I first read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking sitting by a pool in Las Vegas. I remember moving along nicely through the book when I came across a (philosophical? pedagogical? intellectual?) speed bump: chapter 3 titled “Collaboration Kills Creativity.” See, I was in Vegas for the Conference on College Composition and Communication, an annual gathering of roughly 5,000 professionals dedicated to the teaching of writing at the college level. But more importantly, an annual gathering of a community which has long hailed the pedagogical wonder of collaboration.
At the annual gathering was one of dissertation members who largely wrote and taught collaboratively and even co-authored a book on co-authoring: (First Person)2: A Study of Co-Authoring in the Academy. Also at the gathering were the editors of Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice.
Collaboration killing creativity? Can’t be right.
I perked up in my lounge chair by the pool. Admittedly, I had been drowsing a bit.
I read closely.
Cain pushes against what she calls “New Groupthink,” which “elevates teamwork above all else.” This approach manifests itself through many guises, one being brainstorming groups which emphasis the power of working together over the power of working alone. Fresh innovative ideas are best born, so the line of thinking goes, through the people working together.
Yet here is the problem for Cain: psychologists have repeatedly found that “conventional brainstorming groups don’t work.” These groups especially don’t work for introverts who value solitude, quiet reflection, and thinking before talking—all elements that don’t mix with dynamic group brainstorming.
While Cain does conclude her chapter, not by outright dismissing collaboration, but by suggesting we “refine the way we do it” to account for the full spectrum of personalities in any organization, the damage, for me, was done.
I felt my field, which has long praised collaboration, had let me down.
I felt I had let my students down for implementing collaboration.
As a writing teacher, I hailed collaborative brainstorming, embraced the pedagogical move of providing my students with a challenging task and having them work collaboratively through the task before working alone. I had even gotten all theoretical about it, reading about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the scaffolding metaphor seen in scholarship on writing centers, particularly the work of Isabelle Thompson.
I felt I knew my stuff. I felt I had a strong teaching philosophy.
With my blue pen, I began making marginal comments as dusk set on Vegas, and the neon lights warmed up for the evening.
When I ran out of room on the margins, I turned to my notebook. I scribbled phrases, doodled images, wrote paragraphs.
Night came on full. I felt (philosophically? pedagogically? intellectually?) defeated.
I looked up from my lounge chair and saw my dissertation committee member, the one who co-authored a book on co-authoring, sitting poolside with a glass of Jameson.
I made my way over to her, ordered a glass myself, and we talked Cain, collaboration, introversion, teaching, and writing. All five topics together and all five topics separately.
A chill came in the desert air, and the mechanical chirping of the slot machines in the hotel lobby bounced through the desert air.
As I reflect back on that conversation, I see the power of Cain’s argument: for many, introverts especially, face-to-face collaboration cannot be the initial brainstorming step. When I enter the classroom, I should expect to encounter a full range of personalities; some ready for dynamic, collaborative, high-impact practices, some hoping to listen, absorb, and reflect on the material in solitude.
All too often I find myself gravitating toward classroom activities that look dynamic and high-impact. Put students in groups, I tell myself, that looks innovative and they are talking, so they must be learning! Quiet reflection? I tell myself that isn’t going to work. Too quiet, too boring, too, well, staid.
But what Vegas taught me that March evening was the need for quiet reflection, the need for individually wrestling with provoking material. But also the need to talk through ideas with another person.
Ideally with a glass of Jameson and in Vegas.
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Broadway: New York, 2012. Print.
Day, Kami, and Michele Eodice. (First Person)2: A Study of Co-Authoring in the Academy. Logan: Utah State UP, 2001. Print.
Lunsford, Andrea, and Lisa Ede, eds. Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.
Thompson, Isabelle. “Scaffolding in the Writing Center.” Written Communication 26.4 (2009): 417-453. Print.
Vygotsky, Lev. Mind in Society. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.