement. Paul D tucks the obscene images from a prison in Alfred, Georgia and the taste of an iron bit at Sweet Home into a “tobacco tin lodged in his chest.” Baby Suggs can only seem to recall, of all the details of her eight children, that her eldest was fond of the bottom of burned bread. And Sethe, who slit the throat of her own baby to protect her from being subjected to enslavement, has forgotten the language her own mother spoke, forgotten many memories of her two boys, and “forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl,” who she killed. Despite their resistance, however, the past haunts the characters of Beloved– literally and figuratively– as they try to move forward. 

The most obvious haunting of the past in Beloved is the arrival of Beloved, the dead daughter who was killed by Sethe, at house 124. Beloved arrives just when Sethe stands at the thresholds of possibly beginning a life with Paul D. Paul D, having just recently arrived at 124 himself, insists that he, Sethe, and Sethe’s youngest daughter, Denver, attend a visiting carnival together. At the carnival, Sethe notices how Paul D’s charming presence eases the tension between her and the rest of the community and allows fun into her and Denver’s life. She wonders if the three of them could build “a life.” It is when the three of them are walking home, and Sethe observes their shadows holding hands, that they find Beloved, “sopping wet and breathing shallow” outside 124. Sethe, trying to cross the threshold into the future, is thus directly confronted with her past. Her hellish past, refusing to be avoided, shows up on her doorstep, not in the form of tormenting memories, but as Morrison herself says in her interview with Mervyn Rothstein, “incarnate,” “the dead returned.” Sethe, therefore, cannot evade her painful past and move forward towards a pleasant life with Paul D. She must confront it head on. She must face her past– even if it’s Hell. 

This idea is reminiscent of the journey that Dante the Pilgrim takes with his guide Virgil through the Circles of Hell in Inferno. In Canto I, Virgil tells Dante that in order for him to eventually reach the hills flooded with sunlight, he must go through Hell and Purgatory. Dante the Pilgrim, similar to Sethe then, must face Hell in order to move forward towards Paradise. In fact, it is only in Canto 34, when the two travelers reach the absolute pit of Hell, underneath the frozen lake of Cocytus and clinging to Lucifer’s thigh, that Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim begin to move in the opposite direction, “out once more to see the stars.” The two travelers, seemingly entering the threshold into the worst depths of Hell, unexpectedly find themselves crawling the opposite direction out. This scene in Inferno suggests two notions to me: one being that in order to escape Hell, you must pass through it and the other being the idea that a threshold can move both backwards and forwards. 

Another example of when Sethe is confronted with her past despite being at the thresholds of a new future, is when she is running away from Sweet Home and Stamp Paid ferries across the Ohio River to freedom. Upon first inspection, Sethe appears to be crossing through the threshold into freedom as she enters the free state of Ohio. That even though the image of her being ferried across the river evokes the image of Charon ferrying Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim across the River Acheron into through the threshold into Hell in Canto III, Sethe cannot be not moving towards Hell but away from it, as she has just escaped Sweet Home and is heading towards a better future, right? Except that Sethe only spends twenty-eight days living this better future until Hell appears again in the form of four horsemen seeking to return her and her children to Sweet Home. At the idea of her children living the abhorrent life in enslavement she experienced, Sethe unsuccessfully attempts to kill all her children and herself, which results in her not being taken back to Sweet Home but still trapped in Hell, the Hell of a house haunted by a child she murdered. Therefore, Sethe, despite heading one direction through the threshold towards freedom, finds herself back where she came from, in Hell once more. Interestingly, this is the exact opposite direction that Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim traveled when seemingly headed through the threshold towards the depths of Hell only to find themselves escaping it on the other side.

Beloved and Inferno both appear to contend that, because thresholds move both backwards and forwards, one may find themselves moving in a different direction than which they expected when crossing through a threshold. Both works also seem to suggest the notion that when journeying forward, you may find yourself in Hell, in which case you have to face it, be it climbing down Lucifer’s frozen body or reuniting with the daughter that you murdered. Still, it remains unclear to me, if Sethe, having faced her undead daughter, will begin to travel back up and out of Hell in the same way that Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim did once they reached its pits. Or if the impact that enslavement left on her is just too great for her to cross that threshold into the future and she will remain stuck in that hellish past as a result. Either way Beloved calls for us as readers to face this past with her, to acknowledge the horrors of enslavement. To closely investigate the story of just one person, of the many who were enslaved, as she tries to recover from experiencing the depths of Hell. 

As I stand at the thresholds of this class, then, looking both backwards towards my time in English 203 and forwards towards what I will encounter in English 431 and beyond, I recognize that the direction that I think I am going may not be where I end up. I also know that in order to move forward with my thinking and writing this semester, I will need to loop back and face the past. Of course, my past is not Hell nor is at all comparable to what the characters in Beloved must face. Yet, my past writing, insecurities, and perspectives can inform me as I cross the threshold into this class and journey forward.