Collaborative Research

By Michael Spalti

Collaborative research at a college or university takes many forms. More common in the sciences and social sciences than the arts and humanities, collaborative research nevertheless happens in and across every discipline and creates possibilities not available to the individual researcher.

This is true by definition of research projects that use digital media and techniques to compliment or replace traditional research publishing.  These digital projects typically involve time and expertise beyond the capability or interest of a single researcher — whether that researcher is a faculty member, a student, or a librarian.  Envisioning the research project and managing the learning curve of design, data gathering, interpretation, and implementation is not easy. That may explain why these projects are somewhat rare.

So why bother? I think the answer is that digital collaborative research creates significant and unique outcomes for the people involved and those who experience the end result.

Let’s focus on benefits to the student researcher. A liberal arts education is not about technical wizardry in a single field, and to the extent that creating “digital” research becomes an end in itself there’s potential for distraction. But it’s also clear that one’s ability to create and wisely use digital products is a vital part of being educated in today’s society. Prior experience working on digital projects may also enhance one’s ability to find meaningful employment once out of school. 

Research projects that involve students, faculty, librarians, archivists, or museum curators are a good way to explore digital tools and techniques within the context of a great liberal arts education.  More can often be achieved working collaboratively than working solo in a single semester. By definition, the product is not entirely your own, but you learn from instructors and mentors and create something that will last beyond graduation. 

One of the things we could do better as an institution is document your work. Academic transcripts don’t tell the full story.  For example, if a student works on an archival collection in the library’s Digital Production Lab, that contribution should be documented and described. This happens in some cases, for some research projects, but not always.  If you were to complete an online course on a popular learning platform (like Coursera, EdX, or Udacity) you could document that accomplishment on something like LinkedIn. We should make it possible to do the same for all collaborative research projects, whether completed for academic credit, through an internship, or on-campus employment.

Note: The image below, entitled “Alchemical Tree, Pseudo-Lull,” is taken from Salvador Dali’s Alchimie des Philosophes. The image is part of an exhibit created by Michelle Atherton (’15) in collaboration with Professor Abigail Sussik and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art curator Jonathan Bucci.